Beekeeping for Eliza

(and other young naturalists)

 

Welcome. You may read my beekeeping book here (with drawings interspersed). Or you may click here for a pdf of the text to read on your little device. In either case, thank you. I would appreciate your drawings, if you feel inclined to make any. Email your comments or drawings to: jackmills@mac.com And for more information on beekeeping, visit my blog, Austin Bee Helpers.

Beekeeping for Eliza

(and other young naturalists)



“Bees at the Birdbath” illustration by Lan-Thach Kratzke


You called today, dear Eliza, to say that bees were in a big clump on a bush outside your house. You wanted to know what to do.

    First of all, thanks for wanting to help the bees. It was so nice to have you visit last month and stand with me while I did my spring hive check. I was very proud of you for not being afraid.

    You'll have to have a hive ready for next time a swarm appears near your home. I'm sorry that swarm got away. They don't stay too long, sometimes only an hour, so having your own hive ready is a good idea. I'll prepare one and get it to you soon.


    Are you reading about bees? There are lots of great bee books around, but a lot of them are for adults, and a lot of them say silly things about beekeeping.

It'll probably be better if I just write you what you need to know, and you ask questions along the way. I might ask you to consider making some drawings now and then about the things we write about.


    That clump of bees was a swarm. This word is both a noun and a verb, and most people think of it as a scary word. But a swarm of bees is a happy thing, actually. Bees swarm when everything is good, when they have lots of extra honey, and when Spring is full and rich.

    Swarming is the bees’ only way of reproducing, of increasing the number of bee colonies in the world. All life-forms want to increase their numbers on earth, and this is just the way the bees do it. It's probably what they most want to do their whole life.


    You know there is only one queen bee in the colony, and she is the only female who lays eggs. Mostly she lays worker eggs and a few drone eggs, but sometimes she will lay eggs for a new queen. (Workers are females and drones are males, but the colony needs lots more workers than drones.)

    When the drones are flying around the hive, you can spot them because they are louder and larger than the workers. They might alarm you buzzing so loudly and coming close to see who you are, but alarming you might be part of their job. They don't have stingers, though, so just smile and say, "Hello, you big, scary drone."

    There are usually thousands of bees in a hive, but only a few of them are drones, males. The hive is almost entirely females, all worker bees, but females who have renounced reproduction. Only the drones and the queen have sex, and only once in their life, when she is young. And while the queen is busy the rest of her life laying eggs day and night, the drones seem to just fly around, keeping track of everything that is going on, visiting all the hives, and getting fed.

    I don’t want to make it sound like the drones have it too easy. Yes, they are welcome at any hive, and they get fed without having to work making honey, but there’s a hitch. There’s a day in the year when the hive decides they don’t need any new queens, and so they won’t need any drones around to mate with the new queens, so on this day the drones are told to get out. It’s quite dramatic, this driving out the drones, and it makes you see that nobody in the hive gets a free ride.


    Anyway, in the Spring, if the colony is strong and full of honey, the queen may lay eggs for new queens in special queen cells made by the worker bees. When these eggs have grown into larvae (You know the four stages of most insects: egg, larva, pupa, adult? Larvae is the plural of larva.), the colony gets ready to swarm; and when these larvae become pupae, and the little queen cells look like there are soft caps on their entrances, the bees swarm.

    I hope you get to see a swarm one day. The air becomes thick and full of circling, excited bees, and there are so many bees in the air that the swarm sounds almost like a roar. The old queen flies out and lands on a bush or in a close tree, and thousands of worker bees follow her; sometimes half the bees in the hive go out to be with her in the bush.



“Swarm in the Tree” illustration by Eliza Balmuth


    No one knows how the bees decide which worker bees stay home and which ones leave, but the ones that leave and land in the bush never go back home to their old hive. They become fully committed to their new life in a new place, and even if the weather turns bad and the bees in the bush get cold and wet, they will not give up and return home.

    In a way, this sticking with the decision to leave even when things turn rough is sort of like devotion to a cause, or a call to duty, which are lofty, human ideals, or lofty, human concepts. The fact that bees do things like this that seem similar to lofty, human ideals or like they are making intelligent decisions has made bees the object of lots of scientific study.

    When science was young, and even until recently, scientists have not wanted to accept that any life-forms were as smart as we humans, not even in tiny ways. So the bees have had more study than any other animal species besides our own, mainly because scientists were trying to prove that bees are not intelligent and that they do not act out of lofty, human ideals. The motivation is kind of silly, but we do know a lot about bees now.

    Even so, we don't know how bees choose which workers go in a swarm and which ones stay home, and we don't know lots of other equally important things, but you and I can be open and observant and perhaps come to some understanding of the bees on our own.

    We know that when the bees are in the bush in a clump, they are looking for a new home. We know this mainly because they can't live very well or very long in a bush out in the open. Also we see bees going off and coming back, and we believe these bees are reporting on possible homes in the area, homes like mailboxes and abandoned cars and eaves of houses.

    I know as a beekeeper that they are happy when I come along. This might sound silly, but I know they’re happy to see me by how they treat me when I show up. I put a cardboard box under them, shake the branch they're on, or slide a big, soft brush into the swarm like I'm cutting a cake, and, Bam! The whole clump of them falls into my box, Whoomp!

    If I was holding the box while balanced on a ladder, I better be ready, because suddenly my box has several pounds of bees in it. They aren't mad either, at least they have never yet been mad at me for saving them. I think that they were hoping a good beekeeper would come along and bring them home to a proper, wooden beehive. Bees and beekeepers have been working together here on earth for thousands of years, so we can expect they know a beekeeper when one comes along.


    If I had several pounds of bees in a cardboard box, I would close the lid and take them home, making sure the box wasn't in the sun on the way because the bees don't have much air in that box, and the sunlight would make them too hot. (By the way, if the queen wasn't in that box, then those pounds of bees wouldn't be in that box, either. If she didn't drop in with the rest of them, they would have swirled out of there to find her.)

