Becoming the Beekeeper

“[S]he gave me a lesson in what she called ‘bee yard etiquette’. She reminded me that the world was really one bee yard, and the same rules work fine in both places. Don’t be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you. Still, don’t be an idiot; wear long sleeves and pants. Don’t swat. Don’t even think about swatting. If you feel angry, whistle. Anger agitates while whistling melts a bee’s temper. Act like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Above all, send the bees love. Every little thing wants to be loved.”

~ Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

Blissful Bee hard at work

Blissful Bee hard at work

As I’m sure you’ve realized at this point in your research, all of the bloggers and veteran beekeepers out there like to tell the well-intended, unsuspecting, inexperienced potential beekeeper that “it’s so easy.”

How about telling us the truth? It is terrifying. And you’re going to make some mistakes. Mostly out of sheer fear.  But, you will learn from those mistakes. You will learn to listen to what the bees are telling you, and it will become easier. Maybe even effortless. With time. And with lots and lots of gut-wrenching, adrenalin-pumping practice.

It’s not that I think these bee veterans are ill-intended; it’s just that you forget. You forget how hard it is to learn something completely new and foreign. You forget that at one point, it was utterly counter-intuitive to stick your hands into a dark dungeon of thousands of bees. And you forget that you too felt overwhelmed and made mistakes.

Let me share with you my initiation into backyard beekeeping, so that you can learn from my mistakes and not feel so bad about your own.

I was installing two boxes of bees into two new hives. Aside from being terrified of the thousands of mini lions that, I’m positive, could smell my fear, the first instillation went rather well. I sprayed, I tapped, I put the queen in her hive, poured the box of 5,000 workers into the frames and put a lid on it. I stood back in admiration of myself. Was it even possible I could be this awesome? But oh, had the self-admiration come too soon.

The second installation that immediately followed was something that nightmares are made of. If I had ever spent time imagining my greatest bee-related fears, this would have been exactly that.

I removed the can of sugar water plugging the box’s entrance and set it aside, when I reached for the string that is attached to the queen box for easy removal, I saw that it was broken. Gloves were too bulky and the opening too small. I would have to reach my unprotected hand into the cramped hallow of 5,000 workers to retrieve her. I could feel the terror burring inside my chest as beads of sweat began to form on my temple; I plunged my hand into the chamber. To my own amazement, I accomplished this task without harming myself or anyone else.

Box of bees: Insert hand here

Box of bees: Insert hand here

I had only sloppily tucked in my veil… I mean, the cute old guy on Youtube wasn’t even wearing one, so what was the big deal anyway? Just as I set the second queen in her respective hive, I felt it flutter against my neck. A bee. A bee was in my veil. This was it, I was going to get stung. Oh god, two. There were two. Fear overcame me. I knew what I was supposed to do, but all I could hear was what every nerve in my body was screaming at me. I panicked. My hand fluttered up to my face on top of the veil; the bees felt the pressure against their bodies and reacted by stinging me – one in the neck and one on the cheek. Standing over the hive with the freshly deposited queen, I ripped off my veil in terror.

The complication I had not considered up until this point was that now, unlike the first installation, there were bees in the air – lots of them – and my long hair, drawn up in a messy bun, smelled like the sweetness of my honey conditioner. In an instant, there were bees all around me. They were crawling on my head, becoming entangled in my hair that was securing them firmly to my scalp. Causing them to panic. Causing them to sting. Don’t you know I want to love you?! I thought, willing them to love me back; to understand I was trying to help them. But apparently, they knew no such thing. They knew only the panic I was causing them.

I ran. Fight or flight? Flight it was. I had made it 20 or so bounds before it sunk in that there was just no running from what I had gotten myself into as bees, panic stricken, tangled in my hair, stung my head. I glanced over and realized that in the chaos I had not put the lid back on the box of workers, still sitting on the ground at the hive’s side when I fled. I had to go back; I had to finish or it would just keep getting worse.

I walked back determined to finish, the bees tangled in my hair continuing to sting my head. This took an immense amount of control because, let’s face it, all I wanted to do was run away screaming, flailing my hands in the air until help suddenly appeared out of nowhere to save me. But there was no help. There was only me, the bees and my mistakes that had brought us all here.

Determination and pranayama, the art of breathing control central to the practice of yoga – a skill that has saved me a number of times in this life – are the only things that got me through the rest of this nightmare.

Deep inhale. Controlled, deliberate exhale. I will do this. I could feel each little movement; each struggling wing flutter, step and sting on my scalp as I emptied the second box into their new home. I carefully lidded the hive, and slowly walked away. I made it to the patio, just outside of the back door, gently let my hair out of its bun and began lovingly, delicately, painstakingly removing the bees that had not stung me, so that they would have a chance to live. This took around 10 minutes, which obviously seemed like millennia, during which time I sustained a few more stings to the scalp. Then it hit. I was alone, having made it 25 years on this earth without ever being stung, and had no idea if I was allergic or not. To top things off, I had no Benadryl on hand and there were still stingers and carcasses in my hair. I made a quick, sobbing call to the husband and got in the shower to assess my damages. Then calmed, I could levy that only my imagination was swelling, not my throat. A sense of relief and joy washed over me. I had done it!

