<< Back to main

What's the buzz..? Funny Duck Farms' Apiary Update

Posted 7/11/2016 6:11am by Jen Hart.

Summer is here, we've finally had some rain, and I'm happy to report that our hives are busy as ever.  This year is already looking like a great year for bees, which means more honey for the CSA!

Last year we harvested over 100lbs of honey and comb, and several pounds of wax from our 2 hives.  Although we were very happy with this, we know it was low compared to other beekeepers yields, so this year we aim to at least double that.

My mentor, Buzz, got over 200lbs from one hive last year!  I won't make any promises, but it is looking positive.  We were pleased to see that both our hives came through another winter and seemed strong and active.  Unfortunately, our Queens are on the old side, and swarming was starting early this year so we had to get moving to make sure we didn't lose the colonies. 

When bees feel overcrowded, or a Queen is weakening, they can decide to swarm.  This is a decision made by the entire colony, and it happens in a flash.  One moment the bees are happily buzzing in and out, and the next there's a cloud of thousands exiting the hive at once to find a new home - often 60% of the hive population leaves during a swarm. 

This is the hives natural way of increasing the colonies, but it can mean disaster for beekeepers - it's a long-winded and expensive process to replace them once they're gone.

All the local beekeepers were rushing to set up swarm traps this spring - you hang something from a tree that would make a desirable home and hope that your bees find it and take up residence, making it easier to get them back into a box.  Usually, a swarm means bye-bye bees, so it pays to try and prevent it.

A month or so ago on a bright, sunny and very hot Saturday morning, I split the existing hives and we now have 2 more colonies at our second farm location.  I create this 'split' in the morning and leave it - a split is box with a series of frames containing honey, pollen and brood (baby bee cells) which draw bees from the main colony into the new box.  We use a metal rack called a Queen excluder to prevent the colonies Queen from heading up there as well. 

Returning later that day with un-hatched Queen cells from a local breeder, I open the lid to find the top box full of bees - workers and nursery bees only. They've followed the scent of the brood and are tending to it as usual.  These bees and the larvae in the brood cells make up the new hives for Funny Duck Farms - The Sequel.  We plug up the entrances and make sure the lid is on very tight, and carefully load both new hives into the van, making sure we don't disturb the Queen cells. Also, we don't want anyone escaping... It's bad enough driving around with a lit smoker in your van where only 2 windows are functional, but to be attacked by angry bees at the same time would be too much! I knew this only too well...

Once they're loaded, along with all the necessary equipment, we head off to the other farm and set them up near the pastures and hayfields. I had friends visiting that day to help and learn about bees - they were so great, very calm and so the bees gave them no trouble at all! It's always exciting to show people how gentle and calm happy bees can be.   

Once arriving at the new apiary site the hives are unloaded, and with a bare hand, calm and steady, I pull the Queen cells from their carrying case. They are about the size of a hazelnut, they must be kept warm and upright, and they have a teeny tiny plastic handle on the top to enable you to place them into the hive.  They must be placed in the middle of the hive, the plastic top gently pressed into the honeycomb and the adjacent frame slid back into place to catch the other half of the tiny lid, giving the cell stability and enabling the bees to get to it, to feed it and tend to their new Queen as she emerges. As I said, this must be done bare-handed - no gloves to protect me as they are too bulky for such delicate work. But if you remain calm the bees tend to remain calm and you can get away with putting your hand inside the hive.

I added a second brood box to both of these hives recently, as the new Queens have made their one and only flight (their Wedding Flight) to mate, and have been busy laying while the workers feast on the mustard, milkweed and other wildflowers they find in our hay and grain fields. I cannot say whether we'll get honey from them this year, but it is looking promising!  All being well, these little ladies could lay for us all day, every day for up to 4 years!

All-in-all it was a very successful effort, with minimal fuss and no stress.  Oh, how I wish this was always the way...

The weeks prior to this I went to assist my bee mentor, Buzz.  Some of you may have tried his honey - it is spectacular!  He had 6 hives in a local apple orchard to help with the pollination of their little trees - they are just starting out and all the trees are essentially saplings. On my first visit the trees were all loaded with blossoms - I helped him with some maintenance and re-queening of some of the hives, and it was no trouble at all.  We made and moved some splits.  The bees were very happy, there was lots to eat and we completed our work without incident. 

About a week later we returned to move the bees back to their original homes in a bee yard nearby.  The little trees had all been pollinated - we knew this because the flowers had fallen off the trees - and the owner wanted to spray so the bees had to be moved that night!  Thankfully, this apple grower gave Buzz the heads up to get his bees out to a safe place - many people are not aware that some producers who hire hives to pollinate their crops simply go ahead and spray while the bees are still there, killing many millions at a time.

