“If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning.” ~ Catherine Aird
Last week I had one hell of a learning curve. So I wanted to share it with you to ensure you don’t make the same mistakes I did.
Bear with me, it’s a bit of a story.
It all started when I won Lotto. There was $40 million up for grabs and I won $15! Woo!
Coming back from spending my winnings at the bakery I bumped into a friend, Melanie*. She was enjoying a cuppa with her friend Rachel. Melanie told me that on a recent trip she had sampled some great honey and explained to Rachel that I was a bit bee crazy and wanted to get my own hive. Rachel told me that her mother had two hives on a commercial lot that she was planning to destroy. I told her that I was certain I could find someone who could take them rather than have her put them down. I left Rachel my name and number and continued along my way.
Later that afternoon, Rachel’s mother Alice called me. She advised me that she had two hives on a commercial property. Since I had no means of picking them up myself, I assured her I would call around and find someone who could come and collect them. Alice informed me that I had two days to find someone to remove them before she would put the hives down. First, I rang a well respected apiarist, who very politely informed me that he wasn’t interested. He already had plenty of hives, plus being spring, there were lots of swarms for the taking. He suggested I call the Department of Agriculture and see if they could recommend anyone.
The person I was after was on leave, but I was assured I could speak to one of his colleagues. However, my call was disconnected when transferred. I called back again, but had to leave a message.
I then looked up a list of swarm catchers and called the first number. I explained the situation to Larry who assured me he was interested and experienced. I remembered that he had delivered a swarm to set up a friend’s hive. (It would later turn out I was mistaken) He was clearly passionate about bees, and seemed very knowledgeable. When I asked, he told me he was a member of our local bee society. He seemed to know the same people I did. I told him I did want my own hive, but not sure if I was ready now. Larry assured me with a confident “It’s now or never!” After a chat, it was proposed that he would remove the hives, and (for a fee) deliver one to my home, and he would keep the other. In the meantime the Agriculture Department called back, but I was able to let them know I had found someone to remove Alice’s bees. Alice would have her bees removed for free rather than putting them down, I would get a hive, Larry would get a hive and cash for helping to set me up. Win, win, win. Everybody happy.
Alice, Larry and I all arranged to meet at the site at 6pm when it was dusk and the bees would be in the hive, and hopefully be relatively docile.
I was pretty excited, a bee adventure was an unexpected and thrilling diversion in my day!
When I arrived at 6pm, Alice and her husband met me there. The hives were at the back of a commercial property, out in the open. Larry was yet to arrive so Alice and I had a chat. She advised me then that she was concerned the hive was showing signs of preparing to swarm. She had not moved the hive in over six years, nor had she checked them in some months. The hives were very low to the ground, surrounded by weeds and other debris. The bees had been position where they were to act as “guard bees” and she told me that they had not had any problem with graffiti or vandals since they were there!
The hives were not registered or branded. They were both only one super high. Being the novice I am, I still knew that this was not the hive I wanted. The hives were certainly showing some weathering. There were bees crawling all over the outside of the hives and there seemed to be quite bit of propolis on the outside of the frame. Larry was running late, so I called him to try and advise him of the state of the hives. I got his voicemail.
Larry finally arrived and it was almost dark. Driving a two-door sportscar with a tiny boot. No trailer. Before I had a chance to warn him, he had opened the lid of the hive, without smoking the hive, nor wearing any protective gear. He had to put a bit of effort into the task, because the hive has practically cemented shut with propolis. The bees, acted as bees do, and took offense to the inquisition by stinging Larry. Repeatedly.
Larry raced back to his car, got his gear on and went back with smoker in hand.
By this time it was pitch dark.
And, upon reflection, that’s when I should have left everyone there, with my apologies and perhaps a Jedi mind trick inspired “These are not the hives I’m looking for.” But I didn’t. And I have been regretting that since.
In the meantime Alice also had offered me two sets of her second hand beekeeping equipment. I asked her what she wanted for them and she said she would think about it.
The hive was full of solidified honey. The bottom of the hive had crumbled away. The bees, were alarmingly agressive. The second hive was a little better. But still problematic. I had maneuvered my car with it’s headlights on so Larry and Alice’s husband could see what they were doing. Before long, my bonnet and windows were covered with bees.
