After your bees have started going to work in their new hive that you put them in, you will need to check in on them periodically to see how things are progressing. If you installed a package of bees, one of the first things you will be checking on as a beekeeper is to see if the queen has released from the mini queen cage that she came in. If she did, she will already be at work on one of the frames with an entourage of personal attendant worker bees. If not, you will manually release her by removing the cork on the end of the queen cage and allowing her to walk out and go to work with her family of workers. Either way, you still have to inspect and get in there.
If you are like me when I first started, just reading about it can cause the adrenaline to surge. The thought of reaching in to a colony of bees and being that close to thousands of potential stingers can be intimidating.
How can you work up the nerve to get in to your hive? Well a basic understanding of honey bee behavior is a perfect place to start. In general, honey bees are not aggressive by nature. It is true that there are some Africanized bees that are downright mean, but their european cousins are not even close in the way they behave. I found that most of my personal fears came from childhood exposure to cartoons where you’ll see the coyote running away from a cloud of angry bees. Or perhaps you’ve had a bad experience with some hornets or wasps while working in your yard. Again, when we compare honeybees to hornets we are talking apples to oranges – not even close. So we need to re-program our minds to accept the fact that honeybees are gentle for the most part and are only interested in doing their jobs. We can work with them in a way that does not make them feel threatened in a few simple steps:
Step one: Suit up – mentally. Should you wear a bee suit? Depends. If it makes you calm, then wear it. I’ve never worn one personally, but if you are scared and sweating bullets as you approach your bees then suit up. The basic rule of thumb is if you are calm, and remain calm your bees will be calm too. When we are scared we release pheromones that the bees can detect. They can smell fear. Just because they smell fear or your cologne, does not always mean they will sting you, but they’ll smell you before they even get a look at you. So prepare mentally to remain calm.
Step two: Approach the bee hive from the back. If you approach from the front guard bees will see you and may fly out to greet you by flying into you. They want to see what kind of reaction you’ll have. They may sting if they see you flail your arms and start swatting at them. That’s a dead give a way to your bees that you are indeed a threat. If you can ignore them it is better. Better still is don’t walk past the guard at all, just go behind the bee hive when you want to inspect.
Step three: Smoke. Before you use smoke listen and watch first. When you lift the cover listen to your bees. If you hear a noticeable “buzz” getting a bit louder after a few seconds, you might need to puff a little, and I do mean a little smoke. Don’t gas out your bees with a thick cloud of heavy smoke. Less is more when it comes to using your smoker. I usually do not need smoke in most cases. So if they are quietly working, you can continue to lift the cover and start working. I actually try NOT to use smoke if at all possible – but that’s my personal style. I have found that when I use smoke, a couple of gentle puffs blown across the top of the open hive is all that is necessary. I never blow lots of smoke down in between the frames. Smoke is another tool for the beekeeper. It cancels out the alarm pheromone that they may send out if they feel threatened. That’s why listening is so important when you remove the cover. If you hear the loud BUZZ, they are spreading out the alarm pheromone quickly throughout the colony. So lift the lid, puff a couple times and set the cover back down for a minute. Then start over, lift the lid and listen. Odds are they will be calmer if you set off the alarm buzz the first time you opened the cover.
Step four: Move gently and gracefully. When you take your time you can think better and relax more and your bees will often sense your calmness and remain calm themselves. Once you train yourself to stay calm, you’ll find you can reach into a hive no problem at all. When I lift frames, I put my fingers down and slowly move the bees out of the way with my fingers. Once I have the grip I want on the frame, I gently lift it. Keep in mind if you move your fingers and mush a bee, you’ll probably get stung. In most cases I get stung when I forget to look where I’m putting my fingers. Program yourself to remember to hold that frame no matter what. If you get a sting you want to hold the frame, not drop it. If you drop the frame you may exchange one upset bee for hundreds of upset bees.
Step five: If you get a sting. Puff a little smoke right on the sting. This will not make if feel any better, but it will help cover the alarm pheromone they’ve used as a marker on you. This should help prevent additional stings to the same area.
I hope these tips will help you enjoy beekeeping even more. If you follow these suggestions, you’ll find your trip to the bee yard to be so relaxing it becomes therapeutic, and you’ll look forward to visiting your colonies. If for some reason you follow these tips and you have angry bees that seem to enjoy stinging no matter what, you might need to requeen your colony. I select queens from hives with good temperament. That is important for me because I like to wear shorts and a T shirt when it gets really hot out. The thought of having to suit up head to toe would be a real deterrent for me especially when the temps get above 80 degrees F.
I am raising a limited number of queens this year in our apiary. If you would like to contact me about gentle queens feel free to visit www.enjoybeekeeping.com for more info.