If you’re new to all this, you might be starting to pick up on some of the vocabulary of beekeeping. Maybe you can envision a frame now, and a super; you might have figured out that bees not only bring nectar to the hive but pollen also; and you sort of know what propolis is. Words like smoker and frame that you understand in everyday context have new meanings.
So vocabulary is important. A vocabulary list is just a complex process or story taken apart and put in alphabetical order. While it helps us to understand the terms, the words make the most sense when we weave them into the context of the bigger picture. Nature has its own ideas of order, despite our efforts to classify and pigeonhole. Everything – the weather, flora and fauna, stones and water – is intertwined in the dance of nature, choreographed in real time. The natural world is a hodgepodge of organic beings and fundamental elements woven together in an intricate story, beginnings and endings circling each other. Lining them up anteater to zebra would be like putting the words of the Star Spangled Banner in alphabetical order. There is history behind those verses that connects humans, just as food webs and the water cycle connect all of nature.
That’s where a teacher comes in, someone who throws the words in the air so students can watch them whirl like maple samaras and settle into the forest floor; words for anatomy intermingling with words for nutrition and protection and other beings, and coexistence with those other beings.
New beekeepers need a mentor. Someone older (at least to beekeeping) and wiser when it comes to bees, methods of beekeeping, and timing. Because on one hand, beekeeping is easy. After all, if you offer bees a hive, they will move in and do what bees do naturally. But these new homeowners also need key things at key times from their caretakers. Like children do. You can’t leave a child generally untethered and expect a valedictorian to walk across the stage at 18 years old; likewise, you can’t install a colony of bees in April, go about your business, and expect 30 pounds of honey in September.
When I first started beekeeping, it felt like I’d become a worried new mom, responsible for thousands of little lives. Did they have enough to eat? Were they warm enough? Too hot? Were they safe from robber bees and skunks? Should I give them a night light, check on them at 2 am? I guess the term ‘raising bees’ is an appropriate one. It’s like raising children. I had millions of questions. Luckily, I also had Tim, my mentor.
A beekeeper for more than 25 years, Tim was there when I installed my first hive on a chilly April morning 6 ½ years ago and he still willingly checks on the status of my colonies whenever I ask. We tweak equipment, find the queen, high five at the sight of a full honey super and support each other through mite infestations. He taught me to never, ever give up even when my colonies became totally unbalanced and queenless, teetering on self destruction. He taught me patience, taming the need to hover, my big human face staring at my bees through the inner cover. If they could talk, they’d be grumbling, “leave us alone, we can do this,” just like any independent-minded kid. Just enough hands on and just enough hands-off is a fine line to walk.
Because in reality, honeybees can’t do it alone. They have become, if not domesticated, then at least necessarily managed. More often and with greater intensity, bees are exposed to the activities of human living. The bottom line is that if we want to eat, we need pollinators. And if we want to keep pollinators alive and instrumental in pollinating our crops, we need to mitigate the negative effects of human behavior with some positive or protective measures.
New beekeepers can’t do it alone either. If you’re considering keeping bees, make sure you have a mentor, whether it’s in the form of an internet forum, a book, or a real human. I vote for real humans; the others are supplemental. And then, as a real human with real beekeeping experience, you can pass it on when the time comes. There’s a fledgling beekeeping group at Connecticut College that needs a mentor and I’m stepping up. Of course, the biology teacher in me loves this, nerd that I am, and big fan of young adults in general. Like Tim, I will coax out the answers to their millions of questions by asking my own. I’ll be right there with them when they go into the hives, interpreting what we see. I’ll help them learn that elusive menagerie of skills called patience, trust, and resilience. Their bees will be ok, through storms and swarms and summer droughts. And if a colony dies, they’ll learn to begin again. Just as nature does.