Honeybee Biology

Who’s The Boss?

Being your own boss is nice. You get to decide what you want to do, when and how. As an employee, I report to work when I’m scheduled, do the tasks I’m trained for, and stay until it’s all done. But as a writer for whydobees.com, I have the option of waiting for an idea to rise up, trusting that the right side of my brain is doing its thing as I go through my day. I can decide if this idea is worthwhile and take the time to let it percolate. Some days the words roll off my pencil onto the paper; other days the practical words concerning holidays or visitors or appointments and obligations nudge the creative ones aside. An idea is released only if and when I bless it as ready. Painter, writer, or musician . . . all artists know intuitively how to let the magic happen within the parameters of disciplined creativity.

Honey bees are diligent workers and skilled artists. But they are not their own boss. Even if we remove the beekeeper that manages the hives and reinforces their schedule, they’re still not the boss. They answer to universal cues. The tilt of the earth and its place in space relative to the sun drive the temperature and light cycles they answer to. The complex interactions of the ecosystem effect their health. Even earth’s geological features have an influence. It’s a balancing act with many variables. Though honey bees live in an autonomous colony and their activities determine the livelihood of the hive, they are also at the direction and sometimes the mercy of things beyond their control.

At no time in a bee-year is this more apparent than a warm sunny day in June. It’s like the tarp has been flung off a canvas, revealing the culmination of their efforts. Honey bees have been working hard all winter, when the sun still arcs low over the sky, the nights are long, and the deep, deep cold of January settles in.

Since late November, it’s been just the girls, one big slumber party in the darkness of the hive. Picture a mass of worker bees, heads facing inward with the queen in the middle, all vibrating their wing muscles to keep the temperature a toasty 80 degrees F. The queen stays warm in the center while the workers make trips to the pantry for honey (a healthy-sized hive will consume 30 pounds of the stuff in a winter), and very quick forays to the outside to eliminate waste on days when temperatures reach the mid-40s. This winter generation of workers is aging by now, and the queen keeps her pheromone pulse on things. If the pantry is well stocked with honey and pollen, she may be stimulated to lay eggs, even in these cold days of January and February. This maintains the population of winter bees and is also the precursor to spring egg-laying which explodes as temperatures drift upward, and more importantly, as light stays in the sky longer each day, waking flower blooms that will be their first source of new nectar.

 

And then they get creative. Honey bees create perfect hexagons out of beeswax that they meticulously clean and polish for their brood or for honey and pollen storage. They dance in the hive, weaving intricate patterns that tell other bees where the best flowers are. A new queen flies out to join in a mating dance with drones. Workers set up brood chambers with the eye of an interior designer – the nursery in the center of strategically placed honey- and pollen-filled hexagons. Honey itself is a culinary work of art with just the right blend of nectar, water, enzymes and secret ingredients.

What drives the creative urge? Whether it’s hexagons or dances, a musical score or a painting, or even dinner. We respond to basically the same cues honey bees respond to. It shows in our hunger and sleep patterns, the growth cycles of our nails and hair. There are the larger patterns of growth and senescence, coordinated on microscopic levels that change our features, how we think, and how we function over time. Our lifespan and lifestyle may be different but the DNA and the instructions inside are the same.

So, is the honey bees’ instinct to create perfectly ergonomic, space-saving, symmetrical, beautiful hexagons work or art? Is it any different from the human desire to string notes together to make music or blend a palette of colors to create a painting? Thousands of years ago, music and art were means of communication for survival, right alongside hunting and gathering, childrearing, and protecting one’s clan. It’s in our DNA and it’s in the cycles and patterns this unique universe weaves. Maybe the pull of creativity is like this too and we’re not really our own boss after all.

Honeybee Biology

Partying, Naturally

“Did you hear there’s a new vaccination for foulbrood?” my husband called from his perch in the den, gaze fixed on his computer. “How do you vaccinate a bee?” I wondered. But I was almost out the door, a tote bag dangling off my left arm, its contents clanging together as it bumped my knee with each step. Thick mittens and a mug of tea in my right hand, I finagled the garage door knob open without spilling. “Bookmark it,” I called as the garage door closed behind me.

I was heading out to Connecticut College and in the tote bag were supplies for the Sprout Garden’s year-end meeting, held in December in the interlude between the end of classes and the beginning of finals. Part of the college’s Sustainability program, the Sprout Garden is a student-managed organic garden providing hands-on experience in small-scale sustainable farming techniques. Fruits and vegetables grow from raised beds while chickens mill about eating the insect pests that these plants attract. This is where they hope to have an apiary come April. They’d been learning beekeeping essentials all semester and preparing for their new colonies. A bee-based product was on the list of natural body products and snacks that was the focus of this meeting . . . pure fun and relaxation, celebrating gardens and pollinators. My bag was packed with supplies to make beeswax lip balms.

