As a beginning beekeeper, I supposed I could have taken the easy road and purchased a colony from a beekeeper, shipped in a nifty screened box and complete with queen. Or, I could have found a docile swarm hanging from a branch to shake into my hive. That’s what you think of when starting out with beekeeping. You want easy and simple to start out with. Less complications and trouble. After all, it’s a steep learning curve and you want to be able to concentrate on tending your bees and the simpler the acquisition process is, the better, right? Well, as my wife is so fond of telling me, in not so many words – when it comes to doing things, I wouldn’t know easy if it slapped me in the face. But then, that has certainly made life interesting and exciting for me. My first bees didn’t come in the mail or from a docile swarm – but was ripped out of a wall, a form of bee removal called “cutout”.
I got a call from a co-worker who informed me that my boss’s son had bees in his wall. Well, I’d been waiting for nearly a year for a swarm and haven’t got any calls except for a cutout opportunity that I missed, sadly. I really didn’t want to spend $60-$100 for a mail-order colony plus shipping if I could help it, and beekeepers in this area are kinda scarce, or I just don’t know where they are yet. After hanging up the phone, I thought for a second. A swarm is easy. No suit required. And… I had no suit, which made it even more ideal for me. Cutouts are a lot of work and a suit is definitely a Good Thing. Waiting is for the birds – it’s time to jump in.
I discussed the bee thing with my boss’s son – I want them bees, don’t kill them! And he agreed! Okay, I’m committed. Time to get my gear together because I’m going to be doing some demolition and making some bees mad! First step – a suit. I had a few choices but not a lot of money to spend so it was a matter of going back and forth for a bit. The folks over at Organic Beekeepers Yahoogroup helped enormously tho and I ended up buying an English style suit from Dadant & Sons, along with a pair of gloves. For regular hive maintenance, I can always get a standalone veil later on. As per recommendation, I chose specifically the cotton/poly suit rather than the nylon suit – it gets hot here in Texas and the cotton/poly breaths much better.
If you get a suit, do yourself a favor and measure your chest to make sure you get the right size. A little too big is better than too small because the suit is all enclosing, so breath in deeply when your chest is being measured. I opted for the X-large, and it fits pretty well. A touch snug at the shoulders but I have very wide shoulders.I’m not sure why, but I only got Large gloves rather than X-Large. They are just a little too small for me but work fine – my wife will inherit them when I buy the next size up later on.
I love the suit! It fits rather well and the English style veil is very roomy. I wore a ball-cap to keep the veil off of my face, but really didn’t have much of a problem with that. Some people recommend safety-pinning the back of the ball-cap to the material of the veil, but I didn’t and didn’t have any problems – tho your mileage may vary. Trying the suit on ahead of time is prudent. After all, on bee-day, you don’t want any surprises. My oldest son took a look at me and asked what I was wearing. My wife couldn’t resist, “Birth Control”. Yep – the suit is definitely not something you’ll wear on a date, but you know, when I’m surrounded by 20,000 bees, I’m not too worried about looking sexy.
Next up was a smoker. I ordered the basic 4×7 smoker with the wire-shield. That seems to be industry standard. For fuel, I opted for some brown packing paper as the starter, well wadded in the smoker, and pecan sticks as the smoke source. I have a pair of good pecan trees that has blessed me with an endless supply of good dry sticks scattered about on the ground. I musta looked like a squirrel out there picking up sticks and breaking them. I chose sticks that were small enough to fit thru the nozzle so I could refuel it without having to open it, and I filled up a small box. Better to have more than you need than not enough.
Stringing the combs onto the top-bars are a definite challenge. I vacillated between several ideas from forming chicken-wire cages to strings with Popsicle sticks and finally settled on simple – three strings per comb. I bought some thumb-tacks and tacked three of them on the top of each top-bar for about 20 of them. I figured if I had more comb than that I could run around in circles and scream like a little girl. That works for everything else. I purchased a couple rolls of regular 100% cotton string from the local hardware store – the kind you’d tie boxes closed with. It’s not a particularly strong string, but was perfect for the job. I had tried to get butcher’s twine from Wal-Mart, but they just gave me a blank look when I asked about it, and no amount of searching turned any up there.
Other items include a 7.5″ breadknife – which is perfect for cutouts and also as an impromptu hive-tool, a bee-brush cause you know – cutting out bees really messes with their hair-do’s, a lighter for the smoker – one with a long snout is really handy, and I couldn’t pass up a neat multi-purpose scraper which is useful for scraping remaining wax from the cavity of the cutout as well as other miscellaneous tasks. I also included several rags and a little packet of medicine for bee stings in my little bee-kit. And I can’t leave out the ubiquitous buck-knife and a pair of scissors. But most important in my kit, the tool that saved Apollo 13 and holds most of the cars and riding mowers in this area together – a roll of duct tape. Life isn’t the same without my duct tape.
I don’t have a proper bee-kit toolbox. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one, but I can imagine what it’d look like. However, that’s a future wood-working and steel project. Until then, my bee-kit toolbox is the universal toolbox – a 5-gallon bucket. You can’t have too many 5-gallon buckets and I’m happy I had one handy for this project. I also found some buckets that I had rescued from a bakery and brought those along just in case I had lotsa honey-comb to pull out. Hey, I can hope. It’s early Spring tho – so chances of a honey windfall are remote – but it pays to be prepared. In the end, I brought way more than I needed. But, better that than not having what I needed – I anticipated pretty well for this project and lacked for nothing. Well, I coulda used a little battery-powered fan to clip on the veil to keep me cool, but that’d be a little too… odd.
The hive itself had been ready for a year – I didn’t need to do anything with it. But it’s legs were going to be a problem. As is usual for me, one hive is simply not enough and putting two of these hives together with their giraffe-like legs was going to represent a severe tripping hazard, and I can think of few places I’d dislike tripping in more than tripping on a beehive. So, off came the stilt-like legs. I built a simple table-frame instead, designed to hold a pair of hives. These I could place a couple of feet from other table-frame supports to form little isles between them so I could maximize the density of hives in a location and still have room to maintain them.
The apiary I’m planning on locating these hives will be able to host about 20 of them. Around it I’ll have a fence on which flowering vines will cover, neatly hiding the hive from nosy neighbors and providing a little food for the bees as well. Surrounding this apiary will be garden-beds. I already have a good garlic bed growing there, so it’s a start. In this location I placed the first hive support and leveled it. Inside the legs on the ground I placed a sheet of cardboard. I’ll cover that with mulch later on to hide it. I don’t want weeds growing up under the hives. I may plant something else there like mint or similar. The hives themselves will face East or West and I’ll have a central isle going up the middle, so I never get in their flight-path as I work the hives.
There you have it – I got the hive ready to be populated, a location for the hive, protective clothing, a smoker, the all important breadknife, and sundry items for the cutout. All that remains now is to perform this cutout – to step into what is for me, the unknown and actually do it.