Beau August 16th, 2009
Beekeeper. The word brings to mind curious thoughts about people in white suits and funny hats. I always viewed these folks as a little bit odd, semi-reclusive types that sold us honey and enjoyed having stinging insects crawl around on them. The other day I smiled when I realized that I’m becoming one of those odd types myself!
I’m still new enough that even using the word “beekeeper” seems strange to me. I’ve also found that beekeepers are a pretty amazing group of folks from all walks of life. Bees are kept everywhere, from cities to farms, and the people who work with them are as diverse as the flowers and trees that the bees visit. I’m only in my second year of a planned five year experiment. I told myself, “Self!? Let’s see what beekeeping is all about. Give it five years. Ok?” I had some prodding of course. More specifically the young boy’s urging, after having watched a science cartoon about beekeeping at age 6. That was like some motivational charm that inspired me to try something I always wanted to try, or at least thought I wanted to try.
Like many of you, I’ve always had pastoral visions of living closer to the land… a place in the country, gardens, vegetables, animals, bees… self reliance… even a little place to hide out if the world goes crazy. Quite the romantic view of things, and even though it seems like the world has gone crazy the past few years, life pretty much goes on the same as before. Living in the country is a grand thing indeed if you don’t mind the work that comes along with it. We have, in a rural hobby farm fashion, approached some of that pastoral ideal. Not nearly as some of our hardier blogging friends have done with homesteading, but we’re getting there. Sometimes you ask yourself what you were ever thinking, but having a few hives of bees has definitely made it more enjoyable.
Beekeeping can be a hobby or a profession, and some people work with bees all their lives. The accumulated knowledge and experience among 20, 40 and even 60+ year beekeeping veterans is amazing, and I understand fully that just having bees for a couple of years doesn’t make one a Beekeeper.
My Mom came out and helped me remove and cover the honey supers this year. She’s 80 years old and amazing in her strength and endurance. She had her own hive years ago in a more suburban environment, enjoying the bees for a few years. I remember being home briefly one summer and wondering about my crazy parents and their beehive. They had this old hand-cranked extractor… a little thing that held two frames. I watched them get the honey out of their frame and tasted it… yum! Maybe that planted the seed for my thoughts on beekeeping, I don’t really know.
While the “beekeeper” name hasn’t felt quite right yet- I am getting closer. For now I still think of myself as a Bee Learner- someone who sort of understands the process, but really has no idea what the heck the bees are doing most of the time. Although I’ve been stung a few times, the bees I have are pretty gentle. I keep wondering if there’s some mass event where the bees are going to revolt and I’ll have to come to terms with a more stark reality of their independence. I’ve read stories of beekeeps being chased out of their apiary by hoardes of angry bees. That would take a little of the fun out of it to be sure.
So far so good however, and the bees seem to be doing fine. I pulled up a full frame of honey from this super with beautiful white wax covering it all. If I wanted to make or sell comb honey, it would be perfect if it was this color. It was a nice day to take the honey off the hive- and right around mid-summer so the bees have plenty of time to make more.
Beekeeping is becoming a lot more popular, and there’s a host of really interesting blogs and websites out there devoted to the subject. As more people embrace these fuzzy little girls who bring us honey, some appear to romanticize them however… embracing that Disney-esque anthropomorphic tendency we often have with animals of all kinds.
I’m not one of those people, unless I’m enjoying the 8-year old’s imagination. While I certainly agree that bees are really cute (I watched a newborn bee crawling out of its cell yesterday!), I know they’re just an insect that does amazing… sometimes painful things! I don’t ever want to underestimate these little guys, or female workers to be more precise, and I respect that they’re a living colony of animal life that fulfills important roles.
For their own part, the life of the colony is paramount. I’m glad I can help foster an environment that helps them live and grow. I don’t use chemicals or antibiotics, and have this growing belief that too many chemicals both within and external to the hive is compromising the immune system of the honeybee.
These bees are living naturally, in a man-made box of course, subject to all the challenges of their environment. They huddle close together in winter, and hang outside the hive a little in summer when it’s hot. I wrap them in the cold, and prop the cover up a bit when it’s too hot and they can use more ventilation. They fan their wings to circulate the air, and to evaporate the moisture from the honey in the hive before sealing it with wax. I try not to mess with them too much- they know what they’re doing. Hopefully they’ll be strong enough to overcome any potential disease or parasite problems.
The birds, hornets, dragonflies and even lizards come by the hive for a “bee snack” at times. The little guy below was brazen enough to munch on a bee while I was working with them. The hive population ranges from around 20,000 bees in winter to more than 50,000 to 60,000 bees in summer in a single hive. The young boy was asking me how many bees we had altogether… I laughed and said probably more than 150,000. Not that many when you consider many commercial beekeepers have from hundreds to thousands of hives.
For now my bees are doing pretty well with a natural approach- I can’t officially say “organic” because that word comes with a lot of costs and inspection requirements dictated by the USDA. Arguably for the better whole, and you’ve got to have standards somewhere. But hey I know my little bees are making really healthy honey. Maybe I’m just lucky that they’re doing okay and it’s only a matter of time. I don’t really know for sure- but if they ever have problems I’m just going to keep trying, and keep it natural.
The bees really just tolerate me of course. When I go to work with the hives I try to make it a relaxed process, yet there’s an unmistakable air of tenseness or “being on edge.” Part of that is me, and sometimes being uneasy with so many flying around and in the hive. Or the knowledge that if you bang a frame or brood box too hard you’re going to have thousands of bees reeeaaallly unhappy with you! Just a little bump makes thousands of bees go “Buzzzz!” all at once in some innate shared response. That really gets your attention- maybe I should make a recording of it for an alarm clock for the 8 year old :)
And the bees watch me too… a dozen or more guard bees sitting upright on the top edge of the frames, wings erect and ready to fly, turning this way and that, landing on my veil or crawling on the hive tool as I manipulate the frames. Sometimes hives can become “hot” and the bee’s defensiveness is magnified. Some beekeepers routinely are stung several times or more, but with a “hot hive” most will replace the queen and the hive will become more gentle with time and different genetic traits. My bees have been very gentle over the past two years. But when they do become upset they fly around my head, banging on the protective veil to let me know of their displeasure.
The other thousands of bees are busy with their work, but they know something’s up. I try just to focus on what needs to be done- pulling out frames filled with honey, or inspecting frames of bee larvae and pollen looking for any sign of disease or other problems with the queen. The more you learn, the more interesting it becomes though.
We pulled off two full supers and a few other frames that day. Not all of the frames would be extracted, but we removed them with relatively little fuss. I used a “fume board” and some herbal-based solution to help move the bees out of the supers. You put the board on top and they don’t like the smell so they move downwards through the hive. Then you lift off the super- or take frames out one by one if desired. A cordless blower vac helped gently blow the leftover bees from the frames- they don’t seem to mind the wind because its a natural event perhaps, and they fly back to the hive.
There’s a tendency to really want to watch what the bees are doing… to mess with the hive too much, and to try and see everything. So instead I just walk outside with a cup of coffee, and watch them coming and going from the hive. You can’t help but feel a sense of ownership, or stewardship really, to make sure they’re doing okay. I’m still amazed by what they do and how they fit in to the natural world with us.
We’re getting there… Show me the honey! I’m thinking while I roll 50+ pounds of honey on the handtruck back to the house. I remember working and waiting for over a year with these guys to get to the first harvest. So in a virtual sort of way, I’ll share it with you next time in The Honey Harvest Part II!