Becoming Honey

Bellingham bee man, Rob Rienstra of Backyard Bees gives us a peek into the fascinating—and sometimes painful—world of beekeeping. Backyard Bees sells local honey, beeswax, and related products every week at the Bellingham Farmers Market. – Edited by Chelsey Erway, Volunteer

Backyard Bees – Bellingham Farmers MarketLast summer around early July as the wildflower honey flow was coming to a close, my 15 year old son, Grant, agreed to help me move a truckload of bees to the National Forest Service land just below the Mt. Baker ski area. The 2014 season was the first season had the forklift and a much larger truck to pull it with. Needless to say, it was a big learning curve, figuring out how to integrate new machinery into my bee yards and bee activities. All too often I figured out too late that I could not, in fact, turn my truck and trailer around in a yard, leaving no alternative, but to make dozens of backward attempts to maneuver out of the situation. Such situations always occurred in the dark.

The previous week I had moved a similar sized load, 32 colonies, up to the same general area, but a few miles removed. The objective on this trip with my son was the same, load the truck with bees, drive out Mt. Baker Highway (slowly), unload bees at the planned location, sleep a few hours, then set up a hot wire fence (for bears). The only difference is that we’d pull supers full of wildflower honey from the hives after the move was complete, in order to keep the two crops of honey separate. The thing about moving bees is that it provides plenty of opportunity to get stung. Getting stung, of course just comes with the keeping lots of bees, but of all the big stinging moments I’ve incurred they all involved some moving mishap.

After a late dinner we headed out to the apiary on Axton Road near dusk. My son worked the smoker while I operated the lift. During the cold months if one needs to move hives, it can be done during the day as the bees are all tucked away inside and reluctant to come out, but on nights such as this one when it is very warm, many of the bees congregate near the entrance, like people on theirs stoops I suppose. Any little bump or jostle and there are plenty of interested bees ready to investigate. Grant’s attentive smoking kept the alarm in check and we completed the loading without incident. Even so, it was after midnight before we were driving east . He was happy; he had an hour and a half to slumber away.
Backyard Bees – Bellingham Farmers MarketAround two in the morning I pulled onto the White Salmon dirt road just several hundred feet below the ski lodge. The road levels and widens just a bit about half mile out from the pavement. I woke Grant and we soon set to work. Working with a cliff to one side we unloaded half the truck, then turned the truck around and unloaded the other. We set all the pallets of bees in a long line, spaced a few feet apart near where the road’s edge transitioned to cliff. While I moved the last pallet, Grant set to work erecting the tent on the back of the truck. By the time we settled in to our bags, there was some hint that dawn was near. It felt great to have the moving completed.

We slept as long as one can when the sun is up early, ate eggs, oatmeal, and coffee, the back of the truck like our own private sun deck in the mountains. The bees were already getting started, making their long orientation spirals before venturing out to locate new forage. This is always the best moment, looking at the hives, the bees working away in the sun just before my work starts; it’s temporary.

We packed away the camping stuff, got into our bee attire and began to set up the hot wire bear fence. It was a cloudless day and sufficiently warm when we started, but it was feeling hot by the time we had the fence completed. Throughout the move the previous night and setting up the fence we had incurred just a few stings between us; the whole thing had gone rather smoothly. After a lot of water and some lunch we started the final phase of the trip, pulling supers – the boxes containing wildflower honey. Each weighed 25 to 50 pounds and we had about 50 to load on the truck.

I pulled the truck along side the hot wire fence. As I set each super on the truck bed, Grant stacked them into place. It was very hot by this time. There were eight pallets of bees lined up in a row, each pallet had four hives attached, and we worked from one pallet to the next down the line. We were tired but feeling good about our work. One of us had just commented that we were nearly done. I got stung a few times, and it’s possible that some things were said. The most frequent question I get from people about this job is, “What do you do when you get stung?” You just keep working. If one stopped for each sting, nothing would get accomplished.

It seemed that the hive I had just pulled the honey from was a bit disgruntled. I got stung again and likely said a few more words with a bit more emphasis, but kept working. I got stung some more and then some more. My son thought the unchecked language I was using was pretty funny. I suggested he move off the truck and back away some from what appeared to be a fairly “hot” hive.

I tried blowing smoke at them and made a cloud of it around me, nothing worked. Honeybees alert other bees to be on guard via a pheromone that is released from a loosed stinger. Smoke disrupts this communication, but once a bee is alerted they don’t quickly relax. Needless to say, it was a bit too late. The stings and words erupting from me continued and I finally had to set down my work and walk out of the fencing. I noticed my son was a bit farther down the dirt road now and I walked in his direction to where the forklift was parked and we had water. Once the stinging starts like this, there is not a lot to be done. There is no fixed number, but for every bee that stings you, there are many more trying to get into your clothing or sting you through it. It’s not a thing that can be quickly remedied.

I sat with Grant on the forklift trailer and loosened the drawstring around my veil enough to drink water. He was amused and found sufficient humor in my situation, which he mostly avoided. Eventually, the stinging came to a stop and we finished up our work, giving that particular hive a wide berth. It’s hard to say how many bees were successful in their endeavor to get me in those few moments. Once you’re into dozens it is impossible to know, but it had been years since I had walked out of a bee yard because of the stings.

Within two weeks I was back at this apiary. The colonies had made significant honey and things were looking good. I paid special attention to that “hot” hive (somehow these hives create sufficient memory). I avoided standing near the entrance and gave them extra smoke, and they still gave me a sting or two.

Later in the day I was home telling my family about the workday. I reminded my son about the hive that stung me up fairly good on our trip together. He brightened up and chimed in excitedly, “Yeah, that was awesome.”