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This is my second year as an amateur beekeeper, and this last weekend we split our first hive, creating a second colony which will be relocated to a new home in the suburbs. In nature, bees will swarm to start a new hive. Half the colony wakes up one morning and decides it’s too crowded, they’ve had it with the place, and they pick up their stuff and split. For the beekeeper, this isn’t considered a good thing. Most of the work in beekeeping revolves around keeping swarms from happening. So when you want to make two hives from a single parent, you do it artificially.

The process involves removing one of the 3 hive bodies that doesn’t contain the queen, moving it to its new home, and then introducing a new queen. Finding a queen in a hive is not at all like finding a needle in a haystack. It’s like finding a slightly elongated needle in a boiling rage of 20,000 pissed-off, flying venom needles that hate you. I’m partially kidding when I say this. Until you get accustomed to it, this is exactly the perception. The reality is that, assuming you don’t panic and freak them out, there’s usually only a couple angry bees that you’ll deal with when you open the hive up. Everyone else is just going about their business or gorging on honey (the bee’s natural reflex to smelling smoke).

Luckily I was able to convince my friend Chris that it would be a great idea to photograph the whole process. His work turned out incredible, but I feel kind of bad about his recollection of the experience:

But later, when the queen was found and the hive splitting was a success, the bees weren’t done being pissed off. I was just standing there minding my own business and one mean bastard worker bee flew right directly into my right ear. DEEP! And it started trying to get deeper! I completely lost my shit. I started dancing all around making all kinds of girly noises. My heart rate was probably 200. The buzzing was unbelievable, it sounded and felt like it was almost into my brain before I finally got a grip on the little shit and yanked him out and threw him. Incredibly I didn’t get stung.

My takeaways from the evening: Beehives are awesome. It’s hard to find a queen. Don’t go near a beehive when it’s being split without protection. Having a bee in your ear is about the most terrifying thing that can happen to you.

Words paint a thousand pictures. I’ve linked to his account of the day below, which is a great read. Hopefully Chris will bring his camera again. Next time I’ll make sure to have an extra veil for him.

If you can live with the occasional sting while working the hive, the average backyard makes a really nice place for a beehive. From the bees’ perspective, there’s a huge source of pollen and nectar within a 3-mile radius of most homes: vegetable and flower gardens, fruit trees, and even common weeds like dandelions and clover. For the beekeeper, the honey from an urban beehive tastes delicious, with all the complexities of flavor that are missing in single-source honey that you buy at the store. Aside from growing a vegetable garden (tomatoes: also awesome), it’s one of the few agricultural hobbies that you can enjoy from your backyard.

If you’re interested in beekeeping, you should check with your local university’s agriculture department and see if they provide any classes, groups, or resources for amateur beekeepers. As with anything else, a guru is invaluable. Find and befriend one. The University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab is a great resource for links and articles on the subject.

You’ll also want to check to see what the local ordinances and licensing rules are regarding bee husbandry. Most importantly you should talk with your neighbors and make sure no one has a bee allergy or is particularly opposed to having the occasional bee pollinating their yard. Usually, you’ll find that people are fascinated about the whole concept, and excited about the promise of a big jar of honey in the fall.

Splitting the Hive
Splitting the Hive: Photo Gallery
University of Minnesota Bee Lab