I quickly scurried off to Facebook to post of my joys when a slow panic washed over me. The cork. I FORGOT THE CORK! They would never be able to get to the queen. They would all die. It was all for nothing. Maybe, I thought wistfully, maybe they can eat through the cork and it will all be fine. Then, glancing at my wine rack, I realized that as much as I loved wine, as much as I longed for and adored wine, I would never eat through the cork to get it. I had to go back.

The workers surrounding the queen box will eat through a candy-cork to free her and begin colonizing... if you remember to remove the cork.

The workers surrounding the queen box will eat through a candy-cork to free her and begin colonizing… if you remember to remove the external cork first.

I often think now that it was a good thing I had to go back into the hives; like getting right back on that proverbial horse so that the fear could not take over and ruin this relationship permanently. With my protective gear properly secured – learned that lesson, alright – I went back out and one at a time dissembled each hive, extracting the now bee-covered frames so that I could retrieve the queen box. With thousands of confused bees swirling around me, I uncorked her and poked a small hole in the candy-cork to give workers a little head start, since I had delayed them so much already. I slowly; meticulously reassembled each hive and walked back to the house unscathed. This was the first step in our understanding of one another. Nothing between us would ever again be as hard as this day.

So my advice to you, dear soul doing something good for this planet, is to preserver. It will get better. You will get better. And some day, you too will forget how hard, how scary and how foreign it once was. But in the mean time, don’t feel bad if it isn’t exactly “easy.”

Reader’s Digest version of lessons-learned:

  • I am only awesome in my mind.
  • Tuck your stuff in. Really well. You are not that old dude in the YouTube video that doesn’t need gloves or a veil. Not yet, anyway.
  • Don’t remove the veil near the hive just because a bee is in it. One sting is better than 20. Trust me – you don’t need to learn this lesson first-hand.
  • Remove the cork.
  • Breath. Fear and panic make you do stupid things.

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7 thoughts on “Becoming the Beekeeper

  1. Reminds me of driving thru the wilds of God Knows Where (ie, no cell signal) with my first two packages of bees inside the passenger compartment of the car … All alone … Having never been stung before and not knowing if I was allergic … With a dozen bees that somehow escaped the packages flying around my head. Longest car ride of my life!

    Your story is great, and so well written! Thanks for sharing…

  2. I just happened upon your blog after searching about my experience today. Let me share my pain…lol…This morning, I went to a farm to have an experienced beekeeper transfer two nucs into my two hives and get everything strapped down so that I could get them home safe and sound.
    I arrived at the farm/pick up location…there were random bees fluttering around, really paying very little attention to us as we walked around…this is all good…I can do this. So the experienced keeper, Don, goes over to my hives that are sitting on the ground and opens up a nuc…apparently, the bees weren’t thrilled that they had to travel so far and were stuck in a little box for so long and started to just spill out. Several of us that were watching in awe ending up taking a few steps back…and then a few more…I could hear them buzzing my hair (also in a loose bun). I walked over to one of the gentlemen and said, “Um, can you get that one out of my hair?” – he helped out. I got brave and walked over to Don and more bees just started coming. I couldn’t avoid them. I told Don that I was starting to panic…he walked over and could tell that I was starting to FREAK out. He calmly got me in my car (the HATCHBACK that I needed to travel with all those bees in)…helped pull all the bees off my shirt and out of my hair (unfortunately, not before I got stung in the head). I was crying and apologizing for being such a girl about it all. He laughed and told me he was just the same way, before he started keeping bees. I finally calmed down and he and his grandson loaded up the two hives (screened in and strapped down) – he brushed off the few bees that were still holding on, but didn’t make it into the safety of the hive. He told me to open my windows if there were any others that seemed to want out. There were two that remained in the car – but they seemed to not care about me at all – one stayed on the top of the hive and honestly, I’m not sure where the other went – I’ll tell the kids that it flew out the window. WINK
    After driving the thirty minutes home, I backed up to the apiary area, I opened the hatchback – it was a quiet, beautiful day, in my own yard, I felt stronger and more confident – I lifted the two hives out of the car and put them on the concrete blocks. I pulled the straps off the hives…and I walked away. They are in a shaded area, safe and sound – pulling off the screen from the front of the box can wait until I relax, get the proper equipment, put on my bee jacket…etc. But I got my first sting in nearly 20 years…and I didn’t die!

  3. Great story, love the Reader’s Digest I am only awesome in my mind lesson. I’ve just recently become a beek (three weeks). And I too have seen the YouTube guy with no gear do it. Awesome to be a beek.

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