The Art of BEEing – Impressions from the initial opening

A week ago I dumped 3 lbs of bees into a box containing the foundations and a very tiny bit of building materials for their new home, closed the lid, and hoped for the best. Dumped is indeed the proper word, coming at the end of the “thump and dump” installation process which seems to be the most common method of getting a package of bees into a new hive. To do this, you literally thump the box they are in on the ground to cause any bees that were climbing on the sides or hanging onto the top to fall back to the bottom, then open the box and pour them in. At that point it’s kind of like pouring frozen blueberries, and I will admit that I underestimated the momentum of the flow and ended up dumping a substantial number of bees over the side of the hive and onto the ground. My reaction was simply to scoop them up in my (gloved) hands and put them in the box, and it only occurred later to me that I had been holding probably several hundred bees in my hands and not a single one of them (in their momentary state of discombobulation) made any gesture of disapproval or even tried to fly out of my hands, much less attack the giant thing in a white suit that was upsetting their daily routine.

I went in knowing that bees in a package are in swarming mode, and with no definite hive to defend are less likely to be aggressive, but I was amazed by just how much they go through in the relocation process without, as a group of humans would likely do, becoming broken in spirit or else wound up in a frenzy. Imagine a group of several thousand people who are suddenly pulled out of their normal existence, shoved into very close quarters, jostled like freight for hours to end up hundreds of miles from where they started, and then “thumped and dumped” into a clearing with a bit of lumber but no tools or other supplies. Unfortunately, something similar has occurred too many times in human history – think of the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War Two, the African slave trade in the 17 and 1800’s, as well as many other examples. For humans, these were only able to be carried out with the use of violence and have been carried as wounds on our collective conscious ever since, and with the benefit of distance we revel in the acts of resistance which have been passed down and idolize those who fought back. Bees, however, take it more or less in stride. Hours after their relocation, I was able to sit comfortably just a few feet from the hive and listen to the industrious humming of a colony hard at work building a new home for themselves.
During the last week I managed to avoid the temptation to sneak a peek inside the hive, limiting my activity to watching those going in and out of the hive and one quick topping up of the top feeder early on a cool morning when the bees were not yet flying.

Yesterday was the initial opening and first inspection, with the intent being to confirm the queen had been freed of her cage, remove the rubber band which had held it in place, and check on the progress of comb building. Fully suited up and with my smoker in hand, and having waited until the day started warming up, I approached the hive and puffed a bit of smoke around it. After removing the top cover and feeder I found myself looking at a mesmerizing scene of bees plying their trade in the spaces between the frames. It brought back pleasant childhood memories from the early 1980’s of watching the movements of bees in an observation hive at the Vanderburgh County 4H fair (which was usually accompanied by a piece or two of honey candy, the taste of which I have yet to come across again), and for several seconds I simply stood watching the activity. It was still cool, but one or two early fliers did rouse themselves to make lazy circles around me before settling back down on the feeder. The time for more intrusive action had come, so I gently pushed the outside frames aside until I got to the first of the 4 frames the bees were working. I also moved it, half expecting a rush of bees to emerge from the space between as it opened, but instead what had seemed to be a tangled block of bees parted as if pulling taffy; those working the moving frame stuck with it and the others stayed with the movement, all the while continuing their work on the comb. On reaching the frame where I had placed the queen cage, I saw that it had been opened and was empty, and then tried to dislodge it without moving the frame. Unfortunately, the bees had already started to build comb around it, and not feeling that I could remove it with the frame in place without causing more disruption to the bees, I opted to remove the frame and work on it outside the hive. Again I expected a flush of bees, but again they stuck with their activity as I lifted the frame and set to work freeing the cage from the comb. In a few seconds the cage was free, and through the mass of bees I could see comb building was well underway on both sides of that frame as well as the neighboring frames. I wanted to find the queen and I saw several areas of centralized activity which perhaps could have been around the queen, but I decided that as all signs I could see seemed to point toward a colony well on the way to establishing itself, as well as starting to get a few more bees flying around me, I would suffice with what I had seen and leave the bees back to their own devices rather than further disrupt them to satisfy my curiosity. I replaced the frame, moved them all back to how they had been, refilled and replaced the feeder, and closed the hive.

All said, my first hive opening was an enchanting experience. My capability of expression is not up to the description of watching the flow of bees across a frame, both in the hive and as it is lifted and turned this way and that for inspection, but I marvel at the way they refused to be distracted and carried on with what they were doing as everything around them changed. When replacing and moving the frames back into position the bees on each frame simply moved aside for each other as the space diminished, with no perceptible disruption to their activity. Within minutes of closing the hive, all was back to how it had been; the circling fliers had returned inside, the foragers were coming and going, and, listening carefully, industrious buzzing once again was heard.

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