by Dennis Friedel
One of the first books I read when I decided to become a beekeeper was “Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture” by Ross Conrad. That book, along with “Beekeeping for Dummies” by Howland Blackiston and Dewey Caron’s “Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping” have become my primary reference materials when special situations arise or I need to refresh my memory on some aspect of honey bee behavior.
I’ve also added “Contemporary Queen Rearing” by Harry H. Laidlaw, Jr. and “Queen Rearing and Bee Breeding”, also penned by Laidlaw and co-authored by Robert E. Paige, Jr., to my library so I can begin a queen rearing program when time permits. All of these title can be ordered through beekeeping supply houses or on the Web and I’d recommend the basic texts to all new beekeepers and the queen rearing books to those with more experience who want to take their craft to the next level.
But a basic knowledge of bees and beekeeping is only the first step — experience is the best teacher and that means getting your hands dirty, getting stung from time to time and hanging out with other beekeepers who have a lot more experience.
In May and June, for instance, Ronnie Quillen and I rode around the extent of Sussex County delivering trailers full of bees to watermelon and cucumber growers who need them for pollination. Sounds easy, huh? Not at all. Unless you have special loading equipment, it’s a two man job that’ll not only test your strength and endurance, but your patience as well.
Bees don’t like to be moved and they’re very good at finding those small holes in your protective wear. Of particular concern were my loose pant legs on the first night I went out. It only takes a single bee up your pant leg to make you re-think your entire protection wardrobe. Luckily there were no painful mishaps — I managed to crush the wayward defender between the folds of my jeans before she could inflict any serious harm.
By the time we got to the next bee yard, I had my Velcro leg straps on. At the very least, tuck your pant legs in your socks. Oh, and did I mention, don’t think just because the hives are plugged up that it’s okay to tear off your bee suit and gloves. There are always a few stragglers — mad as hell stragglers — who are ready to take advantage of that situation. I ran probably 100 yards, swinging my suit around my head to ward off an entire squadron of mad-as-hell bees who wanted no part of their happy home transported to another location.
It’s best to walk well away from the trailer and make sure you’re not being followed before taking off the suit. Then shake your suit vigorously because bees like to cling to the back, where you can’t see them. Then you can get into the truck safely — maybe. There’s always a chance one or two will follow you into the cab, in which case, you have to remain calm, hope the one crawling on your hand doesn’t sting you until you’re underway and you have a chance to roll down the window and let the breeze sweep it out and away.
I don’t recommend wearing your suit into the cab and taking it off there, because of the aforementioned “clingers” who are just dying to get to the flesh they smell under all that material. Bees can really hold a grudge, you know.
Ronnie laughs at this but I carry a tube of Campho Phenique in my kit. It not only neutralizes the sting instantly, but it’s smell covers that attack pheromone that’s left behind so you don’t smell like an enemy the next time you approach a hive. I’ve been stung a lot in the last two years and it still hurts.
The hardest part about moving hives, though, is not flinching or dropping your end of the hive when you’re getting stung. I usually resort to a good, “Holy crap!” or other non-mentionable explicative to vent my shock when that happens but I never dropped the hive. Be a man and take it — then put on the Campho Phenique at the first opportunity. And remember to pull those sleeves down tight over the gloves. If there’s a gap, they’re gonna find it.
My favorite thing about moving bees to the field is turning them loose. Ronnie uses foam strips to plug the hives which are a couple of inches longer than the entrance. You shove them in with your hive tool, leaving a little tail at one end to grab and pull when you’re ready to set them free. He’s on one side of the trailer, and I’m on the other. He hollers, “Pull,” and we’re off and running, pulling hive plugs, shaking them like crazy to get the bees off, working our way swiftly towards the truck so we can box up the plugs, get our suits off and get safely inside before the guards figure out what’s going on. Best to have the truck parked well away from the trailer to allow enough space for the bees on the plugs to return to their colonies. The idea is to discourage them from following you. Most return. Some don’t and they’re not happy.
Other than that, moving bees is a fun thing to do. You’ll learn about locating them in the field, putting the hives where the irrigation pivot won’t hit them, spacing the trailers far enough apart for optimal coverage, how long the bees have to stay there, etc., etc.
Oh, and don’t forget the special equipment you need to carry: a couple cans of Fix-a-Flat, a tank full of compressed air, a good jack, a couple of boards to put under the tires, a shovel and tow strap. I suppose a AAA membership would be okay too, if you could find a driver to pull you out of a field where there are millions of angry, just-moved bees buzzing around waiting to wreak havoc on those who just uprooted their happy home. Good luck. Oh, did I mention a fully charged cell phone?
But it’s like Ronnie says, “You either love it or hate it.” We love it. The best part is the drive home. Along the way, we always stop at a convenience store for a drink and sticky bun or some other treat. We figure we earned it.
Ever wonder how many stings some beekeeper got getting those honey buns to market? Or those cantaloupes, watermelons, etc.? These are the kinds of things they don’t tell you in the books. But keep them around anyway; you’ll need them, too.