16 May 2010
Installing the bees
This is what a package of 3 lbs of bees looks like:
We brought everything up to the roof of the shul with the assistance of Anderson, who lives there and takes care of the property. He kindly agreed to take some photos of us after we got into our jackets and veils, and offered to keep the poultry waterer filled for the bees.
So there we were up on the roof, we three ladies of beekeeping.
We all wore jackets/veils, but we went barehanded. No gloves for us! The theory is that going gloveless gives you greater dexterity, which means you're less likely to accidentally squish bees, which means they're less likely to want to sting you in the first place.
We had BEEKEEPER HUGS! up there in the Brooklyn sky.
Next, you can see the basic set-up. We had a single medium super hive ready, up on a pair of cinderblocks. The white and red thing in the upper left of the next photo is the poultry waterer, so they don't bother neighbors when they get thirsty. To the right, the brown thing is the hive-top feeder for sugar syrup before they can gather their own nectar, and in front of that is a cardboard nuc box, then holding the package of bees.
As we set it up, we used the spritz bottle seen below to spray sugar syrup on all the frames that went inside the hive, so that when we dumped the bees in they'd be happy and inclined to stay put. In the process, we spilled sugar syrup all over our hands. Ack! We rinsed it off with the hose, but still.
We had a really hard time keeping the smoker lit. I've used a bee smoker before, but never lit one on my own, and it takes some getting used to. I got the hang of it by the second time I visited the hive, at least.
Here, you can see me standing next to the package, about to open it up. I got white hightop sneakers to keep at the shul, and I pulled my socks up over my jeans so bees couldn't climb up into my pants. The red strap under the hive is a ratchet strap to hold the hive together in the wind.
Photography paused during the actual hive installation, unfortunately.
We set up the hive with only 8 of the 10 frames in it. We sprayed the sides of the bee package (lightly and gently!) with sugar syrup to keep everyone happy, then smoked it a bit as well to cut their lines of communication. The smoking was probably unnecessary, but I made a point of going very gently with cool smoke, at least. More importantly, I smoked the munchkin's knee where she'd been stung earlier, in case there was any alarm pheromone left there.
To get the bees out, we used pliers to pull off the side and bottom bits of wood from one of the sides, then held the mesh up and literally shook the bees into the space left by the missing 2 frames. It took some gentle shaking and whacking, but ultimately most of them fell in. And then there were bees in the sky and bees on the ground, bees licking spilled sugar syrup off the rooftop and bees licking spilled sugar syrup off our hands.
We pulled the can of sugar syrup out of the package box so we could get at the queen. We held her tiny cage in our bare hands and shook the bees off of it. (Literally. Thwip, bees flying through the air!) I showed the queen and her long queenly butt to the fascinated child. Her cage did not come with a nail attached by a string, alas, so I used a staple from the wood we'd ripped off the box to pry the cork out of her cage, leaving only a piece of soft candy blocking her exit.
I slipped the queen cage into the hive, held by pressure between two frames, and carefully added in the last 2 frames.
We put the feeder on top, and filled it up with sugar syrup. Matchsticks in the feeder and the waterer so the bees won't drown.
I fit an entrance reducer into the hive entrance to help encourage the bees to hang out and nothing else to go in while the colony is still weak, and closed it up with the ratchet strap. Doused the smoker, cleaned everything up.
There were still a bunch of bees hanging out in the package, so I just set it near the entrance of the hive. This is normal, I'm told, and they found their way in eventually. Luckily, the chilly night air didn't even kill most of them first.
At some point my friend's phone rang, and she picked up and said: "Can I call you back later? Right now I'm covered in bees!"
I'm going to order some extra hive tools, because we really kept passing mine back and forth. And we might experiment with different veils when we order a few more for guests.
Ultimately, I wasn't stung at all, and I really calmed down about the amazing sensation of bees gently meandering along my bare skin. My friend was stung three times - once on her hand, while shaking the package, and twice through her thin sweatpants, when she crouched and squished the bees that had landed there. She didn't seem to mind at all.
We were giddy with triumph. This was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, in a way that I can't do justice to here. We installed those bees so damn hard. We installed the hell outta them! There were ten thousand and THREE victorious ladies up there on that rooftop!
I initially wanted a nuc, because it'd mean a greater chance of actually getting honey this year, but now I'm really glad that I got a package. What fun to really ride this ride on our own from the very start!
