The phone rings way before anybody ought to be calling anybody. It is a local number, though unknown. I risk a robo-call and pick up. “Hello, this is Christy at the US Post Office in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Your bees have arrived.”
MY BEES HAVE ARRIVED!!!!! “I will be right there, Christy!” I shout. She probably pulls the phone away from her ear and hangs up, shaking her head. Ten minutes later, I pound impatiently on the blue employee-only door, and when it finally opens, she points at the buzzer on the wall,
“Try using that next time. It is easier for me to hear.” Oh, right. This woman is a saint. Bees, please! “Here they are; I don’t hear any buzzing though. Shouldn’t they be buzzing?” I assure her it is early; bees sleep too. Right? Yes, there should be more buzzing. Peering through the air holes, I see quite a few dead bees on the bottom of the small white crate. Damn.
Placing the 12” x 8” x 6” plastic box carefully on the passenger seat, I start the car and drive home like a little old lady. Don’t want disaster to strike on the last leg of their epic insect journey! Mentally, I go over the steps from the half dozen Installing a NUC in Your New Hive videos I have watched.
Put on your bee suit. I have two. All set there.
Prep smoker with pine needles or wood chips and gently smoke bees. Well, it is early morning, these bees seem super mellow, and I want to get them in the hive as soon as possible. I might forego that step.
Gently open box.
Gently extract sealed queen enclosure and check to see if she is alive.
Gently remove frames full of brood and honey, making sure not to crush any bees. Place the frames in the hive with plenty of room in-between each frame.
Gently tap shipping box, so any remaining bees fall into the hive. “Gently” seems to be the keyword in handling bees.
Replace cork stopper in sealed queen enclosure with a bit of marshmallow. The queen's attendants will eat her free in several days. That sounds complicated, but I have a marshmallow, so - check.
Suspend the queen cage in the hive between two center frames with a toothpick pushed through her cage. DO NOT STAB QUEEN. Like they have to tell me that!
Feed the hive with sugar water for a couple of weeks until your bees find enough local pollen sources to sustain themselves.
Alrighty then! With the amount of information in my head, I can"t screw this up. I regret canceling an early morning visit from a friend offering to fix my drip irrigation system. These bees are going to be moved in and unpacked by 8:00 am!
I gently place the bees on top of the empty hive in the 20' x 60' chicken run and get my bee suit out of the barn. The chickens hear me moving about and frantically throw themselves against the coop windows. Leaving them locked up will confuse their tiny chicken brains, but I can’t risk tripping over a hen with a frame of bees in my hands.
My bee wrangling outfit is a white jacket with a hood attached by zipper and velcro, my thick 501 Levi jeans, and cowboy boots. I debate using the gloves; even top-of-the-line ones like mine are thick and clumsy. Sticking them in the back pocket of my jeans keeps them available if the need arises. So adorned, I stand by the hive and contemplate the small plastic box holding $214 + tax + shipping worth of bees.
The cat wanders by, and with an effortless leap, Jake is on top of the hive, curiously sniffing. His ears flip back, his nose retreating as the hmm grows stronger with the rising sun and heating air. I imagine a sting or two is in his future, but I hope the old saying of Curiosity Killed the Cat will not apply.
This box looks completely impenetrable. Is there not a door or something? The shipping label is attached to some sort of plastic top, and I discover two tabs to pull, releasing the label and revealing a tuna-sized tin can plugging a hole. The can must have been for sugar water during shipping. Do I remove it? Won’t all the bees come pouring out, madder than anything? A tornado of bees is a risk I will have to take.
Using my metal hive tool, which looks like a miniature crowbar, I carefully fold back the metal clips keeping the can in place. Gripping the edges of the can with my fingers, I tentatively wiggle it back and forth. It slides upwards as I pull, then POP! It slips out, and a flood of bees with it. Very aware of my bare hands, I channel happy bee thoughts and even say, “Good morning, girls! I am so glad you are here. I hope you will be delighted in your new home.” A few land on my hands, their delicate feet tickling my skin, but soon fly off, eager to be out and about.
Peering into the hole left by the can, I am confused. There are no frames, only a mass of yellow and black honey bees frantically crawling over each other. How am I supposed to get the queen out? Put my hand down in the hole? There is no way my bulky gloved hand will fit. Where is the queen?! A knot forms in my stomach, and knowing bees are keen sensors of stress, I take a deep breath and slowly let it out. It’s good, all good. I have to think logically. Could I have ordered the wrong thing, just bees, no frames filled with brood and honey? Yes, I certainly could have.
What do these bees want right now? They want food, they want to be out of the sun, and they want me to stop messing with them. I can do all these things. Gripping the sides of the shipping box, I lower it into the empty hive and slide the feeding lid with a mason jar of sugar water carefully over the top. I head back to the house to find the email that will confirm what the past Alice was thinking when she placed this bee order.