    When I got home, I might dump the bees out of the box into their new hive, or I might place the closed box in a cool, dark spot for a few hours. It depends on a lot of things, things like time of day, like how long I think the bees were on the bush, and how I feel the swarm feels.

    Things like this make beekeeping an art, to me, because we can't just say what we will do in every case before we see the particular situation. As a beekeeper, I learn to tell what the bees are feeling, and so these particular bees in the box might feel like they won't stay in my new hive if I dump them in right away. So I let them sit for a while in the dark. Maybe they get more used to being a colony shut up in that cardboard box together for a few hours, or maybe they just lose some of their wildness. Maybe they only just swarmed out the hour I arrived, and they hadn't seen enough of the wide world from their bush to miss being in a proper hive yet. A good beekeeper can feel such things, or pretends she can, so I pretend I can, too.



illustration by Kellie Bledsoe


    I always have to have a good hive ready for a swarm, if I want to call myself a beekeeper. When people see a swarm of bees in their tree they always try to call someone to come get them, and it's kind of a fun thing to do, to drop everything and scoot over to someone's yard to climb up a ladder and shake several pounds of bees into a box, so I like to be ready.

    When I get them back home, I have to have a hive that has a bottom (the bottom board) a main room (the hive body) frames with strips of beeswax (10 full-depth frames with 2-inch strips of foundation) and a lid (inner cover and telescoping outer cover).

    These parts I mentioned here are from a design named after a beekeeper named Langstroth, who thought the whole thing up about 150 years ago. It's hard to do better than his design, and easy to do worse, so I just stick with it. You can make the parts yourself, or buy them quite easily and assemble them, which is fun, too.

    Most of beekeeping is fun, unless you have too many hives, and you start trying to make money off of your bees. For me, ten hives start to become work, which is a serious word in our culture, or at least it's a word that seems to require the earning of money to go along with it, unlike the word “hobby.” So I try not to have more than ten hives.


    Though a swarm of bees in a new hive shouldn't need anything else to be happy, I like to feed them honey for a while. When the workers left their old hive, they were ready for a long, hard journey, ready to wait in the bush for several days and then be able to start making new wax honeycomb as soon as they made it to their new hive.

    They got ready for their journey by filling themselves with as much honey as they could carry. Bees are able to carry honey inside their bodies without digesting it; and they need honey to make wax honeycomb, which they need for storing the nectar and pollen and new bee eggs they'll need in order to start a new life in a new place. So when I pour the new colony of bees into their new hive, I make them extra happy by feeding them honey.

    One of the reasons I am writing you this book is because lots of other books say to feed bees sugar water or corn syrup, which is not nice, and is only done to save money. Bees may eat corn syrup or sugar water, just like you might eat a candy bar, but it is not good for them.

    A beekeeper always has some honey around from last season to feed the bees in the new season, and it feels like a good thing, giving the bees what other bees gave to you last year, and not being stingy, so I always feed them honey.



illustration by Lan-Thach Kratzke


    It is hard to give bees honey in a way that will not cause trouble. Honey is so wonderful and so valuable to life that everyone wants it, and anyone who smells it will try to get it, so your gift might cause a war if you're not careful.

    If there is open honey anywhere outside a beehive, bees and wasps and ants, all brother and sister species to each other, will battle to their death to claim it for their own colony. So you must not ever leave honey lying around. Who wants war? Instead, you will feed your bees inside their own hive, where they can move it to their honeycomb cells and cover it so the sweet smell won't waft around exciting everyone, and also to keep it dry.

    Honey is one of the driest things around, and it absorbs water from the air when it is left uncovered. It loses a lot of its greatness when it takes on moisture, so the bees work as fast as they can to get it moved and covered, or capped, in the cells of their wax comb. We should keep the lid on our table honey for the same reason.

    The easiest and safest way to give honey to bees is above their colony, in the space you can make by placing an empty room (super) over the inner cover of their hive. The outer cover (with the metal roof) then covers this extra room, and your honey, slowly oozing from an upside-down jar on a plate, can be licked up and moved downstairs by your bees without any warfare. (I am calling them your bees already, if you don't mind. I'm sure it won't be long before you have your own bees.)



illustration by Jake-Michael Balmuth


    A new colony of bees is a tender thing. Certainly if you bought the colony they will need a lot of help. A colony you buy is probably not even a colony, really, because what we buy usually is "package" bees, which are just a certain number of pounds of random bees taken from several colonies and funneled into a screened box. Inside this screened box is also placed a "manufactured" queen in a little cage, as well as a leaking can of sugar syrup.

    The queen in her little cage likely never flew in her life, even though she has been mated. Instead of flying high and mating with drones on a lovely, sunny spring day, this purchased queen was mated scientifically in a well-lit room, with the help of a keen-sighted technician.

    Another reason I called her "manufactured," if another reason was needed, is because she didn't grow from a proper queen cell. She started her life as an egg in a worker cell, and the technicians at the bee yard made the bees in her hive think that they had lost their own queen, so the bees there started feeding this worker the special food that changed her from a worker into a queen, a food we call "royal jelly."

    This kind of queen, grown this way in an emergency and starting out life in a worker cell, is never quite as good at being a queen as one who started out in a queen cell. Though she might look the same to us, the bees can tell the difference, as anybody would guess, and they will replace her with a true queen at their first opportunity. But when we buy package bees, those bees are happy to have any kind of queen at all with them there in their screened box.


    Buying bees like this may be considered rescuing bees, so it's something we can feel good about. You've taken them from a place that makes money off of the bees and their labor, and you are going to care for and nurture them as though their happiness mattered, because it really does to us.

    These bees will know something good has happened to them almost as soon as they meet us, by how we treat them on their first day in our care. When we receive them, though, in the mail or from the bee yard, they will have had a hard few days. These bees weren't expecting to be taking a journey, so they weren't full of honey when they were put in that screened box. And the only food they've had is that leaking can of sugar water, which is about as good for them as candy bars for dinner would be for us, so we should have some honey on hand for them.


