Guest writer, Cathy Jacks, finds out how to start your own bee-hive in a very steep learning curve, and shares the rookie bee keeping mistakes she made along the way so you can avoid them.
On a blistering spring day two years ago, I caught my first and only swarm of bees, just weeks after completing a short beekeeping course. What happened next still saddens me, two years on.
My Beginner’s Mistakes as a Fledgling Bee Keeper
Walking home from swimming at the beach with my two children, we stopped on the footpath and sat down with another family we knew to eat lemonade ice blocks. One of their children said they had seen a swarm of bees fly past and settle on a branch in a nearby wattle tree only a few minutes before we’d come along.
According to my course notes, bees local to the area were genetically more diverse and therefore had better native resistance to disease, so this swarm had more chance of survival in my garden than bees bought from a retailer.
My children and I quickly walked home and we all changed into long sleeves shirts and pants before finding a cardboard box and driving back to the wattle tree with it. My son (who was seven years old at the time) bravely helped me to hold the box just under the swarm, which was only a couple of meters from the ground, while my four year-old daughter watched on.
I hit the tree limb hard with a heavy stick until the swarm dropped easily into the box and we closed it up loosely.
I trusted what I’d heard about staying calm around bees and interfering with them as little as possible. It was only a two-minute drive and once home, I placed the box in the spot where the hive was going to go.
Bee wrangling mistake #1: I hadn’t set up my hive before finding the swarm.
I called Tim, my bee whisperer, and he told me I needed to set up my hive straight away and get the swarm in there. It was around midday and I had until dark, he said. Roughly six hours.
He sold me two hive boxes, a roof, quilt box and bottom board. On the way to pick them up I made a pit stop at a wood-working business where a fellow beekeeper was manufacturing top bars en masse, and picked up enough to fill four boxes – I would pick up another two boxes from Tim in the future – and some tiny nails.
It was reassuring to see four beehives teeming with bees on the warehouse roof-top.
I asked my husband to pick me up my final ingredient for the ideal bee habitat – flat sheets of beeswax and a length of candle-wick.
I arrived home with my materials and the candle making materials were dropped off. I chopped the sheets into 2 inch strips and using a pure beeswax candle I made by rolling a sheet of wax around a length of wick, I stuck the strips to the top frames I had nailed together.
I also had a piece of calico I sewed into a quilt bag which I filled with straw and cut another square piece of calico the same size as the hive box.
By now it was late afternoon and my bees were buzzing loudly. Although I hadn’t sealed the cardboard box up completely so as to not stress the bees, they were starting to complain, and I don’t blame them. I placed down my bottom board and my two hive boxes (filled with top bars fitted with strips of beeswax sheets so the bees would build straight comb) next to the cardboard box full of bees.
This is where I made my next blunder.
Bee wrangling mistake #2: I decided to move the bees.
The cardboard box was placed in a corner of the backyard facing east, but my food garden and fruit trees were in the front yard, so even though they had been there for several hours I decided to reposition the bees at the front.
What happened next is still unclear, but I now believe I may have left the queen behind in the move.
Bee wrangling mistake #3: I decided to smoke the bees.
Because the bees were buzzing so loudly, I thought my best option was to smoke them. The bees did not seem to enjoy being smoked out – albeit, lightly – and I know now that spraying them with water would have been a better option.
A small piece of comb they had already been building was stuck to the top of the cardboard box. It was white and beautiful. Perfectly symmetrical hexagonal-shaped comb was a good sign that the queen had been around.
Without knowing it, the move was disastrous and she may have slipped out of the box through a gap. I opened up the hive and attempted to tip the swarm in, but the more I tried the more I seemed to disturb them and only some dropped into the hive.
Many list of bee keeping mistakes was spiralling out of control.
Bee wrangling mistake #4: I didn’t tap my box of bees on a hard surface before opening the box and tipping them into the hive.
By this stage there were bees everywhere and their buzzing sound was at fever pitch.
I used my gloved hands and attempted to scoop up the bees and place them at the entrance of the hive. The rest of my travails were futile and within half an hour the bees were gone.
I looked out my back door and saw them piled in a large heap on the grass in the backyard, exactly where the cardboard box had been originally.
I moved the hive next to the pile of bees in the backyard and thought they might decide to move in after all. I could only think of how rare it was to find a swarm of bees near my house and how unlikely it was to find some again that season. Within the next hour, those bees disappeared.
I waited all spring and well into the summer. I tried to attract a swarm to my hive with a bee lure.
The seasons passed and so, too, did the year.
Swarms of bees are rare and seeing bees in my garden is becoming increasingly less common, so three weeks ago I bought a box of bees.
I’m pleased to report they are doing just fine.