There it is, a BOX of bees, drones, workers, and one Italian queen in a queen cage—no mention of frames, brood, honey. I put my head down on my desk and utter a large sigh, willing some tears to fall. While waiting for a stress-releasing cry to get past the buffer of my depression meds, I ask myself, "Why am I so upset?"
I hate feeling like a failure. I hate making mistakes because I don’t check details or timelines or go over things twice. I hate having something innocent dependent on me and not doing right by it. I hate spending money on something that doesn’t work/fulfill my expectations. I hate the thought of waiting another whole year for bees because I screwed up. Ok - are any of those things happening right now? Well, no. They are not. I pick my head up off the desk, deciding a good cry is no longer needed. What is required is a phone call to Mann Lake Bees.
Two minutes later, after pressing the correct series of options, I am speaking with calm, informative Amanda, and she is reassuring me bees do just fine placed in an empty hive. They are only two to three weeks behind a NUC with honey and brood, and as long as I feed them, they should thrive and establish themselves nicely.
What about the queen? Where is she? “Did you not receive any instructions?” I did not. “Well, let me email those to you right now.” The email zooms into my inbox, and I read it over a soothing second cup of coffee. Most of the instructions are exactly like the videos I have been obsessively watching, and I don my bee suit and return to the hive with a renewed sense of confidence.
There is a large wad of bees in the bottom of the shipping box, and not seeing any other evidence of a queen enclosure, she must be central to that humming ball. I carefully lift the shipping box back out of the hive and place it on the ground. Another examination confirms my thoughts of an impenetrable box. The only way to the queen Amanda has assured me is there, is through the hole.
There is no way my bare hand is going into a box filled with thousands of bees, no matter how zen I am feeling. I pull my gloves out of my back pocket, tug them on and ease one hand through the hole, trying not to crush any bees. Right away, I can tell there is something there, but grabbing it with bulky gloves is difficult. I regretfully hear bee bodies crunching as I grip then lose hold of the box several times. Finally, I have it but am reminded of the old fable about catching a monkey by putting a bit of candy in the bottom of a bottle. With the queen box gripped in my hand, my glove is almost too big to fit back through the hole, especially with fragile bee bodies swarming everywhere.
At that moment, I feel something on my skin. A bee has gotten under my jacket and shirt and is making a bee-line (a bee pun there) up my sweaty back. I utter a curse word my mother would disapprove of and hold very still. An insect with a stinger is crawling on my bare skin, my hand is stuck in a box filled with thousands of bees, and the queen bee is in danger of being crushed by my clumsy glove grip. Oh, this is all going according to plan! NOT!
I decide to name the bee dancing on my ribs Shirley. Can anything named Shirley be a threat? A queen depends on me. How many times in my life can I say that? Amanda, a total stranger, has confidence in my beekeeping abilities. Rallied with these positive thoughts, I ease my glove from the hole. THERE SHE IS!!! Alive, energetic, and mad as hops, a tiny cork is all that is keeping her from taking her buzzing attendants and zooming away from this bungling woman.
The cork is tightly wedged. Instead of trying to remove it, I decide to push it gently into the cage with a stick. Having a bit of floating cork in her cage will cramp the queen, but she should survive. That is all I am going for now, plain survival. I will not be making a how-to video anytime soon!
Quickly I grab a bit of marshmallow and press it into place with my gloved thumb. I can’t gauge the force through the thick leather, but it seems stuck in there securely. Laying the marshmallow stuffed queen cage aside, I again pick up the whole shipping box and lower it into the center of the hive. The instructions say to dump the bees in, but they have been through a lot already without being upended. I figure they will crawl out of the shipping box, and I can remove it this evening after everyone is happily settled.
I decide against inserting a toothpick into the queen cage: I have already compromised her space. I place her box gently on the bottom of the hive next to the shipping crate, knowing her colony will soon find her. While nothing I did was in any how-to video, she is inside the hive, her faithful swarm already stroking her through the wire enclosure. I grab a bottle of sugar water, give a few squirts inside the box for quick, easy energy, and replace the lid. Whew. Welcome home, little bees!
Shirley has found her way out from under my clothing, apparently finding nothing but sweat on my body. I tug off the gloves and bee suit and unlock the chicken coop. The hens are about as mad as the queen bee must have been but are quickly distracted by a tin pan of left-over rice and fresh-picked Swiss Chard. I sit on a discarded cinder block under the shade of the cottonwood tree and survey my kingdom of bees, chickens, and cats.
No, this morning did not go according to plan, but all that went wrong was made right, or at least made-to-do. I feel proud of myself. I wanted bees. I researched and made plans to the best of my ability. I followed through with those plans, and when they went sideways, I figured out how to move forward anyway. If only I had some attendants to lovingly stroke my body and feed me some breakfast, then all would be right in my realm. (;