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What Is An Angry Rocket?

Honeybees are considered livestock in Tennessee which allows them to be regulated and banned from HOAs at their discretion. I am lucky enough that I live on a peninsula near a lake and a state park. My house backs up to this elderly gentleman’s property that loves honey, owns his own land, and had no issue sticking it to my HOA by letting me keep my bees on the other side of my fence.

With the outlines of a plan, a secure haven for my bees, I leaped into my adventure feet first. I traveled up to one of the more rural towns on the outskirts of my city. I was a lot lost and a little concerned about making the wrong turn in the woods. I have watched the movie Wrong Turn a few too many times and I was not prepared to run for my life. I did eventually manage to find the property I was searching for, just as it began to drizzle. A group of men were lounging on a porch of a ramshackle building, smoking and laughing. One approached me, clearly expecting me.

I didn’t understand him and he didn’t understand me, but we gestured and made sounds until my trunk was opened and two “nucleus colonies” were loaded into it.

I had bees. Now what the hell do I do?!

By the time that I got home, it was dark and the rain had passed me by. I had prepared for the bees by having two 10 frame deep boxes already in their places on a pallet on the other side of the fence. I didn’t know, at that point, that bees were more defensive and angry at night, not to mention they hate flashlights… I know that now! but not because of this. With my husband and my best friend watching – with flash lights – I lit up my smoker for the first time and I set them in their new homes. I moved each frame carefully and slowly, listening to their hum and whispering under my breath that everything was alright. My stomach roiled from nervousness, fear, and not a little anxiety.

They were sweet, for bees being relocated and disturbed at night. They didn’t even chase or sting me!

My husband and friend couldn’t say the same. Darn those flash lights…

Two weeks later, I had cajoled my husband into helping me with an inspection. Keep in mind he wanted nothing to do with “my hobby” and that I was responsible for the chores that came with my hobby. I was still nervous, however, and he’s very supportive. So together we got ready to work the bees, myself in light colored clothing and a veil, he in a veil, a jacket, and dark gloves. Black gloves.

Did you know that bees don’t like dark colors? Did you know they especially hate the color black? I didn’t, back then. I also didn’t know how fast they could move when they felt threatened by bumbling new bee keepers.

We found out that day when they instantly teleported to the black glove that stood out brilliantly against the white lids of the bee hives. My husband didn’t appreciate them – or me – that day.

I called them Angry Rockets.

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Introductions

My name is Arianna. I am 40 year old wife, self-proclaimed nerd – before it was cool – and a student of life. If you had asked me where I would be 20 years ago, my answer would not have been even close to this. I had imagined a life in the thick of a city, perhaps treating people or animals in some medical capacity, and a life long circle of friends.

I got some of that right, but not in the way I expected. There have been a lot of road bumps along the way, definitely some detours, and roads less traveled.

Three years ago I was lost. I was searching for something, but I didn’t know what. I looked at my life and I felt it was missing something. I have always loved gardening, but since moving to Nashville, my plants didn’t seem to pollinate very well. I ruminated about it to a coworker, who then mentioned that he used to be a beekeeper. His garden never had issues.

It’s strange how a short conversation in passing can change your life.

I am now a third year beekeeper.

I can’t tell you how many Facebook groups I’ve joined with the focus of beekeeping or all the books, podcasts, and videos I have read and listened to. It’s been A LOT. But even into my third year, I feel like it’s the first day of school and I don’t know anything.

I started this blog because I love it: I love beekeeping. I wanted a record of my successes and my failures. It gives me peace, and I see the world in an entirely new way. I want to share this with you. But more than that, I want there to be another place out there for people to learn about bees, to see a woman in a traditionally male-dominated agricultural field, and have a place to ask questions.

I will show you what my beekeeping life looks like. I hope that my photos, my explanations, my failures, and my questions will bring you new insight into the world I fell into.

I am Alice and this is my rabbit hole.

Will you fall down it with me?

Unexpected Swarms

I do a lot of things outside beekeeping. I read a lot of bee books, I taunt my husband mercilessly, and I fiddle with art. For the past 6 months, I have been investing in a tattoo that covers the entirety of my back. It is a dragon with wolves running underneath. Each of my appointments starts in the middle of the day and lasts for several hours. (I have plans for a bee tattoo!)

Imagine my surprise when I came home from my appointment earlier than expected to find one of my swarm traps a-buzz. A-buzz a lot.

This swarm trap is on the other side of my apiary privacy fence. It’s a little higher than 6 feet and strapped onto a tree. It’s been there for a year and has only attracted attention once. I split that hive before they could swarm, but it was nice to know it was catching someone’s attention! Needless to say, seeing bees in it was a shock. I came closer, watched them for a bit, and took the video above. I didn’t see any pollen coming in, so they must have just arrived before I came in. I was so excited! I texted my friends and family that I had a new hive. I vowed to let them be for several days to let them get established.

Of course my husband texts back immediately, “WHO DID THAT!??!”

He wasn’t wrong to ask. I’ve been very on top of my bees this year – I didn’t have any desire to repeat 2020. I broke an ankle during spring and was unable to maintain my hives. I had a LOT of swarms and I lost a couple of hives to pests. Damn you small hive beetles!!!

You see, I had installed a new Saskatraz queen 4 weeks ago. In my experience, they tend to be rather swarmy and it looked like this queen was going to be true to form. I had done an inspection the previous weekend and noticed what looked like it could be a queen cell. Seeing the hive still had a couple of frames to draw out, I reorganized their frames and added another box. I destroyed that queen cell.

