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The Arrival of the Bees

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The Arrival of the Bees

Maura Keating

This post is part of our series that captures the experiences of our NYCBA Urban Beekeeping Apprentices as they learn to care for beehives in the NYC area. Our beekeeping apprentice, Maura, shares her experiences hiving bees for the first time.

İMira!  İAbejas!  As the astute children in Bushwick correctly exclaimed, in my hands was a small wood and wire mesh box containing upwards of eleven thousand honeybees.  Sometimes palpating for the staples along its edges, I told myself with exaggerated confidence that the box was certainly sturdy enough to hold them.  Having read multiple books about bees, even the formidable “The Hive and the Honeybee,” and eagerly taken in classroom instruction with the NYCBA through the winter months, I figured that the bees would respond positively or negatively to pheromones.  So, I thought, better control your pheromones.  Keep them, you know, neutral. Manage them, regulate them.  Do not think about the heady feeling of carrying a colony of bees for the first time (the mesmerizing hum of them! the clean, homey smell of them! the warmth of them on this April morning!).  Do not think about the awesome responsibility of carrying a colony of bees for the first time (the sheer number of lives in this box! their stinging power! the proximity of these little kids who are not even remotely concerned with their pheromones!).  OK, think about that part a little.

Apprentices installing new packages of bees at a Harlem rooftop apiary.

Apprentices installing new packages of bees at a Harlem rooftop apiary.

¿Está la reina en el centro de las abejas?  Right again, kids!  The queen was more or less in the nucleus of a scrum of bees which clung to each other but moved constantly, the mass sagging down like an udder from the top of the box.  Smart children, they were, and completely taken with the fact that some lady was standing there on the sidewalk with a whole mess of bees in a box, and what am I doing with these bees, anyway?; where will they live?; are they making any sound?; what will they eat?; is there honey in that box?; are they happy?  Soon, not only the children but the adults in the neighborhood were smiling, pointing, engaging I and the other NYCBA apprentices in conversation about the honeybee, how their grandparents used to keep hives back home in their country, how beautiful the bees are, how they read that their numbers are dwindling across the nation – and I had the privilege not only of carrying a colony of bees, but also of chatting with lots of people whom I might never had the chance to meet without that box of bees.  You should try it sometime.  (You should not try to control your pheromones, however, because that is a pointless activity if ever there was one.)

Eventually I parted from my sidewalk buddies and climbed up, up, up the stairs to the roof that held the honeybees’ new home.  The manner in which they enter it is even more insane and impossible than walking on a city street with eleven thousand bees in a wooden box.  You pour them inside the hive like cereal into your breakfast bowl.  The queen goes in first, in her personal, tiny, temporary box, and then the rest of them go in after her.  You shake the wooden box down, like it’s the last of the cornflakes and you just have to have them.  The worker bees all want to be with their queen because of – you guessed it – pheromones.  And it’s magic.  They take to the hive, they fly all around your head, calmly humming, orienting themselves, making big plans, taking magnetic field measurements and calculating the angle of the sun, receiving invisible messages from the queen and from each other (pheromones!) about what critical job to take care of next, immediately right now, so that the whole colony, all eleven thousand of them and counting, will thrive.

I shook myself out of a trance and glanced over at the elevated tracks, as the next J train pulled in and the passengers cocked their heads at the alien sight of us in beekeepers’ veils, standing in a cloud of honeybees.

To learn more about NYCBA's Urban Beekeeping Apprenticeship, please visit our program page or reach out to molly@bees.nyc.

Header photo by Maura Keating.