Tuesday, May 26, 2009

How to Install a Hive: 17.5 Essential Steps

Before you begin...
Contemplate the task ahead of you during some quiet time. If possible, sunbathe on a Williamsburg rooftop and listen to the happy buzzing of two successful, self-sufficient hives. Meditate on the insanely intricate, beautiful process that you helped to enable on this rooftop. Imagine yourself walking through the same motions... bee tea, hive construction, the big dump... thousands of bees swirling dizzily through the smoke and into their new homes.

The following steps are presented in the order that I should have performed them, in hindsight. No need to confuse you with the beetails (/bee tales! double entendre pun!)

Step 1: Order bees. Mine came from New England Bees, aka this dude's house in Tyngsboro, Mass, about an hour from Boston.

Step 2: Order your hive materials WAY before you want them. I did not do this. Luckily, the good women at Bee-Commerce in Weston, CT (another garage-run business) were able to hook me up with some unassembled hives at the last minute.

Step 3: Assemble brood box using wood glue and nails.
Step 4: To protect the hive from inclement weather, prime and paint. Allow the latex-based paint to dry for at least 3 days. Beekeepers seem to all have conflicting theories about painting hives, therefore I opted for thrift and used the leftover paint from our shutters.

Step 5: Pick up your bees.
Step 5(a): Don't freak out about the 20+ bees that will be clinging to the outside of the screened box holding the bees (or "the bee jail," as my sister calls it.) They'll keep hanging on and will most likely leave you alone if you give them enough (but not too much) air from the windows. Feel free to take dangerous photographs on the highway during this step, as I did in an attempt to capture a unique moment in time from my perspective. Note the two stray bees chilling on the back window; they were my muses.
Step 6: Put bee jail in a cool, dry place (like a garage) and spray with water. Let the girls relax after the long journey.

Step 7: Assemble frames.

Step 8: Slip beeswax foundation into place in frames and affix. As an alternative, you can use starter strips, which allow the bees to build their own wax foundation.
Step 9: When the forecast is clear, prepare to install the bees by grabbing your bee tea and gathering dried leaves and sticks for your smoker.
Step 10: Smoke the girls to mask the alarm pheromones emitted by guard bees.
Step 11: Remove 2-3 frames and put the bee tea feeder (glass jar with holes poked in top) in the brood box. No. 2 pencils elevate the feeder just enough for the bees to crawl beneath and suck out the sweet nectar.
Step 12: Pry open the lid on the bee jail. Hold on to the strip while loosening the feeder can.

Step 13: Carefully remove the feeder can. Be careful not to drop the strip; it holds the queen's box. If you drop it, you'll have to fish through thousands of bees to retrieve it.

Step 14: Remove the queen's cage and blow the bees off to ensure she is present, alive, and separated.
Step 15: Convince another person to help you remove the cork from the opening of the queen's cage. Promptly stuff the opening with an edible plug, such as a marshmallow or raisin. (Note: Dads and boyfriends are good candidates for assisting with this task.)

Step 16: Hang the queen's cage on a frame in the hive. Then gather up your courage, relax your body, and think positive bee thoughts. (ex: bees are my friends.) Lift box, and dump contents (bees) into the brood box with a shaking motion. Aim for the center, near the queen.
Step 17: Cover the brood box and leave the hive alone for a while. The bees need to do their thing, and too much human contact, especially in the formative days, could impact the hive's overall health and efficiency.

That's pretty much it! Assembling the hives is time-consuming but straightforward. Dumping the bees is intimidating but magical.

Finally, some Do's and Don'ts, complete with photographs:

DO think like a bee. Consider the fact that your hands may be covered in bee tea, and let them nibble freely and without fear.
DON'T dump the bees on the ground instead of the brood box. If it feels awkward, chances are it's awkward.
DO experiment with bee attire. You'd be surprised what "works" for you:
DON'T wear flip flops, as the bees (that you just dumped on the ground) can crawl beneath your foot, restricting movement entirely and inciting mild panic.
Thankfully, Eliza helped me maneuver out of this situation. Ironically, she subsequently stepped on a bee and was stung.


  1. AnonymousMay 28, 2009

    I grew up in South Africa, where my father kept bees as a hobby. We wore coveralls, a hood, boots, and thick gloves, and were still consistently stung every time we harvested honey or performed maintenance tasks that required opening the hive. I guess that is why they are called "killer" bees.


    You're doing a great job chronicling your experience. Thanks.

  2. AnonymousMay 29, 2009

    Ignorance is bliss. Don't wait until you've dropped a full honey super (+/-75 lbs) on your foot before you get some proper footwear and please for heaven's sake at least get a veil on over your head! Bees, when aroused to protect the hive, will go for anything shiny, like your eyes!

  3. I learned my lesson the hard way, as you can see from my latest post (multiple stings on head.)

    I wouldn't want to handle those killer bees... I think they were introduced to the southwestern US as an attempt to combat CCD. They sound intense!