That didn’t work out so great.

My hives all have names because it makes it easier to talk about them. I threw on my veil, grabbed my hive tool, and ran to The Red Queen’s hive. I searched each frame carefully, looking for the white dot that would mark her and for fresh eggs. Eggs that look like standing grains of rice mean that a queen has laid them within three days. Eggs were seen, the queen was not. I did find 4 queen cells, however. Each one had a larva and royal jelly in it. Guess my bees didn’t listen to me last weekend.

At least I got to keep The Red Queen right?

On my lunch break the following day, I went outside to peak at them through the fence. Hmm. I didn’t see any movement. Not a single bee. What was going on? There was a literal FLURRY of activity yesterday! Of course I texted my husband near to tears. Ever the supportive man, he advised me to check on The Red Queen’s hive. They could swarm back into their hive. It’s happened before and it was very possible that yesterday’s swarm was a practice swarm. Maybe I caught them at the exact right moment.

Bees are gonna be, y’know?

I found her. I FOUND HER!!!

Into a small 5-frame nucleus hive she went, while I left two queen cells in her old home.

And now, we have yet another hive…

No one told me bees were like Pringles – You can’t just have one.

Inspections

Beekeeping has always, from the beginning and still today, seemed to wipe away the days’ ills. When I am out with the girls, I am more present than I am at any time of the day. I usually do my inspections in the afternoons because I work during normal business hours and I don’t like to get up with the sun. Ironic, right? For someone who has an agricultural hobby by default, I don’t operate during standard hours.

Conventional beekeeping lore will advise you to do your inspections around lunch time or early afternoon because the hives will have the fewest number of bees. This makes it easier to both see the brood patterns and possibly spot the queen. But why make it easier on myself? With my semi-flexible work schedule, I take regular strolls through the apiary on my breaks and perform inspections after work to clear my mind of stress.

It’s similar to a form of meditation. Instead of the sounds of waves and instruments, I listen to the hum of my bees. I greet them as I stand near their hives, I smile and talk to them when they land on me. I can hear them talk back – they do, I promise. If you are quiet and cock an ear towards the hive when you pop their hive open, you can hear whether they are welcoming you or telling you to get lost. It takes a little time, but their hum will change to a higher, angry sounding pitch when you have squished one bee too many, they are creating a new queen or are queenless, or when they are hungry and defensive. Those are the times to step back and evaluate.

The times where their song is a deep steady hum, you know you can work them with ease. Move with purpose, slow and steady, and they will let you into their home. Bees are incredibly sensitive to dark colors and fast movements. Move too quickly – walk too fast, swing the tools too sharply, flick a bee off your hand! and they will teleport to you and sting you. Each hive has a different personality. Some are very aggressive and do not like you inspecting their home, others are sweet to work and you don’t need anything but a tool and a veil. Sometimes I sing to them – they don’t care that my voice is awful and I think it keeps them calm. It’s a win-win since my husband doesn’t have to listen! 🙂

I use a smoker to help keep the bees calm. There are a lot of things people recommend burning – burlap, pine needles, and dried branches. I’m partial to using regular hamster bedding! It’s cheap, comes in bulk, and amazon will let me schedule my deliveries. The thick white smoke from the smoker will help disperse the alarm pheromones and also drive the bees into their hive. This makes it easier to remove and replace the frames in the hive and boxes that house them.

I use a J-Hook tool to help free the frames. The “J” hook slips between the frames to pull it out without disturbing the bees too much. Slow and steady, you don’t want to roll the queen. If she gets rolled, she could be damaged. Damaged queens are dead queens. If this happens in the spring or summer, it’s a bad event, but not nearly as terrible in the fall. The hive tolerates no weakness in their broodmare and they will try to create a new queen regardless of the time of the year. If this happens during the fall, there may not be enough of a population of drones for the new queen to be “well-mated”.

Below I have a list of the things I look for when I do inspections. This blog is part of my inspections – I am recording what I see so I can notice if there are changes in the hives.

My Inspection Checklist

  • How long since the previous inspection?
    • What has changed since the previous inspection?
    • Did you notice any queen cells?
    • Was there a lack or an abundance of nectar and/or pollen, or brood?
    • Does the queen have space to lay?
    • Is it possible they have swarmed since your last inspection?
  • What is the weather like?
    • Cloudy weather, rainy weather, or windy weather can make them very touchy.
  • What time of year is it?
    • Is there plenty to forage or is it the dearth period?
      • Dearth is a period of time where there is little to nothing to forage and the bees are very protective of the supplies they have. This time frame varies by location.
      • Generally, if a beekeeper wants a honey harvest, they will remove the supers from their hives so they can feed them a 1:1 sugar syrup to keep their population up until the next forage period.
  • What does the brood pattern look like?
    • Is it spotty? Are all of the frames with worker cells fairly packed?
  • Do you notice signs of disease or pests?
    • Are there predators disturbing the hives?
      • Examples of pests/predators:
        • small hive beetles, wax moths, ants, carpenter bees, hornets, wasps, varroa, raccoons, bears, robbing bees
      • Examples of disease:
        • nosema, deformed wing virus, excessive amount of drone brood, foul smell, bald brood, American or European Foulbrood

What kinds of things do you look for in your inspections?

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