    It is not like the bee yard could treat their bees any differently and still stay in business. If you and I raised bees for sale, and treated them better, and fed them honey, not enough people would buy our more expensive bees, so we’d go out of business. At least that’s what usually happens. So you and I can make our money helping people, or making things, and raise bees for fun. That way we can treat them right.

    By the way, we don’t have to buy our bees from a bee yard. Bees come to us naturally from the world. It’s just that when we are starting out, we don’t have the knowledge or luck needed to catch them. Buying them is much easier, and gets us started as beekeepers; and even though the money we spend supports a bee yard that doesn’t treat their bees very well, the bees we buy will be treated well once we get them. At least our new bees will get honey from us instead of having to eat sugar!


    Honey is so amazingly rich and complex, that for the bees it is food, warmth, and shelter all in one. They transform it into wax for the structure of their home, and they burn it in their bodies to make heat in the winter. The more you and I taste it over our lives, the more we appreciate the value of fresh honey, and the more we honor the gift we have received from the dear bees. And though commercial honey may all look and taste pretty much the same, our own honey from our bees will be very dark to very light depending on the flowers that were blooming that season in our neighborhood. And the taste! It is as though store-bought honey is not honey at all, in comparison, ours is so rich and fresh.

        Our new colony of package bees will need at least two quarts of honey fed to them over a couple weeks before they will be able to survive on their own. If you don't have honey from your own bees, try to buy some from a local beekeeper who sells honey on the corner or at the gas station. You know who I mean, a nice beekeeper who lives close by. Otherwise, try finding some for sale at the farmers' market.



illustration by Lan-Thach Kratzke


    You asked last night that I explain a little more clearly how we feed honey to the bees, so we should make a good drawing of that, of the beehive with the empty super on top, and the jar of honey upside down in that empty super.

    You also asked about the color of bees, and if some were darker than others.

    And you had heard that some queens were better than others, and wondered how.

    You said you had seen bees in your patch of bluebonnets, and that the bees had orange baskets of pollen on their legs, which is surprising since the flowers are all blue.

    You wondered if bees liked honeysuckle and we both thought the blossom was too long and narrow for their tongues, but that humming birds and butterflies would like them.

    And you wondered how close to the hive your water source had to be.


    These are great questions. They show me that you are already quite aware of important things like which flowers are friends with which animals. Thank you so much for being interested in how the natural world works! I hope your early love for understanding natural systems will lead you to become a steward of the earth, someone who shepherds animals and plants to be in their correct balance, and who teaches humans the importance of caring for the health of our planet. Being a steward feels a lot better than simply being a consumer of the world, so you'll feel better about yourself, too. Anyway, thanks.



illustration by Dalyce Burgess


    So, there are thousands of kinds of bees in the world. Honey bees are considered the most advanced of all the bees, mainly because their society, how they maintain order and cooperate to survive, is so organized and sophisticated. Honey bees are mostly yellow and black, with those that come from southern Europe being more yellow, and those that come from Russia being more black. Also, all honey bees get blacker as they age.

    They also get smoother as they age, though they are always somewhat furry or fuzzy. Wasps are very smooth, and more slender than honey bees, so if you see what looks like a bee, see if it is furry.

    Bees get a bad name from people who don't realize that what has just stung them is a wasp. You and I can stick up for bees by mentioning that bees die when they sting someone, so they don't do it without a good reason. Wasps can sting without any harm coming to them, and they sting quite easily, so most of the stings people get are from wasps, not bees.



illustration by Hannah Olson


    Yes, some queens are better than others, according to the bees. But there are two kinds of "better."

    One kind of better is the "true" queen versus the "emergency" queen. The emergency queen was grown in an emergency, meaning the bees suddenly lost their queen and had to grow a new one from a worker larva.

    A worker starts out its life in a horizontal cell, and its cell has the hexagonal (six-sided) walls you see when you see any honeycomb. A true queen starts out its life in a vertical cell with cylindrical (curved) walls.

    Apparently it matters whether a bee spends its youth vertically instead of horizontally, and in a hexagon instead of a cylinder, because when the bees want to change a worker larva into a queen larva, they immediately change the cell it was in into the curved, vertical kind.

    This emergency queen will be normal to us, but the bees will replace her as soon as they can with a true queen.


    The other kind of "better" is the virgin (un-mated) queen versus the established (egg-laying) queen.

    The first swarm that comes from a hive in the spring is led by the established queen. If we catch this swarm, they will much more likely stay where we put them and become a new colony.

    But sometimes a second or third swarm gushes from a hive a few days after the first swarm, and these swarms are led by a virgin queen who just emerged from her queen cell. This swarm may land in a bush, and we may catch it in a box and put it in our hive, but since the queen has not been mated, she still has to go out on her mating flight. This means she can be lost. A bird could catch her, or the weather could change, and the bees in our hive might all go out to look for her, so it is a risky thing, her having to fly out.

    Just so you know, when she goes out to be mated, the queen flies as high and as fast as she can, and she will only mate with drones who can keep up with her and fly as high as she does. This is pretty cool, and makes us think the bees have a strong connection to the sun and the light, with her flying up so high in the sky. (By the way, this is the "bees" part of "the birds and the bees." You'll have to ask your parents about the "birds" part.)



illustration by Eliza Balmuth


    You know, one way to tell if your hive has a healthy, working queen is to watch pollen going in the hive. Bees feed pollen to their growing young, so if they are bringing it in, then they must have young, so there must be a queen.

    You can see pollen pretty easily on the back legs of the workers as they return from their foraging. I should say that you may not see this at first, but you would see it if you practiced watching the bees at their front door.

    A good beekeeper sees most of what she needs to see just by watching the bees coming and going at their entrance, how they land, how they take-off, how the bees just hanging out at the opening move around and what they do.