I found my way to the Steel House, once faculty housing with a small kitchen, where core Sprout Garden members Eric, Hannah and Margaret, were busy. Eric was peeling mangoes, a blender at the ready to render Orange-Mango smoothies. Margaret was whipping up guacamole with fresh avocados and tomatoes, rummaging in the cupboards for the odd salt and pepper shakers hidden there. Hannah was writing product instructions on the whiteboard at one end of the room. A card table held the ingredients she listed: coffee grounds, raw sugar, honey, essential oils, and Castile soap, alongside the guacamole and a mighty bowl of corn chips for dipping. The blender whirred. A jar of coconut oil was softening in simmering water on the stove. I set up the beeswax as its twin on the burner to the right and added shea butter, Vitamin E oil and lip balm containers to the cluster of supplies. Students arrived and searched the cupboards for mixing bowls and measuring cups. They concocted body washes and facial scrubs, ate guacamole and drank smoothies, and made a happy mess.

Also tucked inside my bag was an article by Evan Bush, a Seattle Times staff reporter that highlighted Paul Stamets and his work with mushrooms and bees. Mushrooms and bees? It seems that scientists are trying all angles to help them thrive and survive, from vaccines to mushrooms. A number of years ago, this mushroom farmer, beekeeper, and astute observer noticed that bees were attracted to mushroom mycelia, the branching fibers that look like a lacey cross between root hairs and cobwebs. Facing the near-epidemic virus attacks of many beekeepers, he wondered if there was something about mushroom mycelia that was beneficial. In controlled experiments, it was shown that bees fed sugar water and mycelia extract were more resistant to the viruses carried by mites than those fed sugar water alone. This mycelia extract with its antiviral properties could easily be added to food supplements and work is underway to make this type of antiviral therapy available to beekeepers. I’ll be keeping my eye out for this new product.

Esteban, one of the Sprout Garden managers had described this to me briefly at our last meeting so I wanted to share the article with him. And just as bees might benefit from mushrooms, it turns out that mushrooms can benefit from bees. I had brought beeswax not only to make lip balms but also for Esteban’s mushroom inoculation experiment. Esteban’s eyes widened at the chunk of beeswax I handed him. “Whoa, this is awesome,” he said, reaching for it. I showed him a bucket of raw beeswax too, the mixture of older brown beeswax and newer blond wax I had scraped from some frames, brimming with bug parts and sticky with nectar. Looking between the two, I could see he appreciated what he was holding.

“So tell me about this inoculation process,” I said.

His plan was to inoculate logs with the spores of different species of mushrooms, using the wax as protection for the growing fungus. He told me that beeswax is breathable, allowing gas exchange with the environment, yet is also a natural barrier to water and contaminants. He hopes to add mushrooms to the Sprout Garden’s bounty next season.

In the end, each student had created jars of body products, to give away as gifts or use themselves, working with natural products to make things we use every day without any additives or unpronounceable names in them. Esteban had his beeswax to naturally coat spores that would grow to mushrooms. I don’t know what scientists are using for foulbrood vaccinations (I haven’t gotten back to that bookmark yet), but finding ways to work with natural products seems like a good idea. Observing and experimenting, we just might find a way to help the bees, and people, and other organisms. I’d like to see the feathered mycelia protected under that coat of beeswax sprout tiny mushrooms in the spring, right alongside the new honey bee colonies.

Beekeeping

Finding Gold in a Dirty Pot

In my previous post, my basement was edging toward organized. We all cycle through rounds of order and messiness – bees, beekeeping chores, and even humans just living life. Where we arrive is, at best, better than where we began. The beekeeper in me is ready to unravel one neat area; this time to turn a pile of messy leftovers from a season of beekeeping into a golden disc of wax.

Alchemy was chemistry before the advent of the Periodic Table in the 1800s. Back in Medieval times, it was believed that the four basic properties of the universe – earth, fire, water and air – when combined in certain ratios could transform everyday compounds into gold, booze, even life itself.

Today we know otherwise. Mix ordinary ingredients like eggs, flour, chocolate, and oil together, each with their own unique chemical and physical properties, add energy in the form of heat, and soon the scent of brownies wafts from your oven. Bite into a warm square and chemistry starts all over again, as enzymes break down the molecules, enhancing the flavor. Craving chocolate yet?

Rendering a bucket of raw wax scraped from hive equipment is basically chemistry too, though the end result is magical enough to earn it the honorary title of alchemy. Raw beeswax starts out as a conglomeration of products from the hive: wax, pollen, honey, propolis, bee wings and other appendages. Toss it all in a pot, add heat, and soon a golden liquid rises to the top. Cooling, it becomes a disc of pure gold. To me, this process is magic. But just a bit more complicated than waving a magic wand.

Beekeeping books and the internet offer advice on rendering beeswax to its purest state. Feel free to peruse and combine methods. That’s what I did and this is what works for me. First, a trip to the Goodwill Store is in order. Among the plates and teacups, waffle irons and bric-a-brac (the very things you may have contributed from your messy basement), you need to find a misfit pot as the perfect melting vessel. It needs to be big enough (6-8 quarts), have enough dents to lend it some character, and a handle that a potholdered hand can fit through. A bargain at $2. Christen this one the “dirty pot.” Its insides will forever be smeared with the first renderings of beeswax – brown and lumpy with just a hint of gold shining through. Don’t ever think of cleaning it. You will also need a larger pan that can serve as a double boiler to this one.

