Backyard Bee Bandits

Backyard Bee Bandits

It’s worth mentioning that among the many infamous stories of my childhood there’s one that stands out—the Bee Story. It’s a tale of two men moving a beehive across Georgia and how they made every mistake along the way. It is not a story I can tell you. For me, it took place in a time that has faded from memory. My recollections of that day are the embossments of a frequent observer of the telling for whom it is more the memory of my parents telling the tale than a record of the events that happened. Inquiring minds may seek out my parents and to get their take.

It might’ve been enough to say that I spent much of my childhood between allusions to the infamy of the tale. Jokes about their foolish decisions and improvised apparel were a running gag and the infrequent retelling was an absolute gas at dinner parties—but an observant child could tell that the laughter and the jest had set gears in motion within the minds of my father and his friends. It wasn’t a surprise when he decided to take up bee keeping, and it should be no surprise that I quickly volunteered to help, but much like the bee story of my youth—what followed was fraught with mistakes and failures.

The decision to invest time and money in insect agriculture was not unique to the two of us, several of my father’s friends decided they should share the mantle. The moment of truth came when a member of the group mentioned that he had spotted wild hives on a farm near Smithville, GA and that he could get permission to secure them. By that point, my father, his friends, and I were ready and willing to spend an afternoon in heavy clothing underneath the sweltering South Georgia sun.

Before going out to gather our first hive we read books on the process and gleamed what we could from the internet, but practice and theory are often clumsy neighbors and most of us had never seen a wild hive. The simple process of opening the hive, securing the queen, and transferring as much comb as possible to a super becomes infinitely more complex when you add 40,000 bees to the equation.

In the moment, every bee is in a panic, many go on the offensive, charging at our veils and landing on our clothing— trying in vain to sting us through thick cloth and leather. Others begin devouring honey and food stores, preparing to search for another home now that this one has been exposed. And still more protect the queen, leading her deeper into the wall to escape capture.

Over the next couple of hours, we carefully cut comb free, secured it in frames with wire, and placed it in our super collecting bees as we went using a vacuum. (DO NOT DO THIS!) Many bees were lost between the violent draw of the vacuum and the summer heat. As we cut into the back layers of comb we found the queen, managed to capture her, and placed her in the box with the surviving bees and comb.

We placed the box on the other side of the farm on the edge of a field and for much of the summer the bees remained and thrived there. In the spring we had to move them and shortly after a limb knocked over the hive and the bees absconded into the wilderness. It was a setback, but a few years later we decided to try again.

Since 2016 we’ve been keeping bees in my fathers back yard. There have been setbacks along the way, but we’ve been successfully overwintered 1-3 hives and have harvested honey 1-2 times a year. Last year was quite difficult and we suffered a total loss as all our hives absconded, but it brought us back to the drawing board and forced us to make some decisions about how we wanted to move forward.  

We realized that our efforts up to this point were largely the actions of hobbyists and if we meant to move forward, we would have to decide to become serious farmers. In the interest of testing our mettle, this year we’ve placed seven hives in five backyards across Georgia with the goal of overwintering them so that we can split them organically in the spring.

Over the years we’ve had many occasions to learn about bees and keeping hives, often in comical ways. Those lessons have brought us here, to the edge of a life altering decision. If I know one thing, it’s that this year already has many such moments on the docket for us—we can handle one more.

-JCM

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