    I would bet that, at first, if you sat and watched the bees flying in and out from their hive, you might not have any ideas of what any of their activity meant. You might only see movement.

    Bees are pretty small, and they fly about 15 miles per hour, which is about as fast as you could pedal a bicycle, which is fast for something that small. By the way, house flies, which only have one pair of wings, can fly twice as fast as bees, though bees can carry more weight with their two pairs of wings.

    Although I can tell by a glance from twenty feet away that everything is alright at a hive, I can only do this because I spent a lot of time up close, watching the bees. You'll have to learn this yourself, so you should probably have a chair set up near your hive and spend a little time there every day.

    You should either smoke yourself first, or wear your veil and hat, because the bees don't understand your interest right away. Wear a hat in any case, so the landing bees won't get tangled in your hair.

    Smoking yourself is better for them, and your view will be better since you won't have to watch them through your veil, but then you'll smell smoky for a while. It depends on your family whether you can smell like a brush fire in the house. I usually leave my smoky bee clothes on the porch to air out, and change clothes when I come in.

    People used to carry a smoldering branch or smoking piece of rope in their hands to work with bees. But you and I can use a very handy can with a spout and bellows, called a smoker, which we fill with leaves and light on fire. Working safely with fire and smelling like burnt oak leaves is fun, of course.

    Sitting close to your hive in your full bee suit, with gloves and hat and veil on is fun, because it feels like you are totally protected, like you are wearing a coat of armor. But if the suit is brand new, it might smell like the plastic bag it came in, or some other odd smell, and you might make the bees mad.

    The sound of mad bees is a good thing to learn. It turns out that the sound they make is exactly the sound that makes us want to move away from them. They beat their wings faster than normal, which makes the pitch of their hum rise about an octave, and they fly left and right and left and right near our head, so we know without a doubt that they are mad at us. I hope that, after you learn this sound, you will prefer to teach your bees that you are someone they should not be afraid of, and you will smoke yourself and your smelly new clothes (smelly to them). If they smell wood smoke on you (or burnt leaves or grasses), they will ignore you, or just think that you are their beekeeper. Then you can take your gloves and veil off (though not too abruptly).


    Learning how to move when you're near bees usually doesn't need to be talked about, because the bees are so obvious about what they mind. If you move at a normal speed, or raise your hand to brush away a mosquito from your face, the bees will react by flying toward the part of you that is moving too fast. They will probably hit that part of you without stinging, or land there, and see what you will do.

    A normal person will probably shake their hand to make the bee go away, or they will quickly try to brush the bee off. By doing this, you will have told the bee that you are not a beekeeper, and that you might not even be a friend. Since this is not what you want, you will have to practice moving slowly around them. They are very good teachers.

    Bees and beekeepers understand each other, pretty much. Though most commercial beekeepers are rough with their bees and have to wear their suits all the time, you and I are not going to be rough. We're going to smell like smoke, and we're going to move slowly, and the bees will treat us just fine.

    Mainly we have to get good at not killing bees while we have the hive open, because the smell of squished bees really makes the hive wake up. You can imagine that they know something is not good when they smell squashed bees, and that they would start to get a little upset. So we have to learn to move slowly and not kill anybody while we are lifting the heavy hive parts around.

    We should always have our veil nearby in case we mess up and drop something, because we'll have to keep working to put everything back to right while the population is protesting our clumsiness. I keep my veil tucked in the back of my pants above my belt.

    If we really mess up, we lower our head and walk away while pulling on our veil, and then come back, smoke ourselves, and finish the work. We should apologize, too, for causing trouble. It's not what we were trying to do.

    A stinger sticking out of our wrist or stuck on our arm smells, too. The bees know that someone from their colony just died stinging us right there, so that stinger will attract more stingers. As soon as you can, but not too fast, you should smoke the place where the stinger is, and remove it.

    They say you remove a stinger with one fingernail, and don't squeeze it with two fingers, because there is a little sac there that will empty more stinger juice into you if you remove it with two fingers. But I never see how to do it. I just grab the thing with my thumb and first finger like I would a sliver and pull it out. Then I smoke my fingers and the place where the stinger was.

    Since stings don't really hurt me that much or that long, I haven't had to learn any new way to get a stinger out. I swear that every time I have been stung, it was my own fault. I was either too fast or too careless. The bees don't sting unless they have to.


    Doctors say that about one person in a hundred is allergic to bee stings. This is good news, since it is quite likely you are not allergic. But if you are, a sting could be bad. A normal, backyard beekeeper like me gets stung maybe once a month, even if I never wear my gloves and veil, and the sting never really hurts too much or too long; but if you are allergic you could actually die from the swelling.

    You should know this before you invite your friends too close to your bees. It's your job to protect guests that visit your home, and unless they will allow you to smoke them, you should not let them too close to your hive.


    By the way, learning to get a smoker going, and learning to keep it going while not burning yourself nor setting fire to anything important, is a totally grown-up thing to learn. Many of the adults I teach find the smoker to be very difficult to light, and then they somehow let it go out when they are busy with the bees and far from their matches. This is not good. Sometimes you will need a smoker Right Now, and when you pick it up you will want it to be actually smoking, but this takes skill and attention. Like everything in life, working a smoker takes practice, and like every new thing, it can be fun to learn. There are a few things I can tell you that will make it easier, though.

    Study your smoker before you light it. Squeeze the bellows a few times (and unless it is brand new make sure you're outside, because an old smoker will still be stinky even when it isn't lit). Notice that the leather and wood parts do not touch the hot parts, that the air coming out of the bellows shoots across a gap and then enters the bottom of the fire chamber. That's pretty cool. That tells you how hot the fire chamber part of the smoker will get: hot enough to set fire to your bellows. So, of course, you'll never lean the smoker against anything or let it tip over in the grass. I hope your smoker has some kind of wire cage around the fire chamber for your protection. The more expensive ones do.

