Have you ever smelled the distinct aroma of propolis -- that sticky stuff that bees make to seal gaps in the hive? It's quite intoxicating: earthy, and a bit sweet. And yesterday, I smelled it for the first time. Ahhhh.
For two months last winter, with Ollie creaking beneath the weight of a pile of textbooks, I biked uphill through the frigid darkness to attend my urban beekeeping class at UDC. After full days of teaching, for two evenings a week I immersed myself in learning about all things apis: types of native honeybees, bee life cycles and behavior, components of home hives, safety equipment, considerations for hive placement, pernicious pests and diseases that commonly attack hives, the mysterious hive collapse phenomenon (I didn't sleep much after class that week), and all kinds of other technical information. By the end of the course, I had a basic academic understanding of how to keep bees. Soon afterwards, in the early spring, I bought a veil and a smoker, a hive tool and gloves. I was ready. Well, sort of. I'd had a chance, at one point during the class, to hold an empty frame; what I hadn't had was any hands-on experience working with an actual bee hive.
That all changed yesterday. Decked out in pants and a long-sleeve shirt on a sunny afternoon, I showed up at the community garden abutting one of my schools to find Kevin -- an experienced beekeeper to whom I have recently apprenticed myself -- waiting for me with a loaner veil and hive tools. As he got into his gear, I was tasked with getting the smoker going. (I think he was rather impressed at my fire-starting skills. I stuffed newspaper, twigs, sticks, and finally dried pine needles into the lit smoker to get it really billowing.) After donning some gloves and checking our equipment, it was time to calmly make our way to check and feed the three hives. Kevin talked me through how best to approach the hives, and warned against making loud noises or unnecessary vibrations. They also don't like being checked on too often. Or quick movements. Many sentences ended with, "They hate that, and you're more likely to get stung." Noted.
After examining a couple of them jointly, I used my hive tool to remove the lids and then a couple of frames all by myself, with my mentor patiently talking me through each step. Bees were humming and crawling all over the place, including me, and particularly near my inadvertently exposed wrists, but they seemed mellow enough after a couple puffs from the smoker. I was mesmerized. Slowly, slowly, I pried the first frame loose from the clots of propolis, lifted it straight up, then tilted it first on one side and then the other to check for nectar/honey development. Everything looked the way it should, in terms of store laying, it seemed. We squished a few hive beetles, then tucked in the supplemental feeding bags: gallon ziplocs half filled with a 2:1 sugar water solution. (This helps to make sure the bees stockpile enough honey to get them through the long winter.)
Calmly and slowly -- but not too slowly lest the bees get annoyed -- I replaced each frame, tapped it back in place, and then returned the inner and outer lids before Kevin secured everything with cement blocks to keep the wind from blowing the tops off. (I doubt with that much putty-like propolis that those lids were going anywhere, but I trust my mentor implicitly on these sorts of things.) I can't wait to help winterize the hives in a few weeks!