Creating A Buzz

When I was a little girl, my mom invited my friend from across the street to our house.  She set us up in the backyard with a nice little tea party, right near our beautifully blooming lilac bush.  I know that there was a little table, something to drink, and a banana…but that’s all that I really remember about the whole set up.  What does stand out so vividly in my memory is a deep, low buzzing sound coming from that lilac bush, and what happened next…which really irritated my mom.

The deep, low buzzing sound produced the biggest and the meanest bee ever known to mankind.  It attacked our tea party relentlessly, pointing its 4 inch long stinger at me and diving again and again at my face and my eyes, until I couldn’t be brave any longer and had to calmly and slowly move our tea party into the house in an effort to protect myself and my guest.

My mom tells the story a little differently.  According to mom, a bee flew by and I ran screaming and crying into the house, abandoning my friend, never to return to the outdoors again.

A little worker bee. She does everything, and that’s how we know she’s female.

I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle of our two stories.

With that story began a sad trail of other ‘Terra is afraid of bugs’ stories that have haunted me.  There was the time that I put my hand into my grandpa’s huge wooden fish that hung outside of his cabin and got stung by something.  The funny thing about this memory is that I can’t actually be sure that it happened to me.  It is likely that it happened to my sister and it traumatized me so badly that I have taken ownership of the fear that really should be hers.

Don’t even get me started on how scary spiders are!

When our children came along, it was decided that these fears of mine would not be passed down to them.  So I became brave.  I was totally faking it so that I wouldn’t freak out the kids when a bee flew by, but somewhere in there I forgot that I was just faking it.  Now I have nerves of steel when I see a bug….unless it’s a spider. 

A few years ago, I picked up a book called ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ by Sue Monk Kidd.  The book is not really about bees at all, but it is a story about a young girl who is trying to seek out a connection to her mother who had passed away when she was very small.  At the beginning of every new chapter, there is a reference to bees and how they interact in their hives.  The chapter will go on to tell the story of ‘Lily’ and the women she meets up with, reminding the reader of the bee fact at the beginning of the chapter.  My curiosity about beekeeping began there.

Here we are 3 or 4 years later, and I have started my first bee hive on our farm.  No one is more surprised at this than my mom…and my childhood friend Nicole…and my sister…and all of my aunties…and me. 

I made friends with a beekeeper, and visited her bee farm.  She showed me her bee yard, and recommended various books for me to read.  She also suggested that I attend a bee keeping course, and possibly take in some of the gatherings that are put on by the beekeeping club inEdmonton.  All very good ideas, and I did none of them.

What I did do, is mention to my husband that he should stop and pick up some bee hives one day when he was passing through the town with the Beemaid outlet.  I was mostly kidding.  I was also pretty sure that he would say no.  However, I had forgotten that he has never said no to any of my fun new ideas, so now we had bee stuff.

Bee keeping has a very, very steep learning curve.  All of the reading in the world will not prepare you for the buzzing sound of 2.2 pounds (6,000 to 10,000) of unhappy bees as they are transported from New Zealand, to Edmonton, to your vehicle and into their little ‘starter home’ hive.

In an attempt to inform and encourage anyone who is interested in bee keeping, let me share some info on the necessary start up items required and the lessons I have learned so far….which are many.  I have learned A LOT, and I still know nothing.  A good first step is to find someone knowledgeable and make them your friend.  Having done that, I barged ahead.

Before your bees arrive, you need to set up their hive.  We got our hive equipment from the BeeMaid outlet in Spruce Grove, Alberta.

You will need to have at least three ‘supers’.  These are the boxes that will hold the frames.  The supers come in pieces, and you get to assemble and paint them.

There are handles carved into all four sides.  Make sure that these are all facing the right way, (outward).  It’s pretty simple, kind of like putting a puzzle together.  We used glue in the joins as well as screws.  We screwed two of the pre drilled holes on each side of every join.  It frustrates my farmer to watch me use a drill, so he did that part and I did the gluing part.  He’s not easily frustrated, but watching a left handed person with very little woodworking experience try to work with an electric drill is just a bit much for him.

This is not me, but I promise that I did the gluing part.

You need to paint these supers.  There is no real recommendation on color, except to to say that light colors help the hives to stay cooler in hot climates.  I have seen blue, green, but most of the ones I’ve seen are white.

If you’re lucky you might find a cowboy who needs to make some money because it’s Friday. Get him to paint your supers for you.