    The first time you light your smoker, you can't really blame yourself for how hard it was. But the second time you light it, it really will be somewhat your fault if it is hard, because every time you are done with a smoker you should make it ready for the next time.

    So, at the end of the first time you have it going, you should fill it with leaves or grasses, or whatever vegetative matter (dead stuff) is lying around where you live, and put the smoker in its can.

    Smokers live in big cans, usually cans that had popcorn in them, cans of popcorn that people get at Christmas time. It's fun to get these cans, because they come with one-third caramel corn, one-third cheese corn, and one-third salted corn. There's about four or five gallons of popcorn in there, so maybe by April it's empty, and you can use it for your smoker.

    Your smoker needs a metal can for a home, because when you're done with it, it's still going and hot. You open it (when you're putting it away), add some dead stuff (don't close the lid!) put it in its can still smoking, and put the lid on the can. Without the can the smoker will just burn and smoke all day and the stuff you put in it for next time will all be burned up. If it smokes in its big popcorn can for a while with the big lid on tight, it will put itself out by using up all the oxygen inside the can.

    The reason I said, "don't close the lid," was because the rim of your smoker will very soon be black and sticky with what is called creosote. Creosote comes from stuff you burn that did not burn all the way because it wasn't hot enough.

    When stuff burns with lots of air and the flames are bright and the fire is white hot, then there isn't any creosote left behind. But our smoker will mostly be burning poorly, so the smoke will have lots of stuff left in it that would have burned if the fire was hotter. This stuff is black and sticky, and it gets everywhere inside your smoker, but especially toward the lid and chimney.

    If you put your smoker away with its lid on tight, then the next time you want to use the smoker the lid will be glued on by the cold, sticky creosote. So leave your smoker lid off while it is in its big can.


    You know, when you are starting out learning a new thing, and you have to learn a hundred things before you even start, it may seem too big, too difficult to even begin.

    Here we were, talking about watching the bees go in and out, and I had to tell you about stings and pollen and cans of popcorn and creosote. But every exciting task is like this.

    If you wanted to fly a jet, you couldn't learn it by climbing in a jet and flying it. You'd learn it by studying, and then by pretending you were flying a jet, and then by sitting near someone while they fly the jet. It takes a while, but all the studying and learning is fun if the thing you're learning is what you want to learn.

    It is possible that bees could hurt you, and since we love you, we want you to be safe. It's also possible that you could hurt bees, and since we love them, we want to protect them if we can help it. But we know that your learning how to be with them will be good for you and good for them, too, so we (the bees and I, the world and I) are very happy that you are studying and learning this new thing, even if it is a lot to learn all at once.

    Thanks for wanting to learn. Learning new, difficult things, especially if these things will help the world be a better place, is what we should all be doing.



illustration by Lan-Thach Kratzke


    Back to the front door: what do you see? If the hive was dead you'd see the opening with maybe a couple ants on it, maybe some bits of wax from where some invading bee or wasp ripped open some cells to take the last honey. There would probably be a couple house flies, too. It would seem really quiet in there, almost spooky, and you'd know something was terribly wrong.

    If the hive was booming with life and activity you might see a bee party, where a batch of new bees is out learning where they live by flying in little figure-eight patterns, all facing the hive, landing and taking off again. A party like this lasts ten minutes or so, and then the new workers just go off and get to work finding flowers in bloom.

    When there's that much activity, it's good to try to see if anybody is fighting. As a beekeeper, we sometimes have to save a hive that is being attacked, by stopping the fighting. Maybe the hive was really weak and didn't have enough bees to guard the opening, which could be our fault because we left the door wide open when we should have put an entrance reducer in the doorway.

    Anyway, fighting isn't nice, so if you see lots of bees grappling (rolling around clutching each other) then you should probably try to stop it.

    The best way is to run pick a bunch of long blades of grass, run back and lay the bunch of grass in the opening so nobody can go in or out. You might have to tuck it in so it's tight. The invading bees will be confused at how to get in, so they'll give up trying, and the bees who live there will work their way through the grass and eventually clear themselves a path.

    Later, after everything has quieted down, you can put on a full entrance reducer, or just lay some rocks and sticks in the opening, so the hive only has to defend a tiny little space, maybe just an inch wide.


    If you watch a hive closely for more than a minute, especially in the morning, you'll probably see what you might think is two bees fighting, but it isn't. What you'll see sometime every morning is a healthy bee carrying out a dead bee.

    Bees are being born all the time in the hive, and so bees must be dying all the time, too. In the night some bees die, and in the morning the dead bees have to be carried away. If it's a cold morning, the dead bees may be piled up just inside the doorway, because nobody wanted to carry them any farther until the day warmed up a bit.

    It looks like fighting when dead bees are hauled away because you can see a bee struggling with another bee. It's a struggle because the dead bee is almost too heavy to carry.

    Maybe the flying one will drag the dead one to the edge of the landing board, and the two of them will fall off into the grass, which is far enough to carry a dead bee, but then the live bee has trouble separating itself.

    Bees have little hooks on their feet so they can hang together in a swarm, and these hooks are hard to unhook. So the live bee walks along in the grass dragging the dead bee behind it, trying to get the thing hung up or wedged on something, which is the only way it can pull hard enough to unhook the hooks and get free.

    Anyway it looks a lot like fighting. Actual fighting will never be just one pair of bees, but five or ten or twenty at a time. You'll know it!


    Bees don't want to die in the hive, because they know somebody will have to carry them off and waste all that effort that could have been used gathering nectar and pollen. Bees are strange like that. They really, really don't want to be a bother to their sisters, so during the day you can see old, beat up bees walking away from the hive.

    I have picked up such bees again and again and placed them back on their entrance, thinking they were lost, but they just turn around and walk off the edge again into the grass and keep walking. When books say bees have a "highly developed societal structure," this is the kind of thing they are talking about.


