How does one get bees? There are two ways. The first is to catch a swarm. Colonies that are very strong in the early spring often feel crowded, so they raise a new queen and split into two families. The old queen and half the bees leave the nest and search for a new home – they swarm. This is what you see when a swarm of bees is floating through your neighborhood one afternoon, or you see a dark, buzzing ball hanging from a tree branch, only for it to mysteriously disappear a few hours later.
For a beekeeper, spotting this ball of bees is a godsend. It’s like finding a 50 euro bill on the sidewalk. All you need is a cardboard box and, depending how high the bees decide to perch, sometimes a ladder and a bit of balance. Knock all the bees into the box, move them into an empty hive in your apiary, and suddenly you have a new family working hard to bring you honey.
If you need more certainty in acquiring bees, as we did, you can also purchase them. We bought four hives from Maria Lučka, a well-known bee-breeder near Kobarid. But we didn’t get full hives; each was just a plastic bucket with 2 kg of bees and queen – a “fake” swarm. The bees can be taken from any hive that has sufficient number, but the queen has to be raised separately. To do this, a breeder gathers eggs from their best hive: the gentlest, most disease-resistant, and strongest honey producer. She then puts these eggs into another hive, one that is tricked into believing it does not have a queen, which then uses the eggs to raise as many new queens as possible.
10 days later, just before the queens will hatch, the beekeeper takes the pupae and puts each one in a small colony which does not have a queen. The bees, ecstatic at receiving a new mother, nurse her into the new world. At first the young queen is unable to lay eggs, but after a mating flight, the only one of her life, she is able to start her work as a queen.
At that moment, the bee breeder plucks the queen from this hive, puts her in a cage, and then throws her in a bucket with a few thousand strangers. The cage is important: it separates the queen and the bees who would kill the interloper immediately without it. But as time passes and the pheromones start to settle, the bees soon accept the queen as their own. By the time we received these swarms, we could just dump them in empty hive, and by the next morning they begin their harvest.