Planet of the apiarists

Bees are fascinating. Before we got them, we were fascinated in the abstract. Now we’re fascinated in the backyard.

When you first install a package of bees, the colony is very vulnerable. You begin with ten or twelve thousand bees with a queen in a cage. The queen has already been mated, and is ready to lay eggs. It takes a few days for the bees to release the queen from the cage (by eating through the candy that blocks the entrance), and then it takes a few more for the queen to begin laying.

From there, it’s twenty-one days before the first new bees emerge. That means there’s a good month when bees are dying but not being born, and the population of the hive steadily decreases. Since there’s a great deal of work to be done – comb to be drawn, pollen and nectar to be gathered, brood cells to be capped – it’s a bad time to have dwindling numbers.

Kevin and I worry. We worry that the bees won’t like their hives, or that they won’t take to their queen, or that they won’t find sufficient food, or that they’ll simply fly away.

We also wonder. We wonder whether the queen has been released from her cage, whether the hive is coming together as a colony, whether there’s sufficient comb for eggs, pollen, and nectar.

We’re planning to open the hive for the first time tomorrow, to see if the queen is out. We’ll lift out at least one frame (to remove the queen cage), and we’ll get some idea whether everything’s going smoothly. In the meantime, we find ourselves spending a great deal of time standing by the hives, watching.

We’re reassured by activity, and try to make sense of just what the bees are doing. They fly up, and then out to forage. They seem to be evicting the drones (the male bees, who don’t do any of the hive’s work and whose upkeep is a drain on the colony). We were delighted to see that they’re coming back to the hive loaded up with pollen.

We’re determined not to make the amateur’s mistake of going into the hive too often, but we see how it happens. You want to know. You want to watch. You want to see how a colony forms, check the brood pattern on the frame, gauge how much honey they’re making.

We think a lot of our experiments have been interesting. Chickens are interesting. Mushrooms are interesting. Lobsters are interesting. Even tomato plants are interesting Bees, though, bees are fascinating.

14 people are having a conversation about “Planet of the apiarists

  1. Hey Tamar- have you read Jenna Woginrich’s first book, Made From Scratch? She writes about her first beekeeping experience, and her hive died because she didn’t release the queen. It took several weeks for her to notice the problem, and by that time there were only around 200 bees left. She found that the queen was not only dead, but still trapped in the box in which she shipped. Don’t want to worry you, anxious enough already, but you might want to think about letting her out….

  2. The couple of beekeepers I know are perpetually fascinated by their bees, and as the years go on (none of them are young now) they continue to find the whole process completely engaging. They speak about it like it’s a religious experience. They are also some of the most relaxed, contemplative people I know.

    Based on that observation, I think you guys and your hives are going to do just fine.

  3. Amanda — It is indeed.

    Mimi — We were so relieved to see her. It’s a sign our hive is functioning.

    Paula — I read Jenna’s blog, but I haven’t read her book. We’re planning on checking on our queen, and the discussion in our house has been about how long we ought to wait before we do. We put the hives in on Saturday, and the decision was to check our queens this morning. I’ll report back.

    Jen — I absolutely understand how people get absorbed by beekeeping. The way the hive functions as one organism, the division of labor, the communication protocols — it’s all so weird and compelling. We’ll see how we do.

    CS — I’m sorry you lost one. That seems to be a common experience, and we’re steeled for it. But good luck with your new one! I’ll be reading …

  4. Hi, Tamar. Good luck with your bees! My friend Laura Kelley, beekeeper extraordinaire, did a guest blog for me today which you might want to check out.

  5. Alexandra — Everyone should have friends who keep bees and write guest posts! Thanks for opening the colony collapse disorder discussion (anyone interested should go read it at Although it may well be that pesticides play some kind of role in CCD, it’s unlikely to be the only factor. For starters, we’re seeing CCD all over the world, in places that use lots of pesticides as well as those that use fewer. There are several viruses and bacteria that are also suspect. I also think it’s likely that, by breeding queens, which we’ve only done over the last 50 years or so, we may have homogenized the gene pool in a way that would render our worldwide population susceptible to a new infection or bug. Nobody knows the answer, but everyone should be asking the question.

  6. Tamar, I love your site and your writing, so lyrical! My queen was dead on arrival so I had to order an emergency replacement and introduce her very slowly. She’s unmarked so I can’t find her but bees are present so that must be a good sign. aaaahh such worry….

  7. Karen — Thanks for being such an appreciative reader! We thought one of our queens had died, but one of the veteran beekeepers who runs our local club came and took a look, and it turned out she was just a slow starter. Good luck with your new queen, and your bees.

  8. Have any updates on the beehives? This is my first year too, also with 2 hives. Really enjoying it. Might even have a little extra honey this year.

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