    When the bees land and walk into their hive, you can just glimpse them long enough to tell that there was color on their back legs. This orange or yellow or cream color is pollen. They actually have little baskets on those back legs, and with the help of moisture from their tongues, and also static electricity, they comb pollen off their bodies and pack it into these baskets, which we can see flash by if our eyes are quick enough.

    Like I said before, seeing pollen tells us that there are young bees growing in the hive, which is a good thing. But a lot of times you won't see any pollen going in, and you'll have to guess that they are either carrying nectar in or water.

    You asked about water. I see them at the water (my bird baths) at odd times, and not always when it's hot outside. I always thought that they carried water to the hive, spread it around, and used it for cooling off their home in the hot weather. The books say they do this, and I'm sure they do, but I see them at the bird bath in all kinds of temperatures, and then I don't see them at some hot times. So I think that they use water in the mixture they feed their young.

    They mix pollen and honey and water to feed their larvae, so when I see them at the bird bath, I am happy the same way I am when I see them carrying pollen, because I know there must be a queen laying eggs in the hive.

        I have three bird baths, and each one has bees at it when bees are at any of them. So bees go to all the places where there is water, probably just in case any of those places dried up. They don't want to ever be without it, so they go to all of them. My water is within a hundred feet of my hives, but I know my bees go to my neighbors, too.


    You may not know, bees can't swim. Worse than that, they get stuck in the water. When you're the size of a bee, water is different than it is for us. You've seen water striders, bugs that skate around on top of the water and never get wet? That shows you how strange water is, that it somehow doesn't allow small things to penetrate its surface. Science teachers call it surface tension, but it is why water makes drops of rain instead of just mist, and why a drop of water on the table doesn't just spread out flat.

    If you've ever removed a flea from your pet and tried to drown it by dropping it in a cup of water, you've had a surprise: the flea lands on the water and jumps out of the cup!

    My mom taught me to add a little soap to the flea water to get the flea to sink; the soap makes the water lose some of its surface tension so the flea can't jump out of the cup. Of course if you love fleas you'll want to get a dog or a cat just so the fleas will be happy. Me, I like dogs a lot more than fleas. Cats, too.


    It's funny that as soon as we start gardening or taking care of animals, we start choosing to keep some things alive and get rid of other things, like digging up weeds to plant flowers or like killing fleas.

    It seems to be our job here to support good things and stop bad things, in every realm, including our thoughts. Our thinking is a lot like a garden, and things (thoughts) are going to grow no matter what, so it's up to us to dig out the weeds and nurture the flowers.

    Anyway, we didn't make this beautiful place, but now that we're here we have to do what we feel is best. I sure know I don't like fleas. I do like dogs, though, and people, and I like bees. So I'll try to help them when they get stuck upside-down in my bird bath, when the water won't let them go, and their wings are beating, and they're zooming around like a motor boat with their legs in the air. I'll give them a stick to grab, or I'll let them grab my finger, and tell them to be more careful next time while they dry off. It's nice to save them like that.



illustration by Lan-Thach Kratzke


        Bees like to climb on wet things and get their drinks that way, instead of climbing down to the edge of the water where they might fall in, so if you put rocks in your birdbath, they'll be happier.

    They like wet doormats, too, especially the hemp kind, so after a rain you’d better watch your step.

    The birds and the bees have to get used to sharing the birdbath, of course, but they do. The bird lands, which startles the bees, so they suddenly fly straight up all around the bird, which isn't what he expected to see at the bath so he flaps and jumps straight up, but then they all settle back down together and do what they came to do. After a while they get used to each other, as you would expect, and stop being so skittish.


    Having bees around is better than you might think. Since they go everywhere, and since they are your bees, you start looking everywhere for them to see what they are doing. So you start seeing things you wouldn't normally see, like weeds blooming, for one thing.

    Bees like weeds as much as anything, so you'll start noticing bees in the milkweed or the agarita, which you never would have even cared about or known the names of before you had bees. But they like it, so you do, too.

    You start listening for them, too. Of course, the sound they make around their hive is cool, and you learn pretty quickly to pay attention when there's a roar coming from their direction, because you might be lucky enough to hear them swarm.

    Hearing a swarm take-off is almost as amazing as seeing it, and you really won't be able to describe what it was like to anybody without moving your hands and bulging your eyes.

    But you actually get good at hearing one or two bees humming, and the sound will make you stop and look, and perhaps see a sage in bloom that you might have missed, or look up and discover that your live oak is just singing with bees. And you'll wonder, "Why are there so many bees in the oak tree?" and discover that they are licking the outsides of little balls that are everywhere amongst the oak leaves, and that these balls aren't acorns; so you'll ask someone who knows trees and they'll tell you about gall wasps, and in studying about these wasps you’ll read that the wasps somehow make the outsides of the galls sticky and sweet to attract ants, and that stickiness is what the bees are licking.


    Your parents might tell you, I hope they do, that the more interested you are in things, the happier you will be. How do we get interested in things, then?

    Well, you're already someone who is thinking about bees, so you are already interested in things that other people aren't. What's cool is the more we learn about the things around us, the more interesting they become, and the more questions come to us that we want to know.

    Being interested in things is the first step in liking things. It's hard not to like someone or something when we start to learn about it (them), and the more things we know about the people and things around us, the more at home we feel, the happier we feel to be where we are.

    Anyway, that's how it is, and that's why it's great to take care of bees. They make you more interested in the world around you.


        At the front door of any good hive, there's a guard. Maybe two. It makes sense that someone is there checking credentials, making sure only authorized personnel have access to the vaults. What's fun for us is seeing how the guard does her job.

    The first thing you should notice is she looks mad. Now, some people think all bees look mad, but you and I can tell the difference between a bee just going about her business and a bee at the door checking papers. We see the way she holds her wings stiffly up and back, for one thing, like she's ready to launch herself at any suspicious target. There's something in her eyes, too, that gives the impression that she is not amused.

