Three months ago, I became the president of the Tri State Beekeepers’ Association (Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama).
Now, before congratulating me in the comments, let me be clear:
Have you ever seen one of those old comedies about the military where the sergeant tells a formation of soldiers that he needs a “volunteer?” Everyone takes one step backwards except for one poor shlub who wasn’t paying attention. VOILA!! Volunteer.
That’s kind of how it happened. But, hey, I’m a good sport. So, I hit the ground running.
My first order of business was to use club funds to purchase what is known as an “observation hive,” which is basically a small hive (5 frames as opposed to 10 frames) with two panes of plexiglass mounted atop the hive, holding one frame between them. That way, people can safely see the bees doing their thing without having to put on bee suits, and pulling a hive apart. The bees are happy, the observers are happy – everyone wins.
In a unique coincidence, just a few weeks after acquiring my new position, I was contacted by a gentleman from the “Friends of Cloudland Canyon State Park.” This is a group that volunteers at the local state park here in our county. Apparently, every year, the state of Georgia puts on an event to try and generate public interest in volunteering at their local state parks.
What does this have to do with me? Well, this year’s theme was “Bees, Birds, and Bats.” They wanted to know if our club could put on an educational display about bees. What a great opportunity to get some exposure for our club! Of course, I said YES!
The observation hive arrived just days before the event and I was still recovering from a recent bout of illness that knocked me on my butt for about three weeks. As such, I didn’t really have the energy to do a lot of experimentation before the big day. But, I’ve been working with my bees for a couple of years now. What could possibly go wrong?
The arrangement was going to be pretty simple. That morning, I was going to take the observation hive down to my big hives. I’d pull out five frames, place them in the lower box, close it up, and transport it to the park. Once at the park, I would take the box away from people, open it up, remove one frame, slide it into the plexiglass window, seal everything up, and then set the whole thing up on a table with a bunch of my beekeeping equipment for folks to look at. They could also ask me questions about beekeeping.
Now, normally, when I open up my bee hives, very few bees fly out. Sure, you get a few that buzz around. But, as long as I move slowly and gently, most of the bees just keep crawling around on the frames, and don’t care much about what’s going on.
That’s normally. My whole reason for storing the frames in the main box of the observation hive was to keep the bees in the dark during the ride to the park. Bees aren’t really fond of daylight, and queens especially don’t like being exposed to light. Bees feel safest in dark, cramped, confined spaces with other bees. So, I thought the bees would be calm and content when I got to the location.
What I didn’t take into consideration was the route to the park. I had to drive down our mountain, which has a set of three switchbacks and several “S” curves. Then I had to drive through Trenton, where I hit three red lights – stop and go. Then I had to drive UP Lookout Mountain, with two hairpin switchbacks, lots of tight curves, and a 1000-foot change in elevation. Then there was the park itself. There were no straight roads. And, I was running kind of late so I wasn’t exactly driving slow.
Put it all together and I may as well had thrown five frames of bees into a barrel, and rolled it down a hill. When I got to the place where I was to set up the display, they showed me where I would be. I asked where I could take the hive away from people to open it up, and load up the window. They told me I could go wherever I felt best so I decided to take the hive over to a “pollinator garden,” which was about 100 yards away from the main building where the event was taking place. I figured that any bees that may decide to fly would find all the flowers, and become preoccupied with drinking nectar, and not worry too much about trying to follow the hive to the display area.
Here’s what really happened.
I put on my gloves and bee jacket. I was wearing jeans, which I’ve been done a hundred times in the past with no problems whatsoever. I didn’t bother with a full bee suit, because this was to be a quick and easy transfer of one frame into the window. What could possibly go wrong??
As soon as I opened the lid to the main box, a cloud of bees erupted from it. They weren’t happy. One let me know it immediately by stinging me in the leg – through my jeans. I quickly pulled out a frame, and slid it into place, closing up the observation chamber. Then I latched the top cover over the main box. But, I still had a swarm around me.
I waited a few minutes for the bees to hopefully dissipate a bit. Then I took the hive over to my table. The good news was that the swarm didn’t follow me. The bad news was that the swarm decided to hang around, and cluster on a bench near the pollinator garden.
It wasn’t long before the guy from the volunteer group came to me, and pointed out that there was a swarm of bees hanging out near the garden. He wasn’t upset, but more concerned about what would happen to the bees.
Then, the area around the garden became the focus of attention as several people decided that the gravel path around the garden and bench area needed raking. Several shouts came from the main building to be careful because the bees were loitering around the benches. I couldn’t help but feel kind of dumb.
Then, one guy meandered over to the garden itself. As he was wandering around, he suddenly yelled out, and started waving his arms. I rushed over and asked if he got stung. He said yes, he got stung in the ear, and it still felt like he was being stung over and over again. I took a quick look at his ear and, sure enough, the stinger was still embedded in his earlobe. I told him to hold still, and quickly scratched the stinger out. I apologized profusely, and was feeling worse and worse about the situation.
I decided to try something I’ve seen done before by beekeepers who collect wild swarms. I took the hive back over to where the cluster was, and opened a small cover at the bottom of the hive, exposing a 1 – inch hole that the bees could pass through. I knew bees could get out, but I was gambling on the smell of the queen drawing the wayward bees back into the hive.
Slowly but surely, one bee after another flew over to the hole, and went in. Other bees gathered on the outside of the hive and began fanning their wings. This is a natural behavior that spreads the queen pheromones out into the environment, allowing other bees to follow the scent.
I then picked up the hive, and walked about 20 yards away toward the woods. More bees flew in. I moved back some more. More bees were swarming around me, seeking the queen.
I kept backing further into the woods, with more bees landing and going into the hive. Eventually, I can’t say I got all my bees back, but I had coaxed the swarm away from the benches and garden.
The rest of the day went without trouble. My display was a hit and lots of visitors came bay asking all kinds of questions. I even had a scout troop come through, and get the full lecture on bees and how they contribute to our environment.
Next time I’m asked to present my bees, I’m loading up the display window the night before, and closing up the box to give the bees a full night’s rest in their temporary home BEFORE loading them in the truck. Then that box isn’t getting opened again until it’s time to put the bees back in their hives!
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Brian Whiddon is the Managing Editor of WritersWeekly.com and the Operations Manager at BookLocker.com. An Army vet and former police officer, Brian is the author of Blue Lives Matter: The Heart behind the Badge. He's an avid sailor, having lived and worked aboard his 36-foot sailboat, the “Floggin’ Molly” for 9 years after finding her abandoned in a boat yard and re-building her himself. Now, in northern Georgia, when not working on WritersWeekly and BookLocker, he divides his off-time between hiking, hunting, and farming.
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