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  • Writer's pictureAimz

A First Time for Everything

Last month we met second-generation Bay of Plenty beekeeper ‘Aimz’, who had recently returned home to pick up the hive tool for the first time. Settling into the winter, she recounts some of the ‘firsts’ experienced thus far.

You probably remember your first… love? Job? Beehive?

With my dad’s newly acquired bees now snug in their box (after he kicked the post they were swarmed on and ran like hell), he set about caring for them as one might a puppy or a kitten. After checking on them nearly every day and almost killing them with kindness, he purchased his first beekeeping book, Practical Beekeeping in New Zealand by Andrew Matheson, and what is written in those pages is like a literal translation of dad’s beekeeping practices to this day.

That’s a teenage me, Aimz, at my first job at the local mechanics. Dad’s beekeeping trucks were regular visitors.

Being concerned about keeping them alive and maybe over-concerned he would lose them, dad set about raising his first queen. He carefully followed the instructions in the book and cut a zigzag part way up a frame of drawn brood comb. After giving his queen a few days to lay it up, this frame went into the newly created queenless division, and just like that, one had become two. Talk about hook, line, and sinker…

Some firsts are life changing, some best forgotten, and some we can’t afford to forget. In my case, taking on beekeeping is like my first time in a plane going to Australia – the world has opened up around me and I am seeing in a different light. I want to know more, I want to do better, and I want to bee involved.

My first job leaving school at 15 was in part because of the bees. My mother got me a job sweeping the floor at the mechanic’s where the bee trucks were in constant loop for service and repairs. By the end of the first day I was pulling motors apart to scrap, and with oily zebra-striped knuckles I found something I could lose myself doing.

Mindfulness – the bees give me this. It’s like I can switch to a different channel and join them with my full attention… there is so much to learn! I have jumped feet first into a commercial beekeeping operation and my days are full of ‘firsts’.

Getting into winter and I am truly loving every day out with the bees. Chill frosty mornings with some absolutely cracker days see most of our hives in single boxes (running singles helps to keep varroa costs down) with a few scattered doubles. Opening lids first thing I am greeted with skyward stingers waving at me. The chilly bees are blasted with a puff of smoke and the day commences.

Checking feed stores, making up nucs or chocking some with polystyrene. Mite strips are coming out and we are supplementing the sugar with apple cider vinegar. Some hives are united as they are found queenless (or made queenless... I squashed my first queen not long ago – a drone layer, and because I have always held a pretty blunt view on the adage “where there’s livestock, there’s deadstock”, it wasn’t too much of a life-changing moment, although it may have had more impact if I’d built those hives up split by split as my dad had done).

We have come across the odd dead one, and I have seen my first starving hive. Bees will perch motionless when their blood sugar concentration falls below 0.05%, and these guys were falling off the frames. We were just in time – hopefully. I found the queen still hanging on to the comb, so we broke them down, gave them a feed, and fitted an entrance reducer to give them a fighting chance. As I closed up the lid, I really hoped we would be able to revive them.

I was then gutted to find a dead hive after someone stole the middle out of it, a couple of frames of bees with the queen – yea, winter can be tough on some "bee-keepers".

More positively, most boxes are bulging with bees. They are bringing in beautiful pink pollen from the Spanish heath and orange from gorse and there’s showers of nectar from open frames. Drones have pretty well been ousted, and the queens have put the brakes on egg laying.​

In the shed there’s boxes and frames to be sorted and cleaned, or to repair, and my repertoire is expanding as I have gained my class 2 learner licence. It’s definitely a busy profession and I am getting a lot of experience driving the bee trucks to sites and carting honey and sugar around the country.

We have a new beekeeper who has started with us, currently relaying feed and gear around the truck but he is as keen as mustard and a solid candidate to be a very proficient beekeeper. New to the trade as well, he literally threw down the gloves on the first day and decided a few stings is worth the dexterity gained by going it bare handed, pretty impressive for a newbee.

Even after my Dad’s 40 years beekeeping, he still sees some firsts, including varroa mites, literally, chewing on bee wings.

Incidentally he may have caused me to lift my game a little when the old man put to us an unofficial competition on who could get their truck licence first. He still hasn’t got his, and don’t tell him, but I beat him to the firewood too… snooze, ya lose!

Now here's a snippet that may intrigue some of you. My dad is still experiencing beekeeping ‘firsts’ after nearly 40 years in the industry. Just recently on a routine site check he noticed one hive in particular that had lines of bees leaving from the entrance – walking. Upon investigating these earth-bound bees, he believed the cause to be physical damage to brood from heavy mite predation, with subsequently chewed wings (possibly it was deformed wing virus, but being only a singular occurrence in a long career is something dad is yet unfamiliar with).  

The amazing thing was, even under the circumstances, these bees had been driven by an innate urge to forage, something inside told them it was time to leave the hive, and my dad sadly doubts whether any of them at all would have returned to the hive.

To finish with another first, you may remember your first sting. They can be life-changing, though I don’t recall mine. Some people suffer severe reactions and anaphylactic shock is just that. I remember my cousin getting stung on the throat and being taken away in an ambulance – scary stuff. I am fortunate as a parent that my children have reacted only mildly to stings, and honey has always been my go-to for taking the pain away. Now I work the bees without gloves, and I find most stings don’t bother me – although the odd one at times can still be hell! At the start of this job getting stung and having itchy hands was almost like an addiction where I couldn’t wait to get back the next day for more! I’m not tough, but the bees are quiet, (our bees are Italian lines and bred for temperament) and working with bare hands really gives you a feel for the bees – it’s a definite buzz!

Signing off for now, you’ll hear from me after another round of the bees. Until next time…

-Aimz


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