Beekeeping: Seeing, Knowing and Doing

I am a newbie beekeeper. Say that 10 times fast. And, right off the bat, I’m going to say, beekeeping is hard. There is a lot to learn and you need to learn it fast. You can read books, take classes, ask questions and look at pictures till you are blue in the face, but the real learning happens when you have just opened a box full of thousands of stinging insects, small, vulnerable, complex little creatures, all crawling about. One of them among thousands, the queen, is the heart and soul of the operation,and you are supposed to protect and nurture her above all others. Otherwise, your hive will die. Oh, and did I mention that everything you see in the hive looks exactly like the last beekeeping video you watched on YouTube? I mean, everything. You can convince yourself that you just saw 20 swarm cells about to hatch when maybe you saw two or three and the rest were maybe a little bit of burr comb.

This just happened to me during my second full hive inspection of Sweet Melissa, my first hive ever. In my own defense, I was getting over a migraine at the time so my brain was a litte fuzzy. I probably should have waited but I’d been waiting for the perfect convergence of my schedule and nice weather for weeks. I was concerned that about a month had gone by since the first inspection and I had no idea what was going on in there. Since my bees were busily carrying pollen into the hive on their chubby little legs I had assumed I would open the box to see a bunch of brood and eggs, and maybe if I was lucky my nice fat red-marked Carniolan queen. I was so looking forward to seeing her again after my brief introduction to her during hive installation! She looked so healthy and full of potential.

What I found put me into somewhat of a panic. That, and the hot afternoon sun, did not help the migraine. Or my ability to objectively assess what I saw. This, my friends, is why a camera is a very useful tool for the beginning beekeeper. So somehow those “peanut shaped, perfect swarm cells” on the bottom of my frames looked, upon closer inspection a few days later, to be not only fewer in number but maybe not swarm cells at all. There are a couple of empty queen cups and queen cells with queens in them, but maybe they are emergency queen cells (queens raised from what were originally intended to be worker brood). I not only saw no sign of my pretty queen, but I saw no eggs or young, uncapped brood either. I only saw capped cells of what look to me like an equal mix of worker cells and drone cells. This is a bad sign. I should be seeing baby bees in all stages of their life cycle. So my queen, if she’s still there, stopped laying a while ago. She may be dead. She may have  (gasp! kiss of death) been replaced by a laying worker. She may have become honey bound and now that I’ve added another box to the hive, she will resume laying. She may be getting ready to fly off with half my bees in a swarm. What I have to say is, I just don’t know how to read the signs well enough yet to feel confident in my actions.

I know, at this point any experienced beekeepers reading this may be shaking their heads wondering why I didn’t snap pictures and take notes. With the elaborate charts I’ve been known to make for my gardens, you’d think I’d have my laptop out there inputing data in a spreadsheet about each frame. But here’s another thing about being a newbie that I hadn’t counted on…while I’m not afraid of getting stung per se, and while I love working the bees, I don’t want to admit that I am a bit flustered and tentative when I am in there. It is all I can do to concentrate on not squishing bees and to move the frames around in an orderly fashion. I am terrified of killing the queen. My aspirations of such a spreadsheet will have to wait until I master picking up a full frame of honey without being afraid I’m going to drop it (they are surprisingly heavy!). Otherwise these inspections would take way too long and my bees and I would both get cranky!

Muscle memory and flow are two important aspects of learning that are crucial to really mastering a skill, particularly a physical one. Beekeeping requires a whole set of skills that have nothing to do with your rational mind. From settling your mind and bringing a relaxed energy to your work (they can sense fear or agitation and will act defensive if you bring that to the work) to learning where to arrange your frames and tools in the workspace and even how to hold the frame so you can get a really good look, it takes a while to get into a groove.

I’ve experienced this in other pursuits, as well.  If you’ve never taken a shovel and dug a new garden bed, it sounds simple enough (albiet physically demanding). But I remember being 10-year-old gardener being daunted by the prospect of using the shovel because I couldn’t figure out how to turn the soil over effciently and thorougly even though I was strong enough. I don’t even think about that anymore, I just dig. Or perhaps a more vivid description is giving birth…you can read and practice in birthing class until you are blue in the face, but you don’t really know what that means until you actually do it for the first time….and you actually experience the need for different kinds of pushing using muscles you had never been aware of before. Or maybe like in martial arts, learning how to stop someone in their tracks with a joint lock (i used to know how to do that in another lifetime). In short, the learning curve is more than just learning the facts and procedures. Beekeeping requires a large amount of finesse. I’m not trying to scare anyone away from beekeeping (or gardening, or having a baby, or martial arts). Please do dive in, but be prepared to be stretched beyond your comfort zone!

So…what did I decide to do about my bees? At the risk of leaving them queenless, I’m going to leave them alone for a while longer. I’d have to say they know their business way better than I do. I’m going to post my pictures and get feedback and ask questions, but I’m not going to attempt to requeen right now. Maybe next week, but not now. That is what my gut is telling me. I’d love to get my hands  a second hive (I do wish I had bought two packages now, even though it was more expensive than I really planned on!) so I could give them a frame of new eggs and brood. That might give me a little more flexibility to keep this hive going.

But, if I do nothing this season but learn how to do hive manipulations and how to identify different kinds of bees and get to eat peaches pollinated by my honeybees and stand in awe of their magical ability to build beautiful comb, it will be enough. It is worth is for the sweet smell of a beehive alone, a subtle smell I couldn’t have anticipated to be so intoxicating.  Also for the mesemerizing song and dance of bees at the entrance of the hive. I do hope they survive in spite of me.


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