Some beekeepers come from a long line of beekeepers that go back centuries. Not me! I stumbled into beekeeping. It wasn't planned, no profound lightning bolt, no epiphany. It happened like this...
In 1989 my wife, three girls, and I moved from the suburbs of Toronto to a farm. Despite the years of neglect, the old Victorian farmhouse still held its charm and character. We were drawn inexplicably to the old place. Three years later we would learn that the land was purchased in the late 1870s from the Crown and homesteaded by my brother-in-law's family, the Fairbarns. To my brother-in-law, this was home. He passed along quite a few stories told during his childhood about the old place. The red bricks for the house were fired in Mount Albert Ontario and hauled by oxen to the present site, fights in the attic when beer flowed a little too freely, snakes in the cistern and the basement and other family lore.
Unfortunately, the 1970s were not kind to the old place. New owners had acquired the property and they set to work erasing the Victorian charm in favour of the simple 70s look. We have committed significant time and money to undo the damage. The trials and tribulations of restoring this old farmhouse to its former state is a whole different story ... for another time.
Now, back to the bees. Completely exhausted from the move, I had left an old gym locker leaning up against the barn with the intention to move it into the barn.
Over the summer a little squad of honeybees, moved in. Bees are prolific creatures and multiply exponentially. The little squad was now a full division. Of course, this was only discovered when I opened the locker. I was greeted by thousands of surprised and somewhat anxious bees. My instincts kicked in - I was in the wrong place at the wrong time! The high pitched sound, a boiled kettle makes when it reaches it's top end, confirmed it. I pulled back. Slowly shut the door. Took a breath. That summer the honeybees lived comfortably in their newly acquired all-metal safe and secure tiny home.
As summer rolled into autumn I made it a mission to read about the behaviour of honeybees. I learned honeybees will rob from other hives in the fall when their own hive honey draws short in supply. I traced the path of the bees by watching their flight paths and soon discovered more honeybee colonies in the back fields harboured in a couple of old pine boxes. The poor condition of the boxes were the result of years of neglect from the previous beekeeper. The laird of the land could have been a slum landowner or he could have been just an old guy quietly retiring from farming with no one to carry on the beekeeping tradition. The sun-bleached old wooden boxes, (from my readings I soon found out the right term is Super, honey Supers) were cracked, crumbling, and listing badly like a ship slowly sinking below the surface. It was obvious that within a few more seasons the wooded supers would completely rot and return to nature.
I mustered up the courage to poke my nose inside.
I found two surviving colonies. They huddled in the top layers of each super. The decaying boxes looked like an inner city, multi-tenant building with comb crammed between the remains of milk snake skin and multi-generation mice nests. The wax foundation reeking of years of pest abuse. For the mice it was heaven. They lived in the middle of a Laura Secord candy shop. An army of ants were too busy manning a golden super highway to notice me. Their honey bucket brigade weaved up the outside wall of the hive, through a crack, and disappeared inside. The insect highway in effect was two lanes - one lane busy taking honey to their nest and the other going back for more. The ants marched in the direction of the old cedar-rail fence. The little bandits disappeared in the tall grass along with pound after pound of my honey!
Correction. It was still the bee's honey. I was merely an observer. I had yet to earn the right to lay claim to the honey. So despite the ghetto-like living conditions of the crumbling pine boxes/supers and all their natural enemies (skunks, snakes, mice, raccoons, and ants), the honeybees had survived! But, it was definitely time for a little home improvement intervention. I could hear Mike Holmes in my head saying "rip it all out, it all goes". Besides, the old apple orchard could certainly use a shot of support to help pollinate the ancient fruit trees.
I set out to build new bee digs. By taking the dimensions from the old slum boxes, I built new pine supers, lids, and bottoms. The next step was more difficult. How do I round up the Honey bees and transport them to "Casa Blanca", their new home.
With considerable anxiety (and a promise to chase the event with a stiff scotch, ok, two) I donned my brand new, signature white, bee-stinger-resistant coveralls, mesh netting, pith hat. I set out to move the bees.
I had read bees are easier to handle at night. So, the relocation action was planned for 2300 hours. I seconded my wife into driving the getaway car. The plan was quite simple. I would spray sweet water onto the bees. While they were busy licking up the honey water I would scoop them into a cardboard box. Then I would shake them out ever so carefully into the new bee boxes. Any sign of trouble, I could fallback and dive into the panic room - the back seat of the Buick and shut the door.
In hindsight the plan was flawed. It made little sense.
My wife would be exposed to the angry bees chasing me at the speed of sound right into the car. She would undoubtedly suffer the rage of the angry, unruly female bee mob. I, in turn, would suffer her rage! Yes, female. This is not a sexist remark. Only the female honeybee stings. I might add a bit of trivia here, in the fall the female bees kick all the male bees out to freeze claiming there will not be enough food over the winter for every-bee-body.
So, with the headlights of the old Buick shining on the bee hives I cautiously made my move. First, I anointed them with the sticky syrup. The bees appeared distracted. While the bees were busy licking the sweet syrup, I picked up the old super, flipped it upside down and shook the bees into the cardboard box. The intensity of the hum of the bees jumped a few decibels. Closing the lid to the cardboard box, I then carried the twenty pounds of bees to the new supers. I had only one thought as I fumbled my way in total darkness, don't drop the damn box! With stone cold determination and with my hands frozen to the sides of the box I made it across the field. The long shadows cast by the Buick's headlights added more drama to an already thick-with-suspense situation. The only thing missing from this drama was a string orchestra playing Beethoven's fifth!
The bottom of the cardboard box slowly started to collapse under the weight of the bees. I couldn't see the new brood box in the shadows. I could only hope to be right on top of it. At that moment the bottom of the box opened like bomb bay doors and dumped its payload of bees! My heartbeat in my helmet was drowned out by the buzzing of thousands of excited bees. I could feel the electrifying buzz of bee bodies through my gloves. It was both exhilarating and disconcerting. The bees offered some resistance as I poured them into the supers. It was not an angry sound. It was more like "hey man, what's happening?" The bees were surprisingly content just licking the sticky sugar water I had tactfully placed in their new home. They calmed down. I put the lid on the bee hive. My breathing slowed, I swaggered to the car and casually sat down. Hey, I got this! I thought to myself. We couldn't help but grin as we drove back through the fields to the farmhouse. We had done it! Success!
Thirty some odd years later, our beekeeping operation has endured the up and down afflictions of nature and it is going strong. I have read considerably more on beekeeping. I have taken some formal education as well. Quite honestly the most valuable understanding came from the old fashion way of jumping right in and learning from experience. I try to take my queues from the bee's behaviour and their language. Yes, language. The sound a bee makes can speak volumes.
I have made more than my share of mistakes. I humbly take on the role of bee custodian. I am certainly not under the delusion that I am landlord, overlord, laird or master. The bees do not hesitate to dole out punishment whenever boundaries of tolerance are crossed. I have been stung, pooped on, and stung countless times more. But, one can hardly blame the honeybees. They raise their barbed, parting salute as the last gesture of defiance when I accidentally sit on one, squish one under my armpit, or crush one against my belly when carry a seventy pound Super.
All these, I might add, were painful lessons and invariably all my fault!
We have recently moved closer to our extended family in the Ottawa valley. To a gem of a town called Merrickville. Our passion for helping to sustain our Ontario honeybee population continues and the satisfaction of beekeeping continues...