Toni Burnham says that a beekeeper always remembers his or her “Bee Day.” That is the day that you first acquire bees. Mine is April 22, 2017. My friend and beekeeping partner Dan had each completed a beginning beekeeping class. We did not have a mentor assigned to us, but we each had a few experienced beekeepers who would answer questions for us, hopefully. I can’t speak for Dan, but I was terrified that we would make a newbee mistake and kill our bees. Well, his bees. It’s a little bit fuzzy now. April 22 of this year (2022) will be my sixth Bee Day, and I will be a beekeeper with five years of experience. I have killed a few colonies, or they died under my care … I think of it as the same thing.
Dan had arranged to purchase an overwintered nuc from Maggie Mills. We drove out to Beltsville to pick up the nuc with our spouses. Our spouses drove back together, and we drove back with the bees. I don’t remember whether we wore our suits, in case the box leaked. I have since learned that when bees get loose in the car, there is no reason to panic. They are too busy looking for an escape to try to sting the driver. Just turn on the A/C and be careful not to squish anybody. We got home just fine, without dumping the nuc box. I don’t recall whether we had anything in the car to keep the box from sliding around in the back. That would be a good thing for any beekeeper who plans to transport a nuc or two to add to their list. You want to orient the nuc in line with the front of the car to minimize lateral motion between the frames, which could squish your queen. You also don’t want the box to tip over or slide around much, so bring some weights or boxes or something to keep that box fixed in place for the ride.
It was pouring rain that day, but we could not keep the bees locked up in the nuc box all day … they had to be allowed to fly. We had set up our hive stand, facing south, on my back patio — ready to set up our first box. Well, transferring frames of bees in the pouring rain did not seem like it would be fun for us or the bees. We decided to postpone to a nicer day. The nuc is a fully-functioning colony, so we just had to open the entrance, and let them adjust to the fact that their home was now in a completely different location. We put the nuc box on the bottom board, and we put the telescoping cover on top of the nuc box to keep it dry. Already we are worried about when we can move the frames into a bigger box, before the colony grows to the point where it needs more space. We knew that would be bad.
Backtracking a little bit … one lesson that I learned the hard way is this: Unless your spouse / partner / etc. is as excited about beekeeping as you are, do not, under any circumstances, bring them to see where you are getting your bees from. I was very excited and I invited my wife (who has been extremely supportive of my beekeeping) to see Maggie’s back yard, which was full of bee hives. Big mistake! We would pay for this later. My wife immediately memorized a picture of a tiny yard that was full of bee hives of all different sizes and colors. Although she has never had a preference for what our back yard looks like, that would be unacceptable.
So Dan and I were very excited, and also a little bit disappointed that we could not immediately transfer the bees. On the other hand, it probably is a good idea to let them settle for a few days to calm down from the trip before opening up the box and putting them on new comb. Maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe it does. I think that we had been told to wait a day or two until it was a sunny day.
One of the things that bothers me, five years in, is that I still don’t really know whether some subtle choice in handling the bees matters. They are very resilient creatures. They have survived all sorts of challenges as they evolved to their present form. Sure, our wise elder beekeepers tell us “do this, or your bees are going to die.” Such advice is based on their experience, what their mentors tell them, “best practices” (when available), and probably a lot of their own deductions or assumptions. Sometimes bee science can inform some of what we do. It seems to me that there needs to be a lot more applied research, using good scientific methods, dedicated to developing best practices in beekeeping. When I talk to other experienced beekeepers, they “just know” what the right thing to do is. They can point to the number of hives that they keep (but not their hive mortality rate), or their years of experience. This gives me some pause, especially when I am mentoring other beekeepers.
How do I know what I am talking about? What I do seems to work, but I don’t always know why. Often my mentees ask me the why questions. I can offer a speculative answer, based on what I have learned about bee biology, and some assumptions and deductions. That is not knowledge, that is belief. I don’t have hours per day to peruse the body of scientific literature in beekeeping, nor do I have access, even to the published indexes, unless I drive to a university and sneak into the library.
Sometimes I think about how to set up an experiment to answer a question, while isolating as many variables as possible, but I don’t really have the training or the resources to do science. I talk sometimes about setting up side-by-side hives and practice one thing on half my hives and something else on the other half. I don’t really do that. Why not? Well, in part because I don’t want to make a mistake that could kill all my hives. Instead, I make the same mistakes across all my hives and just keep plugging along.