“You will fall in love with them,” Beth said. John and I were sitting around the table in her long, airy kitchen, having snuck away last weekend for a visit with friends—a luxury during the growing season. A strong spring wind clanged the blades of a broken windmill, ruffled green spears of daffodils, and snuck inside the screen door to brush against our arms and faces. We were telling Beth and her husband John about our first package of honeybees, due to arrive in a couple of weeks. “We always felt our place was healthier when we had bees. We loved them,” Beth said again.
I didn’t know about love. I am fascinated by honeybees—how the hive functions as a single, self-sustaining organism; their intricate, symbolic dance-language; their ancient relationship with humans and our food crops. But recently I’d been wondering whether jumping into beekeeping this spring was the best decision. There was so much to learn! We read book after book, went to bee club meetings, and scanned the internet for information on how to make the best possible home for our bees. As I juggled my already overwhelming teaching and spring planting responsibilities with bee research, I wondered if we should have waited another year before inviting honeybees into our yard.
But there was no turning back—the bees were ordered. When they arrived on the truck from California, a member of the Kalamazoo Bee Club would drive to the bee yard to pick them up and call to let us know they were here. We’d heard that a bee truck had come in but hadn’t received any calls, so we assumed our bees would be on the next truck due in a couple of weeks. With some hive assembly yet to do and cold weather in the forecast, John and I were both relieved that we had a little more time to prepare.
Just before heading in to teach my “CSA and Sustainability” class on Monday evening, however, I checked my voicemail to find a message from a bee club member named Caroline. She had our bees in her garage. Could we come get them soon? As I talked with students about soil biology and vegetable varieties, I tried not to think about the bees, the freezing weather, the incomplete hive. We were about to become beekeepers. I did not feel ready.
After class, I called Caroline. She told me that the bee club was planning to install their bees in their club hives the following evening. We could come watch and then take our bees home to install on Wednesday, when the weather forecast predicted slightly warmer temperatures. Watching the experts put bees into their hives before we tried our own seemed like a very good plan.
But Tuesday dawned cold and just got colder. In the afternoon Caroline called again to let us know that the club hive installation had been postponed until Wednesday evening. “Could you pick your bees up today, though?” she asked. “I’m afraid they might be getting too cold in my garage and I don’t want to be responsible if they die.”
Bees weren’t the only thing living in Caroline’s garage. From inside of a shiny horse tank, clustered under a bright heat lamp, a dozen yellow chicks peeped and peered up at us. The opposite end of the tank held a stack of wooden boxes with screens on two sides, each containing approximately 12,000 bees. “Here you go,” Caroline said, handing me the top box. I liked her immensely. A long-time beekeeper, she possessed a wealth of knowledge and shared it freely, telling cautionary tales from her early days as a novice beekeeper with good humor and a bright smile. As we talked, a soft shooshing sound emanated from the bee box in my arms. It was mesmerizing, like the sound of a distant ocean.
Back home, I placed the bee box on a table in the porch and squatted to peer inside. I could feel the slight breeze created by the bees’ wings against my face. They buzzed softly, crawling over each other and across the screen of the cage. I could see a thick-bodied drone moving amidst the slender worker bees, but the small box containing the queen was hidden under a massive, tapered cluster hanging from the top of the box. I would have to wait until we released the bees the following day in order to meet her.
On Wednesday afternoon we put the finishing touches on the hive, carried it outside and carefully leveled it atop two concrete blocks. We went through three plastic coffee can lids trying to punch holes of just the right size so that the bees could drink sugar syrup through the lid without getting drenched. (Since they have no honey stores, we will have to feed them for a couple of weeks until the weather warms and more flowers start to bloom.) We inverted the can full of syrup over the hive frames, placed an empty hive body on top and went to get our bees.
They were quiet, probably because of the cold. When we opened the cage, they hung together in a large clump instead of immediately taking to the air. John bent back the metal tab attached to the queen’s cage and gently slid her out of the larger box. Her cage was coated in a thick layer of living bees trying desperately to get in to care for her. But we needed to see her in order to make sure she was healthy, so I took our shiny new yellow bee brush and tentatively brushed at the bee mass until I could see inside the screened front of the queen cage. She was alive alright, crawling around vigorously, perhaps as eager to get out as her attendants were to get in. John attempted to pry the cork out of her cage with a knife, but having difficulty removing it, ended up pushing it inside. Worker bees immediately crawled in, clambering over and around their queen. John placed the small box inside the hive. I picked up the large box and began to shake the remaining bees down on top of the queen.
At first the bees poured out, cascading into the hive like a living, buzzing, brown syrup. But like those last bits of honey crystallized in the bottom of the honey jar, several clumps of bees stuck to the corners of the box. I shook and I shook, but they hung on determinedly. I placed the box in front of the hive and stared at it, willing the bees to fly out to find their queen in the safety of the hive. The bees crawled over and around each other, but stayed in their clumps. After a few minutes, I picked the box up and shook it again. A couple of bees fell out, but the majority still clung to the corners. I’d read that if the queen is in the hive, the workers will follow. Not knowing what else to do, we left the box in front of the hive, hoping that when we came back from observing the club hive installation, all of our bees would have found their new home.
Cars lined the two-track leading into the gravel pit that housed the club hives. Caroline stood in the center of the crowd of onlookers in her white bee suit. “We’re going to have to move quickly because of the cold,” she said, picking up the first box. She placed her coffee can syrup feeder in an empty hive, then pried open the box and removed the queen cage. She easily popped the cork out with her pocketknife, inspected the queen, and then placed her inside the hive as we had done. Then she began to shake the bees down on top of her. I was feeling pretty good about our installation procedure until Caroline began banging the bee box against the ground, violently knocking the bees out of the corners so that she could shake the stragglers into the hive.
“I know this seems extreme,” she said. “Normally, I might just put the box in front of the hive and let the bees find their own way in. But as cold as it is, if I leave these bees in this box, they will die.” Suddenly I noticed that the sun had dropped below a cloudbank, taking its warmth with it. I thought of our bees in the screened corners of their box and shivered. Had I left them out to die? Were they dying at that very moment, the cold pulling the life out of their little furry bodies?
I whispered to John to stay and watch, then ran to the car. I peeled out of the gravel pit and hit the expressway, driving fast, sending the bees mental messages to hang on. I careened into the driveway, then raced across the yard, not bothering to put on my protective bee jacket and hood. There they were, still clustered in the cage, moving very slowly, but still moving. I pulled off the hive’s outer and inner covers, using the bee brush to gently coax the bees hanging off the inner cover back down into the hive. Bees flew up and around me, bumping into my face. “Hang on guys, I’m doing my best,” I said aloud. I moved fast, banging the cage on the ground as I’d seen Caroline do, shaking them in, reaching in with the edge of the brush to nudge the final few into the hive.
I replaced the top cover, weighted it down with a rock, and placed my hand on top. I thought about a story Caroline had told about racing back to her own hives after realizing that her actions had endangered them. There was something I’d noticed about her and the other beekeepers I’d met at the club. They didn’t just love honeybees, they felt responsible for them and also humbled by them. They were comfortable with uncertainty, mystery, the ever-present possibility of failure. As much as their experiences had taught them, they readily admitted that there was much they didn’t know and that they were always learning from each other, from the bees, and from their beekeeping mistakes. I had had my first lesson. I was eager to learn more.