The other day someone asked me if I still kept bees and I was astonished they had to ask. When I got my first hive everyone knew I was a beekeeper because bees were all I could talk about. I managed to work it into every conversation.
“Doesn’t the bride look lovely?”
“Gorgeous. Interesting, isn’t it, that the term honeymoon comes from an ancient practice of making enough mead to see the couple through a month — from moon to moon? Mead is a wine made out of honey, you know. If my bees make enough honey this year I might try making a few bottles myself.”
“That is interesting. So you’re saying the couple was given enough wine to keep them sloshed through their first month of marriage?”
“Not just any wine; mead. It’s a wine made from honey. My bees are making a lot of honey this year.”
“I wonder if the practice came about because of shotgun weddings or arranged marriages. You know, the idea of a few cases of wine helping to soften the reality of a lifetime commitment to someone you might not want to be with.”
“Oh, I don’t know if I can make cases of wine. My bees — did I mention I keep bees? — are having a very productive year but I only have a couple hives and we go through a lot of honey. Honey made by my bees. The bees that I keep. I have two hives.”
Even when I could see I was boring a person to tears I couldn’t seem to shut myself up, so I was shocked not only when the person asked me if I still had bees, but to discover through a quick scan of this year’s columns they contain not one mention of them.
I am still smitten with these fascinating insects, but I am also humbled. Things haven’t always gone smoothly and usually I am to blame. And by usually, I mean always. The first winter I wrapped my hives in black tar paper. In February the sun hit the hives luring the bees outside for a “cleansing flight.” Bees are meticulously clean and will wait for a warm winter day to exit the hive and empty their tiny bowels. Unfortunately they can be lured out by the heat of the sun on the tar paper, only to discover it isn’t quite as warm as they thought.
Too cold to make it back to the hive they end up freezing to death. And that is exactly what happened to my first bees. The February snowscape was peppered with bee carcasses. Even the skylights on our house had a few bee bodies scattered across them, much to my horror and dismay.
Last winter I surrounded each hive with square straw bales, including a couple on the roof. Not only did this prevent them from taking a February death flight, it kept them far more insulated than the tar paper. Come February I spent more than a few sleepless nights pondering my bees’ bowels and what it must be like to “hold it” for five months. But when spring came I removed the bales and the bees were not only alive, they were thriving. However, I quickly found other ways to mess up. Not prepared for the rapid expansion of an overwintered hive I had to deal with a couple swarms before I sorted things out.
I managed to catch one swarm, but the other was too high up and no matter what techniques I devised (and I devised quite a few) I could not get them down before they left for parts unknown. The swarm I did catch was set up in a third hive but it never flourished. About a month ago a frenzy of activity led me to the rookie mistake of thinking that it had finally taken off. A few days later I popped the lid and was greeted by a scene of utter destruction. Wasps, bald-faced hornets and bumble bees had invaded the hive and were making off with comb, brood and honey. The wasps and hornets behaviour didn’t surprise me, but I was sorely disappointed in the bumble bees. I love their fat, furry, antics in the flower garden; in my bee hive, not so much.
I am always saying how friendly and helpful gardeners are, but they may have met their match with beekeepers. A desperate e-mail sent out to some fellow beekeepers resulted in a generous sharing of information. I was told to try “double queening.” Using a queen excluder to keep the two queens separate, I stacked my weak hive on top of a strong one. This allowed the workers to combine forces against incomers. It worked beautifully. One more lesson to put in my beekeeper’s toolbox … only a million more to go.
Shannon McKinnon is a humour columnist from Northern BC. You can catch up on past columns by visiting www.shannonmckinnon.com.