Hive Mentality

By Tammie Painter

Hive Mentality

I stand half-blinded by the mesh covering my face and the sweat dripping into my eyes as hundreds of stinging insects swarm at a frightening proximity to my head.

How do I get myself into these things?

I blame my honey-craving sweet tooth for convincing me that keeping bees is something sane people do.

Sure, bees pollinate over one-third of our food crops, from apples to avocadoes, but their tastiest product is honey: Gooey, super sweet honey. Like a kid dipping her finger in the sugar bowl, I will slurp liquid gold straight from the jar so often that entire pints have been known to disappear from my house within two weeks.

So when I saw the cutest little bee house pictured amongst the wildflowers of a bee-friendly garden and learned how much honey one of these houses could produce, my sweet tooth screamed, “You are getting one of those!” Or it could have screaming that it was time to get to the dentist.  

The translation from Sweet Tooth to English may have been muddled from having just watched a documentary about the plight of bees and all the horrid things modern agriculture is doing to them. I’m not normally a fan of bugs, insects or anything that can crawl in my mouth while I’m sleeping, but bees have a special place in my heart…and my taste buds.

Using my online research skills, I found the bee house from the photo. I then promptly fell off my chair when I saw the price. After remounting my seat, I noticed a local shop sold bee hives. Not traditional square hives, but top bar hives that resemble a long barn. Inside the hive rest several bars much like a xylophone. The bees build comb down from the bars and eventually fill them with honey.

Addiction took over sense and I rushed to get my hive.

This was November – not an active apiary time in Oregon – so I whiled away the winter reading everything I could find on beekeeping, painted my hive to cute it up, and then debated on how to obtain residents for the hive: buy or bait.

Although most people view stinging animals as a nuisance, some beekeepers will pay up to $100 for a batch of bees. The other option is to attract a swarm. Naysayers in the bee world scoffed saying I had better chances of catching Sasquatch than attracting a wandering swarm, but I’m a cheapskate at heart and proving the naysayers wrong sounded better than plunking down another C-note on my endeavor.

In March, I baited my hive with secret bee sauce (aka: lemongrass oil) and put out the welcome mat. Nothing. Two weeks later, I baited again. Still nothing. Flashbacks of throwing parties in junior high that no one showed up to raced through my mind.

Apparently a watched hive never fills with bees.

My husband and I left for vacation in early April. Five days into the trip, my mom left this on my voice mail…several times: “YOUR YARD IS FULL OF BEES!” I said to wait a couple days and if the bees seemed aggressive to call the bee people. Two days later, she reported with curious fascination that the bees had moved into the hive.

I had bees!


To get honey you need to “manage” bees. Or at least manage how they build the comb. One screwy bar of comb and a tidy hive can turn into a clump of wax. To manage, you have to get inside the hive and check each bar.

Yes, I was going to have to stick my hands into a hive of bees.

Suddenly this hobby seemed very scary.

Sure, I’d done my reading and, in principle, I knew what I had to do. But knowing how to pull a parachute’s rip cord is not the same as leaping out of a plane. Beekeeping is the extreme sport of animal husbandry, and the only way I was going to get my honey was to manage my hive.

After several deep breaths, I donned my beekeeper’s jacket then a second layer of pants as protection against butt stings. I strode out to the hive and noticed my husband trailing after me. With his camera. Apparently this was going on video.

With trembling hands I opened the hive. No one attacked. A good start. I lifted the first bar. No bees. Second bar. Again, no bees.

I eased out the third bar.

It was covered in bees!

The first instinct when holding something covered in bees is to fling it far from you and run the opposite direction. With sheer will power fueled by thoughts of honey, I suppressed my fleeing instinct. I was tempted to toss the bar at my husband who, having read a total of zero pages of the bee books, was shouting beekeeping instructions to me. Ignoring him, I focused on the honey I resolved not to share with him.

The first inspection went off without a single sting or divorce paper and I was rewarded with an adrenaline rush that left me a junkie for hive inspections. I got my fix once a week for several months. During this time my head filled with apian anxieties: worrying about them on their journeys, fretting when a neighbor sprayed nasty chemicals all over his yard, and panicking when water seeped inside the hive.

My husband intervened saying, “You’re thinking too much about the bees.”

Maybe I was. The bees seemed to know what to do without any help from me other than a little management. I learned to stop worrying and love the bees.

In October, I decided it was time for the bees to pay some rent. Like a skilled pickpocket, I dove in, snatched a couple bars when they weren’t looking and collected ten jars of very local honey.

In my backyard, several thousand bees have found a safe place to call home and my sweet tooth has found Nirvana.

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4 Responses to “Hive Mentality”

  1. Tammie, this was a fun read. You are much braver than I am. I tell my students about how bees do a butt dance wiggle to communicate. Can’t imagine having honey at the tips of your fingers :)

  2. Rose Ann says:

    Your story sparked my sweet tooth–went out and bought a teddy bear filled with honey. Wish it was as special as yours! Great story!

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