Not long after, it was decided that the bees would have to stay where they were until the next day, when Larry would return.
So I made my way home and two bees hitched a lift back to my place on the dashboard of my car, but remarkably, I was not stung at all. I had a very uneasy feeling. My bee adventure was not going to be as straightforward as I had hoped.
The next morning, I spoke to Alice who had tallied up all her equipment and she named a price that would other wise allow me to purchase two sets of equipment, brand spanking new. I politely declined, and instead offered her over half of what she was asking. Alice was also quite agitated, she rightly felt that Larry was a bit unprofessional and wanted to know if I was paying him. I told her I was, but declined to tell her how much. She said she would think about selling me the equipment. I advised her that if she wanted to sell them to me for my price, Larry would collect the equipment, make payment upon collection and I would just reimburse him.
Later that morning, Larry advised that he was on his way to my house. He announced that Alice’s bees were not suitable for me, (too aggressive) so he was going to bring me a swarm that he had collected elsewhere and transfer them into a box that was salvaged from Alice’s hives.
Larry arrived at my house looking a little worse for wear. All the stings he had received from the previous night had taken their toll. It was midday and warm. I offered him a glass of ice water. He pulled out one set of equipment from the gear Alice had given him and I put it on. He charged me the same price that I offered Alice for the equipment (and eventually left me with only one set instead of the agreed two). I was later surprised to hear that Alice had given him all the equipment, no charge. Especially after I had offered her the reasonable price I did and she had already let me know how unimpressed she was with him!
Larry took a chipboard home-made swarm box from his sportscar with a corrugated metal sheet for a lid with his captured swarm inside. He also pulled out two half-hive boxes, with some half frames (more than half of the frames had broken wires or had been infested with borer moth) There was also a queen excluder, but no wax, hive base, strap, inner or outer lid. Larry explained that he would deliver the bees, but he would have to come back in a few days, to assemble the incomplete hive and put the swarm in the new box. Getting the parts to complete the hive would cost extra. (Later, Alice would tell me she gave him enough equipment to build three new hives.)
I should explain right now that by this time, my anxiety levels were pretty much shooting through the roof. This was not how I wanted to get my bees. Again, at that point, I should have said, “Thanks, but no thanks”. Silly me. But, if I was feeling bad now, I was soon to feel a whole lot worse….
The bees were in their selected spot, which Larry assured me would be ideal. I had wanted the entrance to the hive facing the fence, so they would have to fly up and over head to leave the hive, but Larry had wanted me to watch them come and go. It was apparent to me that they were transecting a thoroughfare, and getting confused by the shadecloth cover on my greenhouse, gathering at the roof. At my insistance, he turned the box around to face the fence where they could escape the hive much more freely.
(Thankfully, a visiting friend very graciously and helpfully watched the kids while all this was taking place.)
I offered everyone a coffee. I was feeling pretty strung out. Larry also seemed pretty exhausted and wanted to take a shower in my home. I admit, I refused. As my friend would later comment, Larry was the kind of man your mother warned you about. Yet, I was friendly, not wanting to be rude, or wanting an argument in my house with my children home. But I was growing increasingly uncomfortable around him.
While drinking our coffee, Larry suddenly remembered his car was in need of repair, and could not be put into reverse gear. We thought he was joking. He wasn’t. Nevertheless, my friend and I valiantly attempted to push his car up to the top of my steeply sloping driveway with no avail. Larry would have to stay at my house until he could arrange to move his car, and I certainly couldn’t go anywhere with him in my home, nor his car blocking mine in the drive. He also still had Alice’s other hive of bees in his car, and they circled around, very conspicuously in my front yard.
We waited almost two hours before his roommates arrived to help. By that time, Husband was also home. The four of them just managed to push the car uphill. And Larry was finally on his way.
The next morning, Larry advised that he was unable to come that afternoon as planned to assemble the hive. He had a disagreement with his roommates that had turned violent, resulting in the police being called. The police had also threatened to remove the licence plates of his broken sports car, as it was unregistered. He was now also homeless.
