I don't remember exactly when I decided to start keeping bees. It wasn't even until 3 years ago that I saw into a hive, and realized how weird modern Langstroth hives are. Did you know that the hive consists of boxes, with 10 frames hanging down so it looks like a big filing cabinet? It was not the round, cartoonish image I had in my head, but it's easy for the beekeeper to pull out each frame, and it creates the ideal spacing of 3/8 inch between frames which makes the bees happy. This is a picture from inside a friend's hive on Orcas Island in 2009.
I took a class on bees on Orcas, and that was when I first realized what complex and amazing creatures they are. Fast forward a few years, and now that I'm living in Seattle, it seemed realistic to think about having my own hive. I took another class in March through the Ballard Bee Company, and found out that if I wanted to consider keeping bees this year, I had to order everything now. Most new packages of bees are coming from breeders in California, and they usually get shipped out in mid-April. So I called the Ballard Bee guy and pre-ordered one 3-pound package of Italian bees, which consists of 7-10,000 worker bees and one queen. (The Italian variety are the most popular for backyard beekeepers, known to be extremely gentle, good foragers, and hearty in the damp, cool winters.)
I gave him my credit card information and he told me he'd email me a receipt. That's when it started to feel real. "I'm so excited, I can't believe I really just ordered them!" I said.
"Congratulations!" he replied. "You're pregnant!"
Now, no one has ever said that to me in my life, so I was a little taken aback. But he was right- I felt like I was going to be a mama to these little guys. When friends get cats and dogs, they call them their babies, and their parents call them their"granddogs", so why not for bees too? I felt what must be a slight fraction of how new parents feel when they discover they are expecting a (real) baby- ecstatic and also terrified, knowing you've never done this exact thing and wanting to be as ready as possible.
That left me with about 4 weeks to get the nursery ready, so to speak. I bought a set of new, basic beekeeping equipment- four "western" or shallow boxes, top and bottom to the hive, jacket with screened hood, gloves, smoker, and a few hive tools. Here are the boxes, though they are missing the bottom pieces.
There were a few other preparations to be done as well. I had to find the right hive location at my house- somewhere flat, not near a door or walkway or neighbor's house, and with plenty of sun, preferably as early in the day as possible. I picked the backyard corner behind a shed, which is south-facing and tucked away. I'd personally be fine with a slightly more accessible spot, but I think for now it's good to err on the side of caution and give them a wide berth for the comfort of my roomates. And it is a great spot in terms of sunlight, so that's the main thing. I had to clear the area though, dig out rocks and old plastic and level it.
You can feed the bees sugar water as a supplement to nectar and pollen. That way, if it's a cool day and they don't leave the hive to forage, they can still eat something inside the hive, and in the end make more babies and more honey. I made a couple gallons of 1:1 simple syrup to have on hand.
I took another class, an intermediate one specifically about the first months with a new hive. I left class at least knowing conceptually how to get the bees from the transport box to their new home, and how to put the queen in the hive. That's a start.
One thing that surprised me and warmed my little heart was how supportive friends and family have been. I've never talked to most people about bees, yet they seem interested and at least curious. I sort of considered this first hive my 30th birthday present to myself, so it was awesome when my aunt sent me this birthday card.
Video: The Rod & Road
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