You need a hive bottom.  Thankfully, it is pre made and covered in beeswax so there’s no assembly or painting required.

You need an inner cover.  We weren’t sure if we should paint this or not, so we just painted the outside edge, knowing that the bees will cover the inside with wax and the outside will be covered by the hive lid.

You need a hive lid.  This is covered in beeswax, and then again with tin, so once again no need to paint.  It also comes assembled.

You will need frames to hang in the supers.  These come in many different forms, but because this is our first adventure with beekeeping, we kept it simple and bought the pre-fabricated plastic frames.  Ten frames fit into our style of super, but it can vary depending on which type of hive you are building.

This is a stack of black frames for brooding new little bees. On top of them lies a frame feeder.

You will need a ‘pollen patty’ to feed your bees when they first arrive.  There may be some pollen available for them to find, but this will help to make their transition smoother.

You will also need a feeder of some type.  There are many, but we are using a one gallon ‘frame feeder’.  You hang this feeder in the place of one frame in your hive.  Fill it with a syrup mixture of ½ water and ½ granulated sugar.  You can throw sticks into this syrup to help prevent bees drowning, but we also got what is called a ‘ladder’.  The ladder lowers into the syrup so the bees can climb in and out, as well as covering the rest of the opening so they don’t fall in.

Filling the frame feeder with a 50% sugar/water solution. Also happens to be what mint juleps are made of. Just add mint…and booze.

You will need a brush to help convince the bees that they should move when you are checking the frames for honey and larva. 

You will need a ‘hive tool’.  This isn’t your college aged son who likes to help out with the bees after a late night of socializing.  This is a metal piece that you can wedge in between lids and supers when opening the hive to check on your bees.  Apparently they all get stuck together with ‘propolis’ which is a waxy substance that the bees cover their hives with.  It’s a very good preservative and sealant, but it makes lifting the supers apart somewhat difficult.

You should have a smoker.  This is the piece of equipment that will provide you with a false sense of security when working with your bees.  There are many different kinds of smokers.  One beekeeper has said that he just uses a coffee can full of old grass.  My friend the beekeeper told me that she rarely to never uses hers because she’s afraid of dropping embers into the grass and starting a prairie fire.  However, my reading tells me that it helps to keep the bees calm, and it impairs their ability to communicate.  For me, calm and uncommunicative bees seem like a good thing.  I want them to be calm, and if there happens to be one crazy bee who yells ‘attack’, it’s going to benefit me if the other bees can’t pick up his message.  Practice with your smoker ahead of time.  Ours has a habit of smoking right up until you get to the hive.  This is when it goes out completely, leaving us with lively and very communicative bees. Thankfully, so far they haven’t been too opposed to our hive checks.

Our smoker. Notice the total lack of smoke coming from it. This is a good sign that we are near the hive.

The last, but possibly most important piece of equipment is your bee suit.  We have one that is a full suit, covering you from the top of your head to your ankles.  Gloves go over your hands and in my case; big heavy cowboy boots go on your feet.

This is me in the suit I wear when I’m really going to stir things up.

We also bought a second suit, initially because my husband became interested in what was happening, so wanted a suit so he could come and have a look.  Ultimately you should probably have two suits, because it is really nice to have someone who will be able to help you hive your bees; and you can show other interested people what is going on inside the hive.  Our other suit is a half suit.  If you have jeans and boots on, this will keep you as safe as the full suit will…provided the jacket doesn’t ride up too much when you bend over.

The half suit. For when you don’t care if the bees sting your butt.

Find an old pallet to set your hive onto and you are ready to set up your bee yard.

We set ours up on the south side of a large patch of willow and poplar trees.  It is facing south towards an open grassy field.  There is pasture on the west side of them, and there they will have access to dandelion, cicer milk vetch, and clover.  On the east side there is a grain field which will likely grow canola this year.  Bees generally work within a 3 km radius to find nectar, and here there will be an abundance of canola, dandelion, apple trees, willow, clover and alfalfa.   Behind the hive to the north, there is a large pond that will always be a good source of water for the bees. 

A little starter home all ready for the bees to move in.

With the bee yard all set and ready to go, we felt fully prepared to bring our bees home and let them get settled in their new starter home.

“The honey bee colony is a family consisting of a single mother, the queen; thousands of daughters, the workers; and a varying number of sons, the drones.”  – Beekeeping inWestern Canada



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