Fred & I have been talking about "going green" and "living off-grid" since we met but until recently, like most of our friends, family and acquaintances, we were just too caught up in the rigors of day to day living to even consider the effort it would take to shift towards a more sustainable life. Sure, we saved our cans, we tried to pick "organic" at the market, and we talked a good talk. But like most people with busy lives we didn't want to spend our precious little free time doing more work. Instead we wanted to camp, ski, go to movies, sit on our behinds, etc. Living the kind of life we dreamed of just seemed like way to much effort.
Then in September of last year, when I was benched on medical leave unsure of whether or not I'd be able to return to my job, suddenly I was left with unlimited time. I like to cook and baking is a great stress reliever for me with a finished product that allows me to garner praise from loved ones, so it is a win-win. I started baking like mad. I baked so much we couldn't even consume it all. Well, we could have but then we would have needed new clothes. So Fred suggested I begin entering my treats in some of the fairs.
Before I entered we decided to go check out the competition at the Kanawha County Fair. While we were milling around the fair grounds we saw a display of bees. Beekeeping is always something I have found fascinating. The matriarchal society, the almost entirely female population, the sheer economy of the hive and a worker bee's utilitarian existence are amazing things. We struck up a conversation with a gentleman we now know as the president of the Kanawha Valley Beekeepers Association. He saw our obvious interest and smelled fresh blood like a shark. He began to expound for us the different virtues of beekeeping and invited us to come to a meeting if we were interested.
Fred and I decided that we were interested, enough to at least spend a Saturday morning on the endeavor, so that next month we headed to the St Albans' library to experience a beekeeping meeting. We soon realized that the president's blood lust was not unfounded, we were the youngest people in the room by possibly decades. He was desperate to infuse the Association with some young members who would have the energy for all of the extraneous activities vital to the funding of the Association & the promotion of beekeeping. What had we gotten into?
At this point we'd checked out "Beekeeping for Dummies" and had bought a couple other books and done copious amounts of reading. We had begun to realize the critical part bees play as pollinators in America's food industry. Beekeeping seemed daunting but not unmanageable so we had pretty much committed ourselves to the course in every way short of actually obtaining bees. Our problem was funding.
We had decided, with much research and discussion, that it was important to start out with at least two hives. This way if there was a tragedy in one of the hives, say colony collapse or worse foul brood, we would still be able to salvage and split the second hive without completely starting from scratch. We had determined we would need an initial investment of around eight-hundred to a thousand dollars. While this isn't an insurmountable amount of money normally, right then, to us it was. Remember, I recently became unemployed so we were struggling under the consumerism of the Christmas season in addition winter heating bills and doctor expenses from my medical issues, it just wasn't in our budget.
While at the meeting we met an elderly gentleman who had been a beekeeper most of his life. Due to increasing physical problems he was ready to get out of beekeeping for the most part & wanted to "pass the torch". He offered to sell us his hives and the bees in them for one-hundred-fifty dollars a piece. This is cheap, we couldn't build our own boxes for one-fifty let alone populate the colony with new bees! We took his name and number and went home to cook our books again. At this point we estimated if we bought two of his hives, and the minimal equipment we would need to tend them, we would have an initial investment of five-hundred dollars. This was a much more reasonable and obtainable investment for us but still we deliberated and we dithered about a little too long.
The early cold snap and bitter jump into winter made it impossible to begin immediately. So we put our plans on hold, checked out more books and burrowed in for winter. When spring finally arrived we figured we had missed the bus on the discount hives but we were still willing to move forward. We began research breeds of bees and Fred made a phone call to the president of KVBA, where we were met with more disappointing news and yet another set back.
It seemed, he told Fred, that WV beekeepers all around the state were in trouble. Between the bitterly cold winter and the rampant colony collapse disorder beekeepers all around the state had lost unbelievable amounts of their bees. Some people were even reporting a complete loss of their entire stock. Now I am not talking about novice bee hobbyist here, I am talking about professional beekeepers who's livelihood depends on their harvest. Bees that had been fed and tended all winter were dead, or worse, just disappeared. He told Fred there were no bees to be had, people had scrambled to rebuild their stock and had bought all the bees on the market. This did not bode well for us. If these men and women who had kept bees their whole lives were failing how could the two of us make a go and where would we get the bees?
We decided to make one last push. I dug around in my wallet until I found the number of the gentleman who wanted to sell. We held little hope that he would have any bees left or that if he did have them he would still be willing to part with them at such an affordable aforementioned price considering the sudden and desperate need on the market. Fred called and I can honestly attest to the chivalry and brotherhood of beekeepers in this state. Yes the gentleman still had four strong hives and yes he was still willing to sell them for one-hundred-fifty apiece. He told us we could come out to his property whenever we were ready & that he would help us seal them up and get ready for transport.
We made a trip to Poca to look at the hives and discuss the ones we wanted. We shook hands and told him we would be back on the first warm evening with cash in hand to pick up the two hives we had selected. We were in for another cold snap though so it was several weeks before we were able to get the bees. It work out for us because it gave me some time to teach a few more yoga classes which allowed us to earmark the money for the hives. We bought a couple of bee veils, a hive tool and a smoker and set out to gather our lot.
We arrive in Poca at dusk. To move a hive you must wait until dark when all the bees have come in for the evening, otherwise you will simply move an empty hive. We staple the entrances of the hive boxes closed and sealed them together with ratchet straps, loaded up the back of the truck and headed home. I can tell you it was a very slow nerve wracking trip home, every pot hole felt like a moon crater and every stop was jarring. We were afraid when we got home we'd have a truck bed & topper full of swarming angry bees but God is good and as with all our fumblings, He provides.
We bounced into our driveway hives intact and breathed a heavy sigh of relief and said a grateful prayer of thanksgiving! We'd been warned that the bees would be irritated from the move so to leave them alone a bit to calm down before unloading. We left them in the truck bed, grabbed a bite of super and debated our next move. We had to unload them that night otherwise we ran the risk of killing a bunch so we headed back outside to knock around in the dark and pretend like we knew what we were doing. By this point it was hours past our bed time and we were both tired and cranky. Beehives are awkward heavy things and must be positioned just so for proper ventilation and what not.
We had left the hives closed with screen & straps while we jostled them around onto the stands. Once we had them placed we knew we would need to remove the screening as soon as possible to allow the bees to orient to their new surroundings. We got them situated and debated who would take the screens off. Fred finally said he would and went back to the truck to start putting on all of his safety gear, I'd had enough. I was tired it was cold and I wanted to go to bed.
I approached the hives from the side, took a deep breath, closed my eyes and reached down to rip the screen from the front of the first hive. I waited for the stinging sensation and hum of angry bees, it never came. What I did open my eyes to was a comic look of horror on Fred's face. I think we both though I would be stung to death but at that point I was too tired to care! When my rash decision garnered no fatal or painful results I boldly marched to the second hive and ripped the screen from it's entrance. I was a woman of power! :)
Fred and I stepped a safe distance away and waited. I think we both fully expected to stand there and watch our swarm up bees take flight in the air, abandoning us and leaving us three-hundred dollars poorer. Nothing happened. Our bees were in for the night and apparently perfectly content to stay there. SUCCESS! Fred and I went in and went to bed high on our momentary victory.
We've had our bees now for a couple of months, we've been in the hives, looked around, moved a few things and found we have queen cells. This is good and bad. It is good because our queen is laying, it is bad because it means the colony is crowded and ready to swarm. So in a couple of hours, when the temperature is warm enough Fred and I will attempt to make our first hive split and create a new colony. Come back to see our results...
Much love & hopefully much honey ;)