    She marches around on the front porch, spinning at every movement, suspicious of everyone and everything. She jumps on everyone who comes in, just in case, and then immediately gets off them to grab the next newcomer.

    How does she not know who belongs as they’re coming in, and then how does she immediately know after grabbing them? It is very quick, her telling that someone belongs there.

    Mostly it must be smell, which she couldn't detect until she had grabbed on. The returning bees must still have the smell of the hive on them, even after they've been out working in flowers, which is pretty amazing.

    We'll notice she also uses her eyes, and especially looks for bees that don't immediately land and walk in, ones that linger and act uncertain. She hates these bees, obviously, because she lunges at them and grabs them midair, and either the sheepish one speeds away or they both struggle together to the ground.

    If a bee wanted to rob a hive, then the best tactic would be to fly straight in and get to work robbing. The guard can’t grab everyone who comes in, so she especially looks for the hesitant ones. Luckily for our hive, robbers are never quite certain about the details of the entrance, and never quite sure of themselves, so they hesitate while checking it out, which gives the guard a chance to catch on to the plot.

    Seeing the guard, seeing that the hive has a guard, tells us that the hive is healthy, and that it has good morale. Morale is a thing we look for in a hive, because it is a thing we can find from watching the bees at the front door.

    Anything we can do to understand how well our bees are doing without actually going in their hive is good, because going in is not something they really want us to do. Though they love the sun and only come out when there is warmth and daylight, they live in a dark, sealed-up place. Our going in there has to be disturbing to them, cracking open their seals and letting in the daylight and the wind, so we only do it when there's a reason, and that's usually only when there’s something wrong.

    When there's a guard out front, and she is checking everybody she can and wrestling with every hesitant observer, we know the morale in the hive is good, and we don't have to worry about them. So if there's a guard, and especially if there is pollen coming in, too, then there's no reason for us to look inside.

    Every time we go in a hive, there is a risk we might hurt the queen; and though we might be curious to "see the queen," we really have to learn not to look for her. Let her do her work. Seeing the guard out front and the pollen coming in tells us that the queen is fine and everyone in the hive is in a good mood, so we leave them to their work, and just watch them from the front door.



illustration by Eliza Balmuth


    Really, unless we want to collect honey, we don't ever have to open up the hive. Having bees is almost as nice as keeping bees, and there's really nothing wrong with being a bee haver. The bees appreciate our gift of the fine, wooden home with the metal roof, and they like it that we don't let ants get in (by placing the hive on a special ant-excluding platform), and they wouldn't mind if we never went into their hive.

    There are colonies that live in trees year after year with no human assistance, and the world is better for it. So don't worry if you feel like you may not ever be able to go inside a hive. Just having bees is wonderful, and the world thanks you for your help.


        I should mention that there is a possibility of your receiving a colony that isn't happy with people. This wouldn't happen if you bought package bees, or if you gathered a swarm, because these bees would start out with you as a weak colony (not very many bees), and would come to see you as their friend and protector. But it's possible you could receive a hive from a friend, or someone might offer you some abandoned hives, and these colonies could be quite a serious thing.

    Bees remember what they don't like. When my dog, Azul, was young, he walked in front of a hive at a friend's home, then lingered there too long and some bees stung him. I could see him fighting them off, so I ran over and saved him by scooping him up in my arms and carrying him inside the house.

    I carried him through the house to the front door and then out to my truck to bring him home, but there in the front yard, hundreds of feet from the hive and on the other side of the house from where he was first stung, some bees came after him again. There was a party going on, and nobody was bothered by bees except him.

    A couple weeks later I brought him back, and he still wasn't welcome. I had to wait until the next season before I could bring him there without trouble.

    The hive you get from someone, especially if it had been abandoned, could have developed a bad impression of people. Perhaps the last beekeeper was rough, so they came to be afraid of him.

    Why would they be giving away a hive, anyway? Of course, there might be a perfectly good explanation; I'm just saying I never want to give away any of my hives. I won’t even sell my hives.

    Maybe they bumbled as a beekeeper and the bees turned against them, and they want to get rid of those angry bees. Who knows? Do take the bees, though, and don’t be afraid; just be ready with kindness, confidence, and a few tricks.

    The first hive I ever owned had been abandoned. I went along with an experienced beekeeper to pick up several hives on some rural property where the new property owners did not want bees. (I wish you could have seen the difference between how I looked and how he looked. I had the brand-new shiny white suit covering me head-to-toe before I even got out of the truck, and he had a short-sleeved shirt and no hat.) The hives we found were falling apart, and a few were just piles of beehive parts with no bees.

    Carlos (my friend the bee man) knocked on the hives like he was knocking on your front door, and then he'd skip away if there were bees at home. He laughed when they came gushing out and wasn't afraid at all, which surprised me.

    We found three colonies that were alive, so he took two plus all the old bee ware, and I took one. The one I took home had at some time been shot with birdshot (you could see the marks of the shot on the side of the hive). People had been mistreating those bees for a long time, and now they were mine.

    But they were strong. There were lots of bees in that hive (which was about two feet tall) and they did not like me. Being a brand new beekeeper, I never went near them without my full suit and veil and gloves, and they taught me that it was a good thing I did by beating against me, bam, bam, bam! with their bodies and bouncing off, every time I came near them.

    It was so obvious they hated me, standing there while they beat against me, it nearly broke my heart. But I had been reading about bees for years, and had an understanding for their feelings.

    They had been alone for a long time, without a keeper, and had not seen much human activity. Bees get used to us moving around them, and these bees needed time to get used to seeing me walk by.

    Also, I knew from how the hives looked that any time a human had come around them, it was probably to throw rocks at them or to shake the hive to make them come out.

    And, of course, they were Africanized bees, because this was central Texas in 1998. All bees that have been on their own for a year or more in Texas are Africanized, for better or for worse.