This is the point where I freaked out. Those guys had been at my house and knew where I lived. Despite my concern for Larry’s circumstances, I had only met him a few days previous and did not wish for either my family or myself to be visited by them again. Larry had misrepresented himself and no matter how well intentioned he was, I couldn’t feel comfortable having him back. I had forked out hundreds of dollars and I was left with a swarm box of bees, a incomplete hive and a little bit of second hand kit. Alice had got what she needed. Free. Larry got a good deal too. The whole caper left me feeling embarrassed and foolish.
But you will be relieved to hear that this was the point I finally acted on my gnawing anxiety.
I called the President of our local Beekeeping Society and spilled the entire story that I have just related to you. He very graciously agreed to come the next evening and take the bees. He will re-home them into a proper box. He was reassuring, gracious, and helpful. I felt immediate relief. He had an appropriate ute-cab vehicle and the inside of his car was immaculately clean and organised.
But, Larry contacted me and wanted to come back and finish the job. The next morning, while suffering from a throbbing headache and hayfever I sent him a polite, short SMS advising him that the bees were being collected and he had no further work to do for me.
He has since contacted me, offering to collect my equipment and resell it. I have politely refused. I’ll happily swallow the cash loss if it means I don’t have him back at my house.
Now, to be fair, this all could have gone differently. The bees could have been well looked after and maintained. Alice could have been a conscientious bee keeper. Larry could have been honest and professional with suitable (or at least reversing) vehicle. I could be happy as a queen right now, bragging about how serendipity delivered me a great value hive. But, that’s not how it happened. And If I was perhaps just a tad smarter, it wouldn’t have turned into the clustercluck it did. Admittedly, the bees themselves, were not the problem at all. It was the way they arrived and the way they were handled that caused all my grief.
So, here if your considering getting bees of your own, here’s what I would advise you to do, (and what I should have done…)
1. Join your local beekeeping association and attend meetings regularly. Mingle and get to know fellow enthusiasts.
2. Get online or to the library and read everything you can about best bee keeping practices. There are good beekeepers, and less-than-good beekeepers out there, and you need to be able to identify the former from the latter.
3. If you can, borrow some equipment and tag along to a apiary visit. You don’t want to discover that bees frighten you just as they are being delivered to your door. Even better, see if your local association runs beginner courses.
4. Determine where your bees will go. Are they going to live at your house or another property? Will they have good access to the hive, away from thoroughfare areas? Can the hive be secured from small children or possible vandals?
5. If you are still confident you want bees, get your gear together. Get on the web, research and get the best gear you can afford. Get two sets. Get new, second hand can harbour disease. That second hand equipment I got? The gloved had a hole in one of the fingertips, the headgear had a tear in the netting. Not worth it. It’s good to have backup in case something breaks or needs cleaning and you might want to have a friend’s help from time to time. At the very least, you will need;
- Protective bee suit and hat
- Hive tool
- Bee keeping gloves
- Bee brush
6. Assemble a insect kit to keep on hand near the hive. Mine includes;
- Oral antihistamines for both children and adults.
- Topical anti-sting ointment and an over-the-counter cortisone cream to apply to stings.
- Adult and child Epipens to administer in case of anaphylactic shock.
- My kit also includes nitrile gloves, band aids and instant ice-packs.
7. Approach the President of your local beekeeping association and ask them who they can recommend to supply a beginner hive. A new queen and a small colony may minimise your chances of a swarm in your first year of beekeeping and make everything a little more manageable in your first season.
8. Visit the recommended supplier at their home (if possible) and get an idea of how they operate. If you are feeling confident that you will get a quality colony in a quality hive, proceed to have them delivered.
9. Register your hives as required.
Finally, if at anytime you feel unsure, stop. Bees are NOT a “now or never” opportunity. There will always be bees for you, in a nice hive, when you are completely ready. Rush it, and you will balls it up. Just like I did. And I don’t want the same happening to you. Unless you are very experienced, and have a chance to properly inspect the hive, don’t accept second hand hives.
Please, if you have anything to add or if you feel I have left something important, please do not hesitate to leave a comment below.
* Obviously, I have changed the names of the innocent (and the guilty!) to protect their identities.