Opening a hive

My brother, dad, and I recently drove two counties over here in our homestate of Texas to pick up 8 local bee hives. The bees and their honey will form the backbone of our "artisan" product offering to our market-garden customers, and are a welcome addition to our current stock of sweetless produce. The adventure of picking them up was a success, but not without a fair share of trouble. The easiest way to minimize the hassle transporting bees is by performing the task at night when they are sleeping in their hives. We chose a moderate evening to move them.

"Summertime is when we transport our bees," Dad mentioned, referring back to his days as a beekeeper on his family orchard. Of course, the weather in Washington State was different than Texas. It is imperative that bees be transported at 50 degrees above Farhenheit, since bees tend to cluster at temperatures below 50, and when the hive is jarred on the journey to a new location, the clusters began to break apart, and the bees die. I would have enjoyed transporting during a Texas fall evening, but at least that night, Texas experienced a surprisingly low high of 85. A moderate wind also gave some relief to the chore. 


Frames full of bees

We arrived at the property where a first set of hives were kept, and unload our trailer and my brother. His task was to collect all the empty bee boxes, and dead hives he can pick up. Dad and I continued on into the night to a property where the remaining hives are.

We placed the most important tool for transporting bees, a smoker, behind us in the truck bed. If you ever have to light a smoker and travel to where the hives are, it is a good idea to pack even more fuel for the smoker then you anticipate using. In our case, the wind blowing through the bed burned through fuel out quickly. When we arrived at the location, we decided to attack the hive without the smoke. 

The hushed rustle of a thousand wings emerge from the inside of the box. That is the sound is the winged creatures during their sleep. The pioneers had their homes built for them, but they were the ones that carved a place on the land, collecting pollen, and building stores of honey in comb.

Four of the hives have not survived the year, and so they are quickly loaded onto the truck. The front lights fork into the grass, and illuminate our large, netted hats, as we head out to grab the "live" hive. Our gloves are slaked with sweat. We formulate a plan for moving the hives while dad secured the hive boxes together with a staple and hammer. It is best to secure the hive boxes several days before the move, since the bees do not take kindly to someone hammering on their home in the middle of the night (and who wouldn't!). Soon enough, the hammer's pounding made us wish we had not run out of smoke! 

The hive began to stir as we reached underneath the shallow crevices at the bottom of the box. The hive creaked; it was weighed down by the the bees, and the full honey combs they have stored over the course of the season. Later we find out that this is the strongest, most menacing of the hives. 

As their home became airborne, The bees begin to swarm out in droves, colliding into our protective clothing and helmets. We stumble sideways, bearing our cargo to the lowered tailgate of the truck. As soon as our cargo is deposited, it is a race to get away, and dive into the tall grass.

At that moment, every single killer bee documentary I watched flashed through my mental theater. If I could advice my younger self of anything, it would have been to never watch those National Geographic specials! The do not make the process of collecting bees any easier.

It did not get any better when I found I had not secured my helmet correctly, and two bees had slipped inside the netting. I retreated (although it appeared more like a route), and slipped the helmet off as I did, batting the bees away. I definitely would have benefited from having my dad check my gear. Thankfully, no harm was done. In fact, I survived the night without a single sting; my brother suffered 5; my dad, 3. 

It took 20 minutes for the hive to settle down so we could approach it again. When we finally did close the truck bed, the guard bees were still whacking into our clothes. Another 20 minutes, and we were off toward the first set of hives.

We made it back, the dead hives were on the trailer, and safely secured. It is always a good idea to secure the hives with straps during transport. Even with the weight, the hives could topple, and the disorganized swarm lost.

Lifting a frame

The hives at the first location were more easily loaded. Our smokers were loaded, and the smoke they produced was thick. Many people have the notion that smoke somehow puts the bees to sleep. This is not true.

The bees sense of smell is their most powerful sense, and smoke masks the bees alarm pheremones. Smoke also triggers their flight instinct when faced with natural fires. The bees retreat back into the hive and fill up on honey in case they have to move their hive to a new location. For us, it was a matter of minutes before we had moved each hive onto the back of the trailer. The final ropes were attached around the live hives and we headed for home. 

While in transit, the hives' weight already did their bit to slow our vehicle down, but it is worth noting that continued jarring will not help keep your bees calm and inside the hive. It is best to travel well below the speed limit and keep a slow, steady pace. The vibration of the engine will keep the bees quiet. 

Home for our bees was not on our land. We still haven’t prepared for the bees, so for now, they wait on a friend’s land, while we build a permanent platform. Unloading the bees required only smoke, and by then it was 4 AM. With our charges on a makeshift platform, we departed to the comfort of our beds.

Once we get our bees on the land, I'll check back in and share some more about maintaining hives..

Thanks goes to Robb Wokaty for input on some researched points.

For more info on how to get started with Beekeeping, check out Beekeeping for Beginners.