Me: "I'm a BEEKEEPER!"
Dave: "Well, I'm a beekeeperkeeper."
Him: "You can be a beekeeperkeeperkeeper if you want."
I ordered my bees through the Gotham City Honey Co-op, which had them ready for pick-up on May 9th. With my friend and her 7yo, I went to the bee pick-up location, rewatched this video on how to install a package of bees, got a bunch of advice from the folks organizing the order, and picked out our package.
The 7yo was super excited. At one point, she giggled and said she felt like she already had bees inside her pants. We laughed, and asked her what the anticipation felt like. “Like tickling!”
A few moments later, she cried out and pulled up her pants. We saw something sticking out of a little swelling near her knee, which I immediately scraped off. She was obviously in pain. A splinter? Could it be a stinger? Hard to tell… but oh, yes, the area was swelling and reddening a bit, and it sure looked like a stinger. The organizer asked if she had maybe kneeled on the floor and somehow gotten it stuck in her pants that way, and she had, so maybe.
The 7yo was a bit teary, but not much. She was really chill about the whole thing. She got up, looked at the stinger, and talked about it with great interest. No problem.
A few moments later, it occurred to me that perhaps we should shake out her pants in case anything else was stuck in there. And what did we find? Oh, the dying bee inside her pants that had stung her!
MORAL: When a kid laughs and says it feels like there are already bees in her pants, there ARE already bees in her pants!
Apparently there had been a few strays, no one was really sure how, but so it goes. My friend and her 7yo took the pants!bee safely back to the tarp where the last few packages were waiting. As I asked the organizer all my remaining practical questions, they sat near the tarp and played with the strays.
I was very impressed - they just calmly hung out and encouraged bees to walk all over their hands. I told them they could go to the pharmacy and get some Benadryl without waiting for me if need be, but the 7yo didn’t feel like she really needed any, and was having plenty of fun.
Here she is, cheerfully showing off the place where she was stung:
So we loaded up in the car, the bees sitting in their cage in an open-topped box between me and the munchkin in the back seat. I fretted over the driving: “Please don’t get into an accident while we have 10,000 bees in the car! It would be the worst fender bender EVER!”
Really, it reminded me of the time Dave and I got some liquid nitrogen to make ice cream with up in Boston, back in 2005 or so. We carried it back to his apartment in a $3 styrofoam cooler we’d bought at the supermarket, sploshing around between us in the back seat of a cab. It was terrifying. Driving around with 10,000 bees humming in a box between me and the 7yo felt pretty similar.
(In the midst of making the ice cream, we experimented with safely sticking our hands into the liquid nitrogen with help from the Leidenfrost effect. If you go in slow and smooth and calm, an insulating pocket of vapor forms around your hand. If you move too sharply, you risk breaking out of that air pocket and burning your hand with the cold. Similarly, if you move calmly and carefully when opening up your hive, the bees won’t mind you. If you’re nervous and hasty, you’re more likely to squish and upset them, and get stung.)
Anyways, we finally arrived safely at the shul, where a couple of weeks earlier the Talmud Torah kids had helped us build the supers for the hive.
Everything was set and ready for us. After all, we already spent a day weeks ago building all fifty of the frames I’d ordered.
Nothing left to do then but get everything up to the roof and install the bees into the hive.
14 May 2010
A quick recap on NYC beekeeping and the law
In 2005, I got it into my head that I wanted to take up beekeeping, which was illegal in NYC at the time. I reached out to Roger Repohl, who very kindly invited me to come up and help him out with the hives he keeps in the backyard of his church.
I couldn’t quite bring myself to keep bees illicitly, so I set about trying to change the law.
I can’t help but feel giddily proud of this. Just Food ran the campaign since 2008, but it was winter 2005-6 back when I first ran into then City Council Member David Yassky and asked him to work on legalizing beekeeping. He laughed at first, but when I explained the issue in terms of urban agriculture and sustainable food and environmental issues, he took it seriously and started doing his own research. With his help and the combined efforts of a huge group activists, we finally got NYC Health Code Article 161 amended in 2010.
What a wonderful taste of successful activism!
According to the amended NYC Health Code Article 161, beekeepers in the city now have to file a notice with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene with their contact information and the location of the hive. Via the NYC Beekeepers Association, here is the form you need to file in order to keep bees legally in NYC.
As for me, I’m now the resident beekeeper up on the roof at East Midwood Jewish Center.