    Now, Africanized bees are a real thing, but they aren't that different from "regular" honey bees. Mainly they are smaller, stronger, and smarter. These are all good things, unless you are their enemy.

    You want your friends to be stronger and smarter, but not your enemies. And if a colony of these bees had been abused by humans, and then a person happened to bumble into them and then stand there waving their hands, they would probably be stung enough times to die.

    But I wasn't bumbling. And I had some ideas.

    For starters, I visited them every day. I didn't go in their hive, but just sat in a chair right near their entrance. Of course I was suited head-to-toe in my new bee suit, and of course they complained the whole time, but I wanted them to see me as something that didn't hurt, something large and white and gentle.

    (White is the color of beekeepers' clothes, and cotton is the material. I think both are chosen to calm the bee. If we wanted to make them mad we would wear red, wool, and leather.) I leaned back in my chair there smelling of smoke and talked to them. It took a while.

    I also hung one of my shirts in a tree. I took a shirt I had worked in, one that was dirty and smelled a lot like me, and hung it on a clothes hanger close to where they flew in and out. The shirt moved constantly in the breeze, had my scent, and never hurt them. Over time, I think it did the most to make the bees get used to me.

    But nothing really changed until Easter Sunday, five minutes before noon, five minutes before I had to go visit my in-laws (Barbara's parents): the hive swarmed.

    I had been ready for a swarm, I had read about it and had everything I needed to catch them. The sound was louder than I could understand, the swirling patterns in the air made me dizzy; it was all very exciting.

    The place they landed was not too hard to get to from the ground, and I could have reached them if I got my ladder and cut a few smaller limbs, but Easter dinner plans at a restaurant were more important (some day when you are married you'll understand).

    I realized then that the old queen in there, the one that didn't like me, had given up or given in and decided to escape, to get away from me, and she had picked the exact time that I could not retrieve her. Of course they were gone when I got back home.

    The best part of her leaving, other than my thinking she was smart enough to know about my dinner plans, was that she took all the angry bees in the hive with her. The bees that remained, and the new queen that took over, didn't hate me, and accepted me as their keeper, which meant that I stopped having to wear my gloves when I worked with them.

    Bee gloves are so thick that they make you clumsy and dull, which makes you hurt some bees accidentally when you work with them, which makes the bees mad, which makes you have to keep wearing gloves. By not wearing gloves, the bees became more comfortable with me (or I became more skillful with them), and I could take off my veil when I worked in their hive. Working without a veil in front of your eyes and not getting stung is the best!


    As for bees being smart, the most important thing I can tell you about them is that they are as smart as you allow them to be. I mean, they never disappoint you.

    When I first had them, I pretended that they would come find me if they needed me. So, if a bee came to me in the yard, I would say, "What's wrong, little bee?" and then walk back to see what was going on, and maybe find ants getting in their hive or some other thing I could fix.

    So it may not be that the bees know to go find me when they need something, but when I pretend they do, it always seems that they do. And thinking they're smart makes me like them more and respect them more, so it's worth it.


    It might actually be that they're super smart. A study I love to tell people about, because it's simple and because it's something we can try ourselves, is to lay a little bit of honey out in a field in a bowl and wait. When the first bee finds it, look at the time, leave the bowl and go home.

    The next day at the exact same time the first bee had found the honey (the previous day), put a little more honey in that bowl in that field, then go home. The third day, at that exact same time, go to the bowl in that field and there will be bees flying around that bowl waiting for your honey.

    That's pretty cool, but it gets better. New field, new time: put a little honey in a bowl in your field and notice when the first bee finds it.

    Next day at that time put a little honey in a bowl a hundred feet away from the first location. Third day at that time put a little honey in a bowl another hundred feet farther away but in that same direction. On the fourth day the bees will be waiting in the air yet another hundred feet further along in that direction at that time.


    And, of course, bees know when we are afraid. Since dogs know this trick, it's not so hard to believe bees know it, too.

    For some reason, fear is very attractive. Dogs and bees come closer when we're afraid of them. It doesn't make them angry, though, just curious.

    The trouble is, we're afraid of them, and our fear brings them closer, so we get more afraid. With bees we probably move our hands quicker or do something too fast that hurts some bees, and then they get mad. So then we run away.

    You may not understand what I'm about to say, but this fact about fear being attractive is one of the best things about beekeeping.

    At some point it seems that we get afraid of things, even without having a reason. It's almost as if our feelings want to test us to see if they are stronger than our thinking.

    So one day we'll be afraid of the bees, and, just like I said, we'll do something stupid, and they'll get mad at us, and we'll run away. Then our fear will seem to be correct, and we'll start to think we are too afraid to be a beekeeper anymore.

    But the bees need us to go back and fix what we did wrong. And then they need us every day to think about them and take care of them. We need to talk to our feelings. We need to tell our feelings of being afraid that we don't want them getting in our way, keeping us from doing what we want in life.

    In order to help the bees, in order to feel that we are in charge of our own life, we have to put our fear aside. And the bees help us see if we're successful.

    Learning not to be afraid of something is the most important thing we can learn. Sure, we can respect something, believe it to be very strong and perhaps dangerous, but let it stop us from doing what we think is best? No.

    When we get that afraid feeling about the bees, we smile and say, "I can wear my veil for a little while, I can wear my gloves for a little while, but I'm going to keep practicing. I'm going to learn to move slower, I'm going to think through what I'm going to do with them before I go out there, and I'm going to feel confident."

    After a while, after practicing feeling confident while we move more slowly, after studying more about bees and thinking how we want to work with them, we actually become more skillful.

    The bees are excellent teachers, and with their help we learn to take control of ourselves and let go of our fear. With their help we actually become able to do anything we set our minds to do. So we end up feeling thankful to the bees, and confident in ourselves.

    We end up being smooth and gentle beekeepers and anything else we want to be. And that's pretty cool.


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