Bees+Pants+Monty Python = Success

April 14, 2012

Author: Linda Rivard

Photographer: Diane Rivard

The honey bees have arrived! Chuck and I (Linda) traveled to Rick Cooper’s house in Bowdoinham, Maine on Saturday to pick up two packages of bees we had ordered.  Rick drives down south (to Georgia, I believe) to get the bees himself, and has them ready for his students and customers to pick up in his garage. Chuck and I were quite surprised at the number of people (about 40) that were there to pick up their order of bees. One of the benefits of picking up the bees at Rick’s house is that we got to watch him demonstrate the installation of a bee package for his students and anyone else picking up bees.  Everyone gathered around Rick as he performed the demonstration with nary a piece of protective equipment (no veil or gloves!). I suppose the years of experience and the Master Beekeeper title he has earned affords him the ability to work with the bees with ease.  After the demonstration and armed with our two packages of bees, Chuck and I headed back to Gorham, Maine to start our first year of beekeeping.

When we arrived back at home, I readied all the equipment we would need for the package installation: veils and gloves, smoker and fuel, hive tool, sugar water, and a few good doses of courage!

Bees need to be fed sugar water until the local nectar flow starts

Trey helps out with the sugar water


The first order of business was to open up the box, pry out the sugar water can, and remove the queen cage.  The queen is housed separately from the worker bees in a small cage. She is unrelated to all the worker bees that are included in the package, and keeping her separated allows the workers to get use to her scent (pheromone) during travel, increasing the odds that she will be accepted by them as their new queen once hived together. The queen cage contains a cork covering a candy that is blocking the hole that will release the queen. The cork is removed before lodging the queen cage between two frames, candy side up.

No sooner had I dumped the bees onto the frames of the first hive that I felt a bee fly up my pant leg! Although in my mind I felt a bee sting was imminent at any moment, I tried to remain calm and tried not to move my leg that much, as I felt the bee scurrying around my calf and shin area. I tried to refocus my thoughts on the task at hand, but the bee kept tickling my skin reminding me she was still there, scouting out this new dark area. I am sure she was contemplating whether or not this was a good spot for her and her sisters to start their new home. I sent her my mental plea of “Please don’t sting me, I’m just trying to help you and your kind get set up in this great new hive!”, and switched my attention to finding the queen cage, while the bee dawdled around in my pants. Ha!

uncorking the queen cage

After letting the bees settle down into the frames, I found the queen cage and removed the cork. Still thinking about the bee in my pants, I wedged in the queen cage between two frames, and proceeded to put on the inner cover, add the sugar water and close up the hive. When all was secure I made my way to the awning area behind the house and peeled my pants down, in the hopes of releasing my bee friend. If my neighbors were watching, I am sorry for the fanny display! This approach paid off, and the bee did find her way out of my pants without losing her life.

Phew! One installation down, one to go. In all the excitement with the bee in the pants, I forgot to check to make sure the queen was alive and well before placement of the uncorked queen cage. I had to have faith that all was well with my phantom queen, and moved on to installation of the bees into the Starry Night hive.

Installation of the second package went much smoother. I managed to remove the queen cage and inspect for the queen before uncorking and placing the cage in the hive. She was moving quickly back and forth in her cramped quarters! She seemed to be very ready and amped up to get started with her egg-laying duties. The queens that are provided in the packages have previously mated with several drones before she is placed within the queen cage and package. Once the workers are released into the hive with their new caged queen, they set to work chewing through the candy barrier to release her. The plan is to check on the hives in 3 days to confirm the queen has been released, and to look for eggs being laid. The bees are fed sugar water to provide them with the carbohydrates need to start building comb, which will be used to raise the brood, and to store honey and pollen.

Once both of the bee packages were installed our crew milled around and talked about the experience. I noticed a larger size bee crawling on my jeans and recognized this bee as a drone.

Drones do not have stingers, as their sole purpose is to mate with virgin queens. They hang out in the hive and are fed by the workers, waiting for the opportunity for a new queen to be raised.

The queen lays a single egg in each comb, and can lay 1,000 eggs per day for 3-5 years. Workers, on the other hand, live about 2 weeks.  The eggs develop into larvae, and are fed royal honey for the first three days. At this point, if the larvae are being raised to produce workers, the workers begin to feed the larvae honey and pollen. In the event that the workers feel that their queen is weak, or if the hive is becoming too crowded, the workers will raise the larvae to become a queen. Larvae destined to become queens are exclusively fed royal jelly, which the worker bees exude from their head area. This bee fact continues to amaze me!

That afternoon after our guests had gone I checked on the bees several times to see what they were up to. I noticed workers bringing out dead bees from within the hive through the hive entrance, and was reminded of the scene from the Monty Python movie “Search for the Holy Grail” where they are shouting “Bring out your dead“. Bees do like to keep a clean hive, and this indicated they were making themselves at home by doing their house cleaning.

Throughout the next few days I found myself making excuses to go check on the bees. After three days had passed, Chuck and I inspected the hives to replenish their sugar water supplies and to check to see if the queen had been released. We confirmed the queen had been released in both hives, but I did not observe any eggs in any of the new comb they had built. We did observe honey and pollen stores. The Milky Way hive also had some burr comb formation in the area where the queen cage had been wedged. I wasn’t sure if I should remove this, so I decided to let it be.

Showing burr comb formation where the queen cage had created too wide of a space for the bees

Bees have an optimum “bee space” for them to navigate around the hive. Iff it is too wide, as happened by spreading apart the frames too much, they just fill it in with comb so they have easier access to every inch of space. Follow-up consultation with my bee mentor (a local in Germany, no less!) indicates this should be removed, because I do not want any stealthy queen cells or quarters being created.

We have a curious shrub in our front yard that bees of all kinds have been flocking to. I’ve asked several botanist-types what the formal name of this plant is, but have not got an answer yet.

Bees love this flowering shrub. Do you know what this plant is called?

If you know what this is please let me know. Also if you have any interesting bee stories to share we would love to hear about it.

Until next time, I think I will “Don’t Worry, Bee Happy