Why I Haven't Been Talking About Our Bees
Earlier this past week, I met up with my good friend DJ of Frees Frame Photography & Design who has taken some amazing photos of our farm in the past! Somehow we came upon the subject of beekeeping, something which he realized I had written about for some time last summer but had not brought up in a while. I’ve told this story many times to people that ask in person, but it’s something that I have yet to explain here on the blog. There’s a major reason why, and it’s mostly because I’m embarrassed and guilty. Have you ever taken the Enneagram test? I am an Enneagram 5; I mention this because it explains my often intense and brewing guilt and fear when I mess up on something that I feel like I should be knowledgeable about.
The short story is this: my hive attacked me last August.
It was not fun. I will share the full story, which is not as intense as it sounds but it was equally terrifying. It’s also the reason that since then I have not touched our hive or went near it… until about a week ago. It’s taken me over five months to gain back the courage to even think about beekeeping again, and it’s also taken me this long to confess that I abandoned our hive when I know that I could have done more. I’m embarrassed, but I’m thankful for friends like DJ who remind me that I’m still a beginner and that it’s okay to mess up, to not know everything, to not be able to accomplish all that is on my task list, to let things go if I have to, and to write out my experiences as they happen. Because in all reality, if you are thinking about beekeeping, then you should probably hear the bad experiences, too, right?
It was a balmy afternoon in August. It had been raining for a while and, according to a friend, there was a dearth in nectar, though I had little knowledge about how to watch for that. There was expected rain in the evening, so it was already a bad decision to check the hive that day. You want to look for optimal weather; sunny, warm, and no rain or other inclement weather. The hive had been angered and restless for the last two checks, and I had been stung a few times already. I was entering their area with a nervous attitude, unsure of what I was doing and if my summer had been going as by-the-book as I had hoped.
It wasn’t. In fact, I had put the honey super on a couple of weeks before that, after they had filled 9 of the 10 frames in their second deep hive body, but they still had not filled in the comb. I was confused. Why were they not filling the frames with honey? I was even still feeding them, usually every other day, which my beekeeping mentors were baffled by. How were these bees eating so much sugar syrup and this late into the season entering autumn? I was getting really tired of buying so much sugar and making the syrup 3-5 times a week. It was exhausting, but they kept emptying their feeder (a top feeder, too!).
I removed the empty honey super and began to look through the upper deep. All was going smoothly, though the bees seemed to be wanting to hover around my head more than usual. I was wearing a cheaper quality beekeeper’s veil. Due to my own naivety, I had always thought there was a flaw in the design. There were two large elastic holes on either side of my face. I assumed they were for air circulation, but it was often that I had a bee or two fly into the veil during my checks, and I would have to carefully navigate them out so my face would not get stung. I later learned that these holes were for my arms to go through - oops.
After moving through the upper deep, I went by my guide book’s instructions to check through both deeps in your first year. This was where I made my mistake. I set the upper deep on top of the honey super… and the queen excluder stuck to the bottom. As I pulled the third frame out from the lower deep, where the brood was, the bees swarmed up out of the hive instantly. In a small but mighty cloud, the hum of their wings growing louder, I was suddenly being ganged up on by clusters of bees on my arms and shoulders, at least 10 flying into the holes of my veil and unsurprisingly onto my face. I began to panic, though I kept my cool, thinking that my next step should be to calmly close the hive and just walk away. I placed the frame back into the lower deep and picked up the upper deep box, not knowing that the queen excluder was stuck on the bottom of it until it was too late.
I searched for it desperately, finally realizing that it was stuck in between the two deep hive body boxes where it was not supposed to be. If you are new to beekeeping and reading this, the queen excluder is a thin piece of plastic or metal with tiny rectangles. It is placed on top of the deep hive body boxes (where the bees keep their brood, or baby bees) and below the honey super so that the queen cannot get into the honey super and lay eggs in the honey you will eventually harvest!
I knew that I could not leave the hive that way. I picked up the box reluctantly and tried my hardest to carefully peel the queen excluder off of the bottom, alone, which was an impossible task. The box weighed over 50 pounds, filled with mostly sweet honey and some brood, and the queen excluder was covered in sticky propolis that the bees use to seal the hive together. I was killing many bees and slapping them in the face with this flimsy piece of plastic, making them even angrier.
By this point, the clusters of attacking bees had grown immensely and there were over 20 bees in my veil. I couldn’t take it any longer. This all happened in under five minutes, so don’t think that I was patiently doing this with all of the bees swarming around my face. I shook my head, causing my hair to fall out of the bun tied loosely on the back of my neck. The bees, with no where else to go, flew into my hair. I believe the horrible sound of this and the feeling of tiny legs and wings in my hair and on my scalp is what made me finally decide to drop everything, quit my efforts, and run like hell towards the house and away from the hive.
