Home, Home At Last (Part One)

Today, I begin the tale of an epic journey taken by a colony of bees - from the wilds of Middleton, WI to the urban jungle of Madison - a long, arduous trip of ten whole miles.

On a sunny, Sunday afternoon, I headed to the west side of town, past the little airport and into an area that is somwhere between suburban and slightly rural. There are lots of spots like that around here - farmland that was sold off to developers and turned into communities with names like Golden Prairie Estates. The land still has a country feel to it but the horizon is filled with houses that all look vaguely similar and every yard is cluttered with Fisher Price toys.

The veteran beekeeper who so graciously agreed to sell me some of her bees lives in one of the older communities in this area. Not converted farmland but a long, winding street where every unique house is on about an acre of land. Her lot, in particular, was extremely impressive - with a massive garden, well-chosen trees and plantings, a pond with a duck, a few chickens, and (of course) beehives. The place felt a little bit like paradise and, as much as I wanted to, I felt like it was an intrusion to ask to take pictures.

Most swarms head into a tree.
There are two ways to buy bees - by the pound, in a shoebox sized screen box with a queen in her own, seperate queen box, or already established frames of bees. I was getting the already established kind. Here's how this happens: when a beehive gets "full" of bees, the bees will naturally split themselves into two groups. The queen will leave the hive, taking about 1/2 the workers and the drones with her. This is called a swarm.

The bees that remain, create a new queen and continue on. However, a conscientious beekeeper can intentionally split their hive before the hive swarms on it's own, creating what's called a "nucleus" or "nuc" for short. The beekeeper will then sell the nuc to late-comers like myself. It's a great way for the hobby to pay for itself.

The nuc comes in a "nuc box", which is just temporary housing until you get them into their hive. I called it the condo. My supplier uses cardboard nuc boxes that each hold five, established frames of comb. I was given four frames of "brood comb", which is where the queen lays eggs and the workers feed the babies, and one frame of honey comb so the bees had something to eat.

The bee condo (aka: nuc box)
My new mentor (we became fast friends, bonding over bees, knitting, quilting, and upholstery!) taped the top of the box down and I loaded them into the back of the car. After fumbling around with some twine in an effort to secure the box so it wouldn't bounce around on the way home, I bid goodbye to my new friend and headed home.

I had already prepped the area where the bees would live - in the space that used to be occupied by the rain barrel - so it was just a matter of carrying the box to the spot, setting it down, and opening up their entrance hole.

My dogs were fascinated. I think they could smell the honey and the sound was driving them nuts. The first casualty was my dog Caesar who, in his intense curiousity, ended up stepping on a bee and getting stung on the foot. It gave him the perfect opportunity to limp around acting like it was the end of the world for the remainder of the day.

Caesar was the first casualty.

Lilly was less impressed but felt the need to get involved.

Air vent for the condo
The condo was great - sturdy and perfect for transporting the frames I was given. But, as we all know, cardboard doesn't hold up to rain and we had a couple of doozy thunderstorms over the week that they were in it. After the first rain I realized that I had to cover the condo somehow so I bought a tarp and some twine and went home to fashion an awning over their area. I didn't take any pictures of the finished product because, frankly, it looked like a crazy person's tent but at least it did the trick! (Just to give you a visual, It was staked with a variety of implements including three of those tall, curly tomato stakes, a black plastic fencing stake, and a random assortment of tiki torches.) During the worst thunderstorms, the condo stayed dry and the bees stayed safe. Thank goodness!

In part two of Home, Home At Last, we'll look at the move from the condo to the permenant home - a beautiful western red cedar hive from Legacy Apiaries in Indiana.

- Alex


  1. Oh, it's going to be such fun to see how this adventure progresses. You are so clearly off to a fine start!


    1. Frances, thanks so much. It's been so much fun so far! Now I know why people get so obsessed with this hobby. I'm looking forward to being able to harvest some wax and make some hand lotion or candles or something.

  2. This is so fascinating! I will surely be living vicariously through you!