Henry’s bees are finally home again after more than two months in California. (More about preparing them for almond pollination here and here.) Henry’s beekeeper/truck driver friend hauled them back north on Sunday, and Henry unloaded them in a local holding yard. Overall, they look really really good. Henry spent most of the day on Monday and Tuesday working his bees, taking necessary steps to prevent the robust colonies from swarming by pulling frames of brood and shaking out bees into nuc (pronounced “nuke”) boxes to form new colonies.
In the last few years or even the last few months, you’ve probably heard about the troubles plaguing the both commercial beekeeping and hobby beekeeping alike. Many of the dire statistics and stories behind them are true, but some of the explanations are grossly oversimplified. We’ve gotten a lot of questions lately about the health of Henry’s bees. While he has had some managed losses, most of his hives are not only surviving but thriving without using any chemical treatments or miticides for three years. Regular miticide applications are a practice that is standard for the vast majority of commercial beekeepers.
The holding yard on private property where the bees were dropped off is ideal because it’s easily accessible with a large truck, and it’s right off the highway. The problem is that, for a brief time at least, there are more bees in one area than the surrounding environment and resources can support, so the bees are having to compete for food and are under extra stress. Except for short transition periods, Henry never keeps more than 24 hives in one yard.
As he finishes working the bees, he’s been dispersing the pallets of hives to nine different smaller yards and pollination areas (1-40 hives each) in Benton and Lincoln Counties. By the end of the weekend, they’ll all be in place to take advantage of spring nectar and pollen flows including maple, madrone, trailing blackberry, poison-oak, etc.
Above you can see queen cups being drawn to rear extra queens for swarming. Observing queen cups in a hive doesn’t necessarily mean the bees are swarm prepping, but stronger colonies with lots of queen cups and many frames of brood (8+) will likely swarm after a period of rainy Oregon spring weather. Because Henry is only one guy managing over 200 hives, he needs to be able to anticipate what will happen in each colony over the next two weeks and take necessary action to encourage healthy growth without swarming. If hives do swarm, it means the beekeeper has missed an opportunity to replicate the bees’ reproduction cycle by pulling brood and making splits.
Starting this spring, Henry will intermittently have a limited number of survivor queens from his own stock available for sale. Email him at email@example.com for details and availability.
I was stung four times while taking these photos (and this Instagram video): first on the tip of my nose, then about 10 minutes later on my upper lip, and then about 20 minutes later, on my left wrist and the back of my right arm simultaneously through my shirt. I’ve been psyching myself up for this. I’ve signed on to be chief marketing, sales, customer service, and shipping officer for Old Blue Raw Honey this year, and if I’m going to act in that capacity, I had better know something about beekeeping. And if I’m going to learn anything about beekeeping, I will inevitably get stung. I’ve come to terms with this, but when faced with the reality of it, I’ve found I’m a little less stoic than I would like to be.
Holding yards are particularly bad places for working around bees (whether performing actual beekeeping duties or shooting photos) because the concentration of hives aggravates the workers. I am more or less used to being among a few colonies with workers flying by doing their thing or even occasionally landing on me to check things out because honeybees don’t generally have a lot of reason to be aggressive unless they’re being messed with. What I’m not use to is bees pursuing me, attempting to get at my skin just to hurt me, and that was what I experienced the other day.
I watched Henry get stung in the hands and arms at least 10 times while I was with him, and maybe he gave a little grunt or fished around in his sleeve to extract the offender, but that was the extent of his acknowledgement of any discomfort. I, on the other hand, totally froke out each time it happened, cussing, flailing, and clawing at myself trying to get the little bugger off me. (Side note: I’m going to credit Steve Burns in his story for The Moth for coining the term “froke out”, which from now on, I will use quite liberally.) After each attack, I had to take a little time out to regain my composure and my nerve to stick my head back in a place where I wasn’t very welcome.
Something I learned from the unpleasantness: honeybee alarm pheromone smells strongly of artificial banana. Henry and I had to spend about fifteen minutes remembering the name of that candy that used to come out of vending machines with the apples, limes, oranges, and bananas. (Runts!) Alarm pheromone smells exactly like those candy bananas, and I probably would have never know that unless I’d gotten stung in the nose. Once you’re marked by that smell, you can’t get rid of it, and you’re going to be the target of a lot more aggression.
After getting stung, my lip blew up like a cartoon character, and then slowly the rest of one side of my face inflated, too (kinda like this). When I woke up the next morning, my left eye had that fat-face piggy quality to it. Luckily I didn’t have to see too many people that day, and 24 hours in, I just looked a little chubby on one side instead of “OMG what happened to your face?!” The two stings on my arms were a little red and a little itchy, but I survived.
Levi and Charlotte were super excited that the bees were back because then Pa could catch drones for them to play with. Drones can’t sting, so they just crawl around dopily. They make great, temporary pets.
I bet at least a few of you are getting ready to be first-year beekeepers and a few more are gearing up for another season of tending your hives. Henry and I are hoping to offer some insight into commercial beekeeping as well as some tips for hobbyists in the coming months, so stay tuned for future posts and photos. And good luck with your bees!