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Friday, April 22, 2011

More Buzzz Comes to the Valley…

Beez Kneez

About this time every April the Beez Neez Apiary Supply on Maple Street in Snohomish is hummin’—or buzzin’—with activity. This day honeybee enthusiasts from all over the state swarm to Jim Tunnell’s modest little shop. They cross the passes from Eastern Washington: East Wenatchee, Malaga, Ellensburg, Stehekin. They board ferries in the San Juans and head for the mainland. They come to Snohomish from Seattle, Darrington, and Renton. Most have waited anxiously for a half year. Some even longer. And today their wait is over. The bees have arrived. It’s package day pickup at the Beez Neez.Jim, the head droneThis past Tuesday morning in some big apiary outyard in Redding, California, thousands upon thousands of honeybees were shaken from their hives, funneled into screened wooden cages, and packaged up in stringers of five. Owner Jim with helper Quinton riding shotgun make a whirlwind trip with van and trailer to chaperone five hundred packages north back to Snohomish. It’s a perishable, precious cargo they have on board, so the trip home is non-stop. At 3:00 a.m. Jim and Quinton and their golden horde arrive back at the staging area in Snohomish. They snatch a few brief moments of shuteye and then the work begins: distributing five hundred packages to their eager new owners.

It is a hectic scene at the Beez Kneez on package day, and for the last three seasons I have volunteered my services. It’s work I enjoy. Once a year I get to meet interesting folks who share my love of bees. As I help distribute the packages and check off the names of those who have pre-paid for their purchases, I have a chance to talk about bees, offer advice, (gratis, of course—all it’s worth), and share my successes and failures with beginners and experienced beekeepers alike who are picking up their bees. It pleases me no end to see so many people interested in bees these days, for beekeeping is an imperiled business, and these are folks who have a passion for bees and will do whatever it takes to sustain their colonies and advocate for the industry.

What these enthusiasts have purchased with their cash or plastic is a packaged unit of worker honeybees. Buyers have their choice of three pound packages or the larger four pound. A three pound packageA pound of insects amounts to approximately 3,500 little honey gatherers. Each package contains a newly mated queen bee (marked with a white dot for those who wish to locate her in the hive) enclosed in her own cozy royal cage where she is nourished by several thousand ladies-in-waiting. A can of sugar syrup rides along in the cage with the bees—a snack for the road, you might say. The packages are lathed and stapled together in stringers of five. All a'buzzThe stringers are offloaded in a staging area some distance from the distributing site where each cage is vacuumed free of any “hitchhiker” bees that may have stowed away on the outside of the packages during the hubbub of packaging. This cleansing is done in the spirit of neighborliness as the packages are distributed in a residential area. (Quinton tells me the “Mr. Rooter” plumbing business next door lays low for the duration of package days.)

My job is to help unload the stringers from the van as Quinton delivers them. We separate the stringers into stacks of three pounders and four pounders. Next I pry loose the lathes from each package, break them apart into individual units. Most of the purchases are single cage transactions. Between deliveries I do my best to keep the reception line moving: a three pounder for this customer, a four for that. Some have ordered two or three packages. Once in a while an experienced beekeeper will haul off two or three stringers at a time. There are five hundred total and most go out the door the first day. Two or three times the line stretches to the street, but everyone is patient. They exchange stories and bee experiences while they wait, even make new friends, wish each other luck.4 pound line

Even though the pressure is on, I do my best to answer all the questions I can. Whenever possible, I hand a customer a two-page “how-to” handout in hopes this information will be sufficient. Time and again I explain and demonstrate the process of transferring the caged bees and queen to their new home.

For many, this package is their first. They have read books, watched videos, attended classes, but when you hand them that package and they see real bees—their bees—up close and personal, they react in a variety of ways.  Some would rather have me deliver the cages to their vehicles and request I brush off any “freeloaders.” (Cell phone discussions and  texting are minor distractions compared to having a frantic bee bouncing from one cheek to the other and off your nose while you’re driving the freeway speed limit.) Others reach for their packages tentatively, hold them at arm’s length, and gingerly carry them off. For most, it’s just pure excitement. Ahhh, the smell of packaged bees in the morning!

There are four of us on the job this year. Jim’s daughter Rachel has journeyed north from Portland to help Dad manage the day’s frenzy. Rachel works the counter and register and bustles about collecting the supplies at customers’ request.Service with a smile She is an experienced hand at this end of the operation and handles each transaction with patience and a cheerful smile. Quinton delivers load after load in the van. Jim rushes back and forth: in the office one minute, helping me on the distribution line the next. He, too, gQuinton unloadsives advice, answers questions, and demonstrates techniques. And I lift and break apart stringers, offer suggestions, hand out package after package, and make countless trips to vehicles.

It pleases me to see so many parents and children in the line. Some are here to help their child become a beekeeper, a family project.Beefriended Others bring the kiddos for the experience of seeing so many bees in one place while they wait to pick up their packages. I find a hanger-on drone and seize the opportunity to introduce this stingless male to a young gentleman standing at his mother’s side.Once a teacher, always a teacher. Once a bee advocate, never miss a chance to praise and promote the honeybee.

A  mom has brought her three kiddos to the Beez Neez for the complete bee experience. li'l sweet beeShe chats with Rachel while the kids poke about in awe of the honey and beeswax displays, staring at the strange beekeeping paraphernalia. Rachel breaks out the honey sticks, plastic tubes filled with pure honey, and passes them out to the younger set: a sweet enticement to promote the bee bizz. Outside they go where Rachel shows the onlookers how to feed a honeybee with a honey stick.

Tasting the product

The kiddos suck their sticks and watch as the little bee laps up the sticky stuff from another sweet tube. I call the older two over and have them look down the screened face of one of the three pound cages. “Bee tonguesSee, they’re sticking their tongues out at you,” I tease. And sure enough, hundreds of little tongues wiggled at them through the wire mesh.

It was nearly 7:00 p.m. when I left Jim and Quinton to fend for themselves. Nearly four hundred packages had left the premises by then. My forehead was a bit swollen where one of the gadabout ladies sat down pretty hard just north of my left eyebrow. And I was tired: lifting and walking, toting and talking since 10:00 that morning, too busy for lunch. But it was the kind of tired you don’t mind feeling. A satisfied kind of tired. And as if that satisfaction weren’t payment enough, I received an additional four pounds for my services—not in English sterling—but in bees! With an impressive four pound package riding shotgun beside me, we head to their new home back in the Valley. I’m afraid these little gals from the sunny climes of California are in for a chilly awakening, though. As one recipient of a hefty three pound package said of our spring to date: “If you want sun block, come to Seattle!”

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  1. Terry, I should only expect such an eloquent synopsis of package bee day from you, the English teacher. You most certainly have a new blog follower. Also, thanks for taking such a flattering picture of me...although I hate to admit those things are important to me! ;)

  2. Looks like it's a repeat performance Friday when 250 more pkgs come rolling in. Thanks for reading the post--and thanks, too, for brightening up The Ripple with that smile!