The sixteenth of July 2016 is a date that I will always remember. It was a day that Mathieu and I got married, AND found out that our family of three was going to get a little bigger!
Actually, our family is going to become a LOT bigger. Don’t worry, we haven’t joined a cult, just received what has to be the most unusual wedding present in the history of matrimony. My new mother-in-law gave us a beehive, complete with ten thousand happily buzzing inhabitants.
In order to avoid a mass panic at the reception, she presented us with the hive and the bees separately. Before she unveiled the hive, she said that it “will grow like your family will, but sting like love does” upon which I lost all control and started jumping up and down shouting “IT’S A BEEHIVE!”.
To be precise, it’s an Alsace Hoch model of beehive, which has the advantage over the more common Langstroh hive in that it a lot smaller and easier to carry. When full of honey and combs, hives are very heavy, so a smaller model is definitely better for a family where much of the work will fall to the woman. Mathieu is into it too, but let’s face it, he wasn’t the one jumping up and down in a wedding dress.
So, if anyone is compiling a wedding list, and considering something other than the usual pots and pans lineup, here is what I have learned so far:
Find a mentor. My mother in law knows beekeepers, but if you don’t have the contacts I suggest asking your local tourist board. They should be able to provide you with the address of beekeepers who give demonstrations. Other good places to try are country shows and farmer’s markets, and even the firefighters might have the number of a friendly beekeeper they call when they have a swarm to hive. Read a couple of good books before you meet your beekeeping buddy, to give you an idea of what questions you need to ask. I recommend The Beekeepers Bible and Beekeeping for Dummies.
So I had my hive and my mentors (Denis and Babbeth), now I needed to put some bees in there. Before I could do that, I had to weatherproof it. This I did using two coats of linseed oil. I know guys who rub it into cricket bats, and hippie girls who put it on salads, but it was quite an experience daubing it on by the pint. It is so much nicer than ordinary painting. If you get it on yourself you can just lick it off, and rather than having to have your stomach pumped, all you will get is shiny hair (maybe).
The equipment is important but not as extensive as you would think. I had a beekeeper’s hat (another wedding gift) and a pair of thin gardening gloves. I wore that with jeans and a long-sleeved tee-shirt. In retrospect, flares were probably not a great choice, but I got away with it. The weather is maybe a more important consideration, and Babbeth said it is not a good idea to handle bees when there is a thunderstorm coming, as it makes them agitated and more likely to sting.
On the big day I went to Denis and Babbeth’s place. They have around twenty hives there, but many more colonies are “en vacance” all over eastern France, collecting different types of honey. Mine will stay with Denis and Babbeth until we have a house with a garden, or at least a balcony.
The colony destined for our hive was being kept in an old hive for safekeeping, and had to be transferred. I had half expected Denis to do it for me, or at least give me very cautious and detailed instruction, complete novice as I am, but instead he just said, in businesslike French-accented German “take that out and put it in there”.There were ten combs in the hive and each one had to be gently slid out of the old hive, and into the new one. I had a hive tool, which is a small scraper and lever, to help separate the combs, and Denis showed me how to use it, but then I was on my own.
Let me tell you, as someone who has been conditioned to flinch from even one solitary bee, holding a huge brown buzzing mass of them is pretty unnerving. Denis, on the other hand, couldn’t seem to care less and wasn’t even wearing gloves. I took courage from his nonchalance. Calmly and gently I slid the combs out of the old hive and into the new one, trying not to squish any of my new family, and muttering “pardon” under my breath as I nudged them away with my fingers.
Did I get stung? Not even once. Denis told me that the bees are of the Buckfast variety, which are particularly gentle, and they really did have an air of calm industriousness about them. I felt like a superhero as I handled thousands of bees, and tried very hard not to sing the theme tune to My Girl.
The most important thing to check for, every time you open the hive, is the queen, to make sure she is present, productive and fat. If she’s fat, it means she hasn’t got any plans to fly off, taking half of your bees with her. My queen had a yellow spot on her back to identify her, and she was wonderfully embonpoint.
That’s all there is to do now until spring. Denis will feed them syrup, as they won’t have a chance to buid up reserves of honey, and every so often he will check them to make sure the queen and the colony are healthy. Hopefully, before I go home in September, I will have the chance to see some honey being made, and then I will come back again in blossom season to see them in action. I know it’s only beekeeping lite, and I would prefer to have them at home with me, but that time will come soon enough and hopefully my hive will be strong and productive by then.