So, after a regular day starting just after sunrise, and a CSA drop off, I headed to Buzz's place with my bee suit and gloves, ready to help move hives.  This was my third time moving hives, but my first at night.  We waited until 9pm when the colonies are back to the hive for the night and quite calm.  It was going to be a doddle, no problemo. 

We pull up beside the hive in the dark, smoke it, seal it up as best we can and lift it on to the flatbed of the pickup. Each hive weighs upwards of 200lbs, and we were having to dead lift them from a pallet on the ground to a bed higher than our waists.  As you grab the hive from the base, you can feel the bees crunching under your hands. Your face (within your veil) is pressed hard against the side of the hive and you can hear the enraged bees inside.

You cannot flinch. You cannot hesitate. You CANNOT drop it.

Then you feel the first sting. It's like a tiny electric shock and although the pain doesn't last too long (15-30 minutes), it's a surprise and you can't help but call out.  Then you feel another sting.  And another. Once they start they won't stop. With each successive hive it got worse and worse - they can smell the venom on you and you're now considered a real danger.  We were being attacked mercilessly but we had to get on with it or the hives would be sprayed.

We could only take 3 colonies at a time to the new apiary. Buzz's usual vehicle was in the shop, so this was a rental pickup truck.  He wasn't allowed to tow a trailer on the rental insurance - the trailer was ideal as it's much lower and bigger than the flatbed, and the bees are way behind the vehicle as you load, unload and travel - so we make 2 trips with the bees practically beside us. 

All the way there and back we were surrounded by bees in the cab, under us on the seats, on our backs, stinging us even as they were being crushed. The bee suits are usually protective, but if they really want to sting you, they will.  And even if they don't get through the suit, they leave venom behind which triggers the other bees to attack, and if there's a way for your suit to be compromised, they will find it. 

We had to keep our veils on at all times, even while driving, and the heat was oppressive.  Sweat poured down our faces, blinding us as we lifted the hives off the truck bed and back onto the pallets where they would stay until next year.  Bees poured out of the hive entrances where, in our rush to get them onto the truck, we'd knocked the paper towel we'd used to block the entrance.  Tens of thousands of bees were everywhere.  We swept as many as we could off the truck and back to the safety of their hive, but so many were lost.

Now we had to go back to the orchard and do it all again.  It's now nearly 10:30pm and I'm exhausted, but I can't give up.  The bees need us and so off we go, back to the orchard in the dark. By now I've been stung over 20 times, through my suit and my gloves.  I've put on a second suit over my own but they're still finding a way through and the heat is stifling.  It hurts so much but I remain strangely calm.  There's a part of your brain that kicks in at times like these, stopping the panic from rising in your throat and taking over your whole body. 

Many years ago I think I would have run, screaming, from the hives, refusing to go on.  But, apart from the first surprised yelp, I'm pleased to say I didn't lose it once. I don't think I've ever been so stoic or felt such overpowering calm.  I'm being attacked and brutalised by insects and all I can think is, "It's ok bees.  I love you and I'm going to help you, even though you don't understand.  Let's just get this done."  By the end of the evening I actually felt closer to these incredible superorganisms than I ever had before.

We finished loading the hives, returned to the bee yard and put the hives in place.  THEN we ran.  We had to get a long way away from the colonies as we were being bombarded and they weren't letting up. They followed us around the trees, down the hill and we were nearly to the highway before they stopped and went back. We must have stank of venom.

I've never seen Buzz swat at a honey bee before but tonight was exceptional.  We brushed and batted off hundreds of bees and when things had calmed we ran for the truck.  All the way home we sat helplessly as the last remaining bees tried to sting us. I almost felt as though I should let them, as they were now forever lost to their hives and their Queens. Best to end it quickly.

It's nearly midnight when we arrive at his home, and in the middle of his street in Portland we tear off our suits and try to get the last of the bees off of us. I can't imagine what his neighbours must have thought to see a pair of crazed beekeepers stripping down in the road, swatting at the air and dancing about like fools. 

I managed to get cleaned off enough to hop in my van, and I made my way home, never more ready for my bed.  My whole body throbbed with the stings, I'd lost count of how many I had.  But as I drove I smiled - I'll never, ever, forget that night. I was proud of myself - I'd got through it, and I couldn't wait to go visit my own bees the next day, it hadn't put me off one bit, in fact quite the opposite.  

Now I've seen these creatures at their worst, and I enjoyed every minute of it.  And I know that when I'm no longer able to do much else, I'll find a way to look after those bees. Besides, what's a few stings between friends?  

Honey Bee