A home for bees

Today we received our first nuc (as in nucleaus) of honeybees from the breeder. Now, I’m hoping that bees are bred through the traditional manner and not through the miracle of modern agriculture as are cattle, mostly because I don’t want to imagine the tiny electric bee prod required, but as long as they’re (relatively) healthy when we receive the nuc, I guess I’m not too concerned.

nuc in the back of the van

The sealed nuc box on arrival fro the breeder.

The nuc is a queen and a few thousand workers all sealed up in a box. The box is not tightly sealed, so driving back from the breeders with the nuc in the back of the van emitting an onerous drone and the occasional bee was a little nerve-wracking. It was getting late in the day (a shoe sale occupied some of us for most of the morning), so we dashed in the house to don our protective gear and light the smoker. We had decided to forego the classic white bee suits because we’re just not the sort of people who go all out and buy the wardrobe for a new hobby, at least not until we’re sure the hobby isn’t going to up and die on us. Besides, we already own at least some clothes. So, 28 C outside and we’re donning layers of long-sleeve shirts and thick leather gloves. We did go all-out and get the proper hats and veils, because nobody wants to get stung.

I located the hive down by the barn, far enough away from the house so everyone can be comfortable, close to the fields I sowed with buckwheat and sweet clover (and the goldenrod and milkweed field opposite). It’s a ways from the parking apron, and at first I tried hauling the nuc in the wagon behind the tractor but it was a very bouncy ride, so I gave up and carried it the rest of the way. I didn’t want to make the bees madder than necessary, and they already sounded pretty angry. Carrying a box made of 3 mm plywood and filled with angry buzzing bees is a little discomforting, to say the least.

The first order of business was to get the smoker going. It took several tries: I was using some birch bark to get it started and a handful of leaf litter and cedar mulch as fuel, and it kept going out. It looked like it was going, so we opened the little plug on the nuc and tried to puff some some in. The bees swarmed out and so did the fire. I lit the smoker again, and it finally got going like a little steam engine and we gave a good dose into the little hole.

nuc, opened

The opened nuc box, complete wit propolis and dead bees. Imagine the buzzing sound to go with this picture.

The next thing to do was to open the box. It was not immediately apparent how to do so, but eventually we figured the top just kind of slid off. Very exciting, if a little panicky. The nuc contains four frames which need to be pried out with the hive tool and transferred to the waiting hive.

brood box open

The brood box waiting to receive the new frames from the nuc.

In the picture of the open nuc you can see the brownish propolis the bee use to seal their home against drafts and invaders. Some people believe propolis has health benefits. It’s just tree resin mixed with bee vomit. I wonder what price I can get for it on ebay.

The frames with the queen go in to a part of the hive called the brood box, where the queen will lay eggs and the workers will build comb and fill it with honey. This is where the bees will spend most of their lives. A modern brood box contains 10 frames of a standard size (so they’re interchangable), so prior to receiving the nuc, I removed 4 frames to make room. On top of the brood box goes one or more honey supers where the queen is excluded and the comb contains only sweet sweet honey. Next year, we’ll help relieve the bees of this golden burden.

I don’t know why I decided to locate the hive near the barn, since bees need water and I haven’t run a supply pipe out to the barn yet. It seemed to make sense at the time. I put down landscape fabric and covered it with limestone screenings so I could level the base and to keep the weeds down, then I surrounded it with cedar mulch in the hopes that it will discourage grass from growing too close to the hive. I don’t particularly want to have to mow too close to a bee colony again, this time on purpose.

In the background of the accompanying photos you can see part of our sugar bush. The breeder instructed us to feed a sugar-water solution to the bees at first to help them out. I asked if feeding them maple syrup was a good idea because we have some on hand and I’d rather use a local source of sugar-water solution than import processed cane sugar from the third world, which seems kind of stupid to me. The expert there said “no”, so this go-around I won’t, but next year, we’ll see. Bees make honey out of nectar, which is primarily the simple sugars fructose and glucose just like maple syrup, not the polysaccharide sucrose found in cane sugar, so it makes more sense to me. I also like the symmetry of using my own trees to feed the bees, who will then go on to fertilize other trees.

Smoking the bees. Personally, I find them difficult to roll because of the squirming and very hard to light.

We gave the bees a good dose of smoke in the nuc to calm them, although I could not tell the difference. We transferred the frames and everything went smoothly.

transferring frames

Transferring a frame from the nuc box to the brood box.

After the frames were transferred, there were still about 1000 bees in the nuc box, so we had to turn it upside down over the brood box and bang on it to knock the bees out and into their new home. As it turns out, bees have almost no brain and most refused to take the hint, preferring the comfort of their old home to the scary new place that smelled of paint.

That job done, we left the nuc box nearby brushed a few bees off the brood box, and reassembled the hive.

There is now a cloud of (I image still-angry) bees around the hive.  At first, they didn’t seem to take to it and kept flying back to the nearby nuc, but eventually the seemed to settle in and there are a good handful clustered around the tiny (purposefully reduced) entry.

reassembling the hive

Reassembling the hive.

Nobody got stung. All in all, our first day of keeping bees went much better than I anticipated.

hive entry

Hive entry with a cluster of bees about an hour after the bees were introduced into the hive.

One thought on “A home for bees

  1. Hi Stephen, I’m a friend of your Mom’s. Mimi. Several comments. Do you know Arnold Polk, beekeeper near Arnprior, on Hwy # either 15 or 29, I’m not sure what they are calling it now. He is also into sheep. He would be easy to talk to if you have questions. Also, my husband and his father were tradtional commercial beekeepers in Brantford until 1962 with 700+ hives. As we hear it the biggest problem nowadays is disease. Good luck, and have fun.

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