Birthday Bees


The hive with the cover off and the top honey super already removed. (The bottom two are left for the bees.) In high summer, a single hive can contain over 50,000 inhabitants.

Today is my birthday, and many years ago, as my present, my mother gave me bees.

A bit unusual, I grant you, but it had been my request after all, and in truth, the bees arrived in the form of a check that was duly deposited and spent on bees the following spring. But no matter: for all intents and purposes I received bees for my birthday, and they’ve been one of the nicest presents I’ve ever gotten. Each year they reward my not inconsiderable efforts at keeping them healthy with millions of pollinating visits to plants around the garden, plus, in most seasons, an ample crop of honey.

Many people are discouraged from beekeeping by fear of being stung, and that’s a shame.  While I’ll admit the sight of thousands of bees crawling about right under your nose can be  disconcerting to the novice, once you’re properly garbed, there’s really nothing to be concerned about. Besides, bees are generally pacific creatures who no more want to sting you than you want to be stung – they, after all, sacrifice their life with that prick, so are naturally hesitant to employ their weapon of last resort.


The frames filled with honey

The process of harvesting the honey is really quite easy. The first step is to employ what’s called a fume board – essentially just a box with some cloth attached. You spray the fabric with an herbal substance that the bees find very unpalatable, and place the cover over the hive. In just a few minutes, the bees have vacated the top box, or super, which holds the 10 vertical frames that the bees have filled with honey.

The next part is really the hardest: getting the top super off the hive. It weighs a good 80-100 pounds fully loaded with honey. And fully loaded it was when I removed it yesterday. In the beekeeping world, it really doesn’t get any better than the picture on the right: a frame with each hexagonal cell perfectly filled and capped. Removing the honey is a fairly easy, albeit sticky process: the tops of the cells are opened using a special self-heating knife, and then the frames are placed in a centrifuge, which spins out the honey. Sieved and bottled, it’s ready for the table, or rather many tables, as a single super will yield 3-5 gallons of honey – as my delighted friends and relatives will attest.

Yes, birthday bees: a honey of a gift that keeps on giving.

Thanks, Mom.



Birthday Bees — 4 Comments

  1. What a marvelous story? Have you had any problem with die-off from fungus during the winter? Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker had a very intersting story about her experience keeping bees a while back:

    Your blog doesn’t indicate where your old house is–in a town or village or the country? I’ve come across a couple of stories of people keeping bees in the center of cities–at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, for example, and on top of the Opéra Garnier in Paris–and certainly somewhere around here (the center of Montreal) there have to bee hives since we have a lot of them.

  2. Dear Dee,

    The clothing is more than sufficient to protect you. You may get the occasional sting, but after a few times, you realize it’s more of a nuisance than any kind of real pain – practiced bee keepers often don’t even notice.

  3. Dear Mary,

    Thanks for the compliment. I’ve luckily had no problems with the bees for five years running, which is a bit of a record – there have been years when I’ve lost both hives, but this year, one swarmed and formed another, so now there’s three – for now.
    I garden in a suburb west of Boston – click on the about tab on the upper right hand corner for more info. And yes, urban beekeeping is becoming quite popular as restrictions against animal (or insect) husbandry are being dropped or altered in many cities. Thanks for the article recommendation as well. You might also be interested in this article in the New York Times:

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