I ran, finally breaking into a blood curdling scream as I leapt onto the porch and by the door to the farmhouse. I banged on the windows and threw off my veil, bending forward to try and shake the bees out of my hair and get them away from my already stung face and hands. I called for help and seconds later my dad was at the door watching this giant cloud of bees around my head and body. He yelled, “Go to the hose! Go to the hose!” and I obliged, feeling the painful and cold spray of water blasting my face, head, back, legs, and arms. The force was powerful enough, my arms and body shaking uncontrollably busy thrashing the bees off and my anxiety had finally set in, that I fell onto all fours in the driveway.
I had been screaming, which turned into sobs, and I felt the horrible feeling of my previously buried anxiety return that I had experienced multiple times in high school. I was instantly brought back to a dark hallway where I had broken out into loud, choking sobs and uncontrollable shakes before performing a dramatic monologue that would make or break my competitive speech career (all the while in front of my poor assistant speech coach who couldn’t have been much older than I am now). I was terrified of being stung, but mostly, I felt immediate and intense shame for messing up, for leaving the hive completely open and vulnerable, for being impatient to check them that week, for making stupid decisions.
My dad turned off the hose and I was soaked down to the skin, my hair clung to my red face and in front of my teary eyes, and I remained kneeling on all fours for several minutes looking at the drowned bees surrounding me.
In the end, I came out with minimal damage from being stung. I was more shaken up than anything. My parents were courageous enough to try and close the hive an hour later because we could already tell that a giant storm was brewing in the distance. They ultimately failed, with the bees swarming on them as well and another trip to the hose was made. They were angered.
We called all of our beekeeping mentor friends, which was surprisingly quite a few people, and I was so thankful when our friends Chris and Elanie of Welch Family Farms dropped what they were doing that evening to come help me put the hive back together. I was feeling so defeated and uneasy, but they encouraged me to put the veil back on and get out to the hive to fix the damage I had done. We geared up, a few hours after the initial attack, and smoked the hive plenty. They had calmed by then, knowing that their only protection from the rain was the one box I had left them. We peeled off the queen excluder (much easier with three people!) and put everything into its place. I explained my issues with the honey super and feeding the hive.
Chris, who has been keeping bees for several years, lifted my two deep hive bodies and guessed they weighed easily over 100 pounds, which was exactly what our bees needed to survive the winter. I was thankful. In his opinion, he told me to just leave them be and to not worry about the super. Another mentor told me to leave the super on. Another told me to leave the super off and keep feeding them throughout the fall. I ultimately went with Chris’ advice. I was done spending money on this hive, which I had already experienced a full loss with. I didn’t want to get back out there. I had given up, and I listened to many people side with me and feel my pain and others that made me feel incredibly guilty that I was just going to stop feeding them when they needed me. The guilt has been weighing on me for months.
It now appears that my decision was an okay one. I left them alone. I did not put the super back on top of the hive, and I have not fed them since August. Chris and Elanie made a stop to the farm a few weeks ago, and when they asked how my bees were doing I ashamedly said, “I don’t know.” I had not gone by the hive in months.
Chris told me to try lifting the hive up to see how much it weighed, if it was much different from this past summer, and to put my ear to the side of the hive or the hive entrance to listen for the colony’s hum. During one warmer and dry day, I decided to try just that. I placed my ear near the hive entrance where I could see several dead bees piled on the bottom of the hive. I figured they were all dead inside. But I heard it, quiet and steady, the hum of the cluster centered in the hive to keep the queen warm. They were alive! I carefully lifted the entire hive from the back and felt the large difference in weight.
I’ve decided to try again. In a few weeks when the weather warms to the 40s, I will feed them again and replenish their supplies. I will continue into the second year and hopefully figure out what mistakes I made in the past and how I can fix them.
I do not tell this story to seek advice or even to hear constructive criticism, though I know that I inevitably will hear it anyway. I tell it to share that I do not know everything, that I am still a beginner in both farming and beekeeping, that I am just an average person living across the pond from you on the internet. Maybe this story will make you think twice about diving into beekeeping and investing your money into this expensive hobby. Maybe it will make you honor the value of honey more than you did before. Maybe it will give you some insight and compassion for the hard things farmers have to go through and the impossible decisions we have to make. If anything, I felt that it was worthy of being shared.
Here’s to another year and another chance. I am so glad that they survived the winter! We will see if they can keep it up until I am ready to open the hive again.