Surprisingly I haven’t crossed paths with many icky bugs during my journey into agriculture. I know what you’re thinking: a wannabe-farmer who is afraid of bugs? Get real! Luckily, I was had the opportunity to care for the honeybees at Thera Farms in Ronkonkoma. I must say I wasn’t thinking when I accepted. I was so excited by the prospect of spending more time outside and learning from Teddy “The Tomato Whisperer” Bolkas, that I totally forgot about my irrational fear of bugs. Or maybe I had my mind on the honey and the honey on my mind. Nevertheless, spring has sprung, and in turn, so shall my fear of buzzing wings and bee stings.
I arrived at the farm to find Bolkas on the roof of the two shipping containers where tools and machines are stored. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, swatting back and mumbling what sounded like a hybrid of Greek cussing and laughter. Bolkas generously left me the bee suit. I slipped into what felt like paper: a safari hat, giant net and elbow-length leather gloves. How the bees wouldn’t sting me through this joke of a protective layer was beyond me. But I climbed the ladder up to the hives as the hum grew into a roar.
Atop there were three large wooden boxes and a frantic Bolkas shoving a smoke pump at me. In addition there were three smaller boxes made of screens, each housing 10,000 Italian honeybees from Pennsylvania. The goal was to get the bees into their hives without getting stung and losing the queen. One by one we removed the top of the hives and pulled out four of the beeswax frames where honey is made. Before opening each box of bees we sprayed them with equal parts sugar and water and pumped them with smoke to calm them down. My whole body tensed up as Bolkas carefully removed each lid and fished out the queens.
The Queen Bee goes into the hive first; the bees follow to protect her and will only settle into a hive if she is comfortable. Beekeepers say to avoid being stung one must not make any sudden movements or squish any bees; they release pheromones that tag you as an enemy and can provoke the other bees to avenge the death of their fallen comrade. While we planted the queen, I couldn’t help but wonder how we would get the rest of the bees into the hives.
I got the smoke pump ready, but to my horror Bolkas banged the box onto the hive to make the bees fall in. “Pump the smoke,” he screamed, and I braced myself for a swarm of bees I thought would chase us off the shipping container to prance around the yard like a spastic pair of screaming boobies.
To my surprise, though a few bees flew around frantically in confusion, they were pretty relaxed. I tried sweet-talking the bees in Italian to keep them calm and bond with them. After a few more bangs, some smoke and my body’s entire supply of cortisone, the bees were all in the hive. We put on the top, left them some sugar water and capped the hive.
Two weeks later the bees are settled and happy. Every morning I bring them sugar water before the sun comes up. If I wait too long and get caught in their pathway I am sure to get stung, as the bees become sluggish and “honey drunk” on their way back to the hive after a good nectar feast. Once they have enough honey in their hive our meetings will be less frequent, which makes me sad. As we get to know each other, we have become calmer, and I am starting to trust them. Perhaps there’s more to a hive than honey. Bees are teaching me to slow down and move with purpose.
Cristina Cosentino enjoys mushrooms, kickboxing and playing music. You’ll most likely find her eating or volunteering on local farms or hangin’ with the honeybees. She has a B.A. in anthropology and an M.A. in Italian studies specializing in Slow Food. She lives in Smithtown with her awesome family.
Check out her blog at greenwormagriculture.