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bees: shaken, not stirred

Our bees arrived today! We have done our research, built the hive and put on the finishing touches (including a Muskoka chair lounger on the landing board!).  All that was left was helping 5000 bees with their move-in day!

The Calgary beekeeping group Apiaries, Bees & Communities (A.B.C.) hosted a hiving demonstration with the nuc pick-up this afternoon, so we were able to get an idea of how to get our bees properly situated in the backyard. The bees had travelled with Bill Stagg from Sweet Acre Apiaries in the Shuswaps early this morning to a farming acreage just west of Calgary for us and other new beekeepers to pick up their nucs.  It was quite a sight to see 74 boxes of 5000 bees in one spot in the back of a truck.

Eleise Watson from A.B.C. showed demonstrations of hiving a nuc into a Langstroth (traditional) style of hive and into a Top-Bar (what we have) style of hive. Since our hive is a top-bar, I’ll only focus on that demo in this post.  I was a little bit anxious to start working with the bees, not knowing exactly what to expect, but I was very pleasantly surprised at how docile the bees are and how easy it is to be calm while thousands of bees are milling around in the air.

Each nuc is gently smoked to calm the bees, then opened up and each of the four frames are inspected for honey, brood and the queen.  The first three combs that were pulled out didn’t have the queen and the bees were shaken into the bottom of the top-bar hive. When I say shaken, I don’t mean gently! You can hear a pretty loud “Whhhhooooooooomph” as over a thousand bees are flung into the hive. Finally, on the last frame, the queen was spotted. The queen looks different fromthe rest of the bees – a fair bit larger and somewhat differently coloured – and she was in the process of laying eggs during the hiving.  The queen was gently flicked off of the frame into the hive and the remaining bees on the frame were shaken in.

The queen headed straight for a safe spot in the top corner of the hive and, once the bees caught on to the queen’s pheromones and realized where she was, they immediately started to gather in the hive and move in her direction.  Not only that, but the “hum” of the hive actually got louder and went up in pitch when they received their queen.  Most of the bees from the nuc were in the hive now and the rest of the bees were flying all around the space.  The four frames were put back in the nuc box to keep them out of the sun and the last step was to prepare them for transplant into the top-bar hive.

This is the part that is a little tricky for a top-bar hive keeper as the frames in a nuc box are standardized to fit Langstroth equipment and can simply be placed in the box and closed up.  For a top-bar, you want to also install the frames of honey and brood in the hive, but they don’t exactly fit (it’s like putting a square peg in a trapezoidal hole, so to speak).  To remedy, some top-bars are rigged up by cutting the honey and brood comb out of the frame in the shape of your hive and hanging them from a top bar with a wire. They are then put back into the hive in the same order that they came out of the nuc with three empty top bars in front, the four nuc frames next and another three bars behind them.  Finally, your false back is put behind the last three empty bars and your hive is complete for the time being.

It was time for us to give it a try with our own box of bees and, for the most part, we were able to follow all of the steps we saw in the morning in our own backyard with only a few minor snags.  The first and fourth combs in our box were both honey combs, so we weren’t sure which order we should put them in the hive and hopefully our random choice works out fine for the bees.  The first comb we cut was a wire-supported type frame instead of the plastic ones we saw during the demo, so it was very difficult to hang from a top-bar without our own wires cutting straight through the comb under its own weight. That frame was put very precariously in the hive and hopefully the fact that it is probably resting on the bottom of the hive isn’t too big of a deal. The other three frames were all plastic supported and were much more easily hung from the top bars and put into the hive. We got a great kick out of seeing our queen and making sure she got into the hive nice and gently and the same amazing phenomenon of seeing all of the bees suddenly turn and start heading deeper into the hive after her was observed in our own hive.  We tried to be as careful as we could and avoid squishing any of the bees, but we may have lost a few.  Hopefully as we get more confident handing the bars and bees with our bare hands, we’ll become a little more agile as well.

Once we closed up the box, we made sure we had a good supply of water for the bees and spent a good couple of hours watching the bees come and go from the hive and start bringing pollen back from their travels. The bees also almost immediately started to work on cleaning out the hive and we saw many bees carrying loads of fallen comrades or larvae that didn’t make it out of the entrance and leave them in the grass below the hive. We also took one opportunity to crack the hive and mist the bees with a bit of water with a spray bottle.  We had heard at the demo that the bees had gone without water for some time, so it might be prudent to make sure that they got a little bit of moisture inside the hive as soon as possible.  While we were lifting the bars to carefully mist, I thought I saw the start of some chain-link behaviour hanging from one of the first three bars in the hive which would indicate that they are already ready to build some combs!  It may have been my hopeful imagination, however.

I’ve got a couple of lingering questions on what will happen in the next week in the hive; for example, what will the bees do with the combs hanging from the wires (will they make them more stable), and what we should do with the rest of the comb from the frames that now has some stranded capped brood.  The two frames with honey we have left close to the hive as an easy source of food, but the other two frames with brood we have left further away and even into the late evening there are still bees that do not seem to want to leave that brood behind.

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