“They have arrived!” is the call I received from Mark Cooper, from whom I purchased my bees. I was surprised they had arrived earlier than anticipated but that didn’t stop my excitement. In an instant I jumped into my car for the five-minute ride from my home to Cooper’s Charolais Farm & Apiary. I ran into the shop and I see my honeybees sitting on the counter. Instead of Mark greeting me, there is another expert waiting for my arrival. I am in pure panic when I realize I am not ready. The anxiety was set in motion as soon as the expert beekeeper asks me why I am not wearing my gloves and bee suit. I explained I had not purchased my equipment yet because I thought the bees were expected to arrive on April 29th.
“No!” he replied, “You misunderstood. Obviously, they were due to arrive now – March 29th.” I took a deep breath and proceeded as if I was ready. Together we opened the package and four or five bees flew out, as expected. One bee landed on the rafter above us. It is the most gargantuan bee I had ever laid my eyes upon. I never expected this from what I thought would be small, docile Italian honeybees. My panic has escalated.
“It is as big as an owl!” I said. “My neighbors are going to be so angry with me!” I was about to cry but then it happened. I woke up. I’ve never been so relieved to discover my experience was only a dream. Or more accurately put, a novice beekeeper’s nightmare.
This is what really happened. It wasn’t at all dramatic like my dream, in fact, surprisingly beautiful and calm.
On Wednesday, April 27th, there was a simple email between Mark and me to verify the arrival of the bees on Friday, April 29th. I drove directly to Cooper’s Farm on Friday after work. Mark’s parents, Buzz and Paula, greeted me in their usual friendly manner. As I walked further into the shop, I see about 10 packages of Italian bees waiting for their keepers to pick them up and complete their journey to their new home. The energy in the workshop felt tranquil among the soft and gentle buzz of over 100,000 bees - almost as if it was natural for these once wild insects to have traveled 1,200 miles in a vehicle from Georgia to Maine. My excitement was hard to contain as I watched the package being placed in my car.
Before I left, Buzz showed me one more time, in detail, how to open the package and put the bees safely into the hive. In no time, I was on my way home with a package of 10,000 bees – all riding in a vehicle one last time. Once I arrived home, my husband and a few neighbors greeted me, excited just as I was about my bees’ arrival. Because it was late evening and getting cold, the little Italian honeybees had to wait one more day before they were introduced to their hive.
On Saturday the 30th the adventure began around 11:30 a.m. as the sun soaked the earth allowing it to be warm enough to make the transfer into the hive. The day could not have been more perfect. I was lucky to have a friend, also a budding apiarist, join me on Saturday’s undertaking. First, we clumsily put on our bee suits and gloves for the very first time, each struggling to zip up our new attire. Once fitted correctly into our suits, we proceeded to open the package. The Queen and her few attendants, who are in a cage separated from the rest, went into the hive first. (Why is the Queen in a cage? Since she is new to this group of bees, she does not yet “smell” like the rest of them. It takes a bit for the workers and drones to get used to and accept her, but once they do, they eat through the “candy” that plugs the cage to free her and she becomes royalty. If there is not a period of introduction, the bees would kill the queen.)
Once the queen is inside the hive, the workers and drones are next and are quite literally plopped into their new home. My friend described it best, “It’s as if they clumped up and poured into the hive like you’d pour dough into a bread pan.” It was as easy as that.
Once everyone was inside, I put sugar syrup into the feeder so they have something to eat. The process took only about 10 minutes. My friend and I celebrated by sitting beside the hive, observing them for two full hours. As I sat there, I began to realize that I am a part of something grander than myself. I have become a steward of the world’s most important pollinator of food crops. I now worry. I am concerned about the queen and wonder if she will be alive in three days when I’m scheduled to check my hive for the first time. I worry that today, it is raining and cool – and wonder if my bees are staying warm. Will they survive? Will I fail at beekeeping? But as with everything in life, you do the best you can and hope the efforts will produce the expected outcome. I suspect a little trust is needed in the intelligent nature of the bees themselves and hold on to the belief that nature will follow its course and all will be well.