Set up shop in your kitchen and watch the alchemy unfold. Cover counters and the floor with newspaper to make cleanup easier as beeswax is notoriously tenacious. Set your dirty pot inside your double boiler. A note of caution: Wax is flammable! Always use this double boiler method when melting wax. Keep the heat at a simmer, never stray too far, and practice patience. When silver bubbles rise along the outside edges of your dirty pot, the temperature is about right. Carefully lower a few fistfuls of raw honeycomb into its belly. The heat makes this fluffy mixture collapse on itself and you can easily add more before adding an equal volume of water. It will begin to look like an agitated mud puddle. With the gentle heat and an occasional stir, bonds soften their molecular grip, and liquid gold rises to the surface as pure molten beeswax. The chunks of detritus slowly descend into the water. Turn off the heat and walk away. Practice patience.

Within an hour or so, the sheen of melted wax is transformed to a soft translucent amber disc floating above the debris-laden water. This is only step one. Wax is less dense than water but so is much of the debris. This is caught on the underside of the disc as it hardens. Scrape off as much as you can without digging into the wax. Discard the dirty water, preferably outside – it’s good stuff to decomposers out there. Set the disc back into the pot for a second melting, this time without water. Keep a closer eye on it now, poking at the bees and debris to free them from the wax, which takes on a brown chunky appearance again, though not as murky as the first rendering. Once melted, pour it through a filter. Mine is not high-tech – I use a simple foil bread pan with a paper towel or tripled cheesecloth clothes-pinned to the top to make a sling for the melted wax. The wax drips through, leaving the brown debris behind on the paper towel. It sounds like a sweet summer rain on the skylights. Again, practice patience. But if you’re like me, you can’t help but lift the edge of the paper towel to reveal pure gold, not a bug leg in sight. When it has hardened it easily pops out of the pan.

Order from chaos. Transformation from messiness. Bees, basements and byproducts of the hive. Back in the height of the season, honeybees gathered bits and pieces of the natural world and transformed them into perfect honeycomb.  Used wisely to raise brood and store food, it takes on a characteristic messiness of its own. A cleaned basement can reveal treasures forgotten and spiders banished. A pile of hive scraps is transformed to a golden disc of pure beeswax. All these things take energy, but all are worth the effort. It’s not really alchemy, not always chemistry, but there’s always a hint of magic in what you might find.

Pure beeswax
Beekeeping

Encouraging Gravity

“Gravity and entropy are powerful processes in the natural world.” This quoted from Rick Hanson, PhD, noted neuroscientist. Gravity draws things together, toward a center. This is my hive. Entropy scatters them in disarray, an ever-widening circle into the universe. This is my basement at the end of beekeeping season. Honeybees have a system from which they never deviate under normal conditions. Frames in the brood chambers show brood nestled in the middle, surrounded by pollen and nectar, tended by nurse bees, the diligent young workers that haven’t graduated to foragers yet. Honey supers, starting as empty frames, are drawn out with perfect hexagonal comb, then filled with nectar which is converted to honey, all step by step.

As orderly as the hexagonals in a frame are, the corner of the basement where I store my beekeeping supplies is the polar opposite. My system of organization and procedures fails me regularly by this time of year. Most basements are pretty messy already – a reservoir for little-used items and boxes of old clothes and bric-a-brac for a future tag sale, maybe a freezer, some tools. For many, it’s the someday room, as in someday I’ll get around to this. It waits patiently. To really mess up a basement, get a hobby, like beekeeping. Other hobbies would do of course, woodworking perhaps. That’s my husband’s corner of the basement. Yet even the wood scraps are propped neatly against the cement wall according to type and height. My corner is unabashedly, beautifully messy. It reflects all the busy-ness of an active season. There is equipment to be cleaned; boxes and frames to be scraped of propolis and extra beeswax; and plastic take-out containers overflowing with wax in its raw form. Scattered white pine needles – great natural fuel for the smoker – spill from a bucket and lend an outdoorsy smell that blends with the heavenly scent of beeswax. A spare pair of socks peeks out from under a shelf.

It’s time to invoke the gods of gravity and bring it all together into some semblance of order.

Here’s the check list (and a good one to keep for reference, fellow beekeepers).

• Scrape excess propolis and beeswax from frames and boxes. Separate the two if you have enough take-out containers; the wax you render will be that much cleaner.
• Scrub boxes, inner and outer covers, and bottom boards with a mild bleach solution to kill any mold. Set these aside with plenty of space between them so they dry completely.
• Store any drone frames in the freezer for the season; the bees will clean them off next season. Ignore all protestations from other family members that squishy larvae are next to the burger patties and ice cream.
• Wash your hive tool, bee suit, veil and gloves; hang to dry.
• Store clean sugar-water jars upside down and cap any unfilled honey jars. This keeps resident spiders out. We have our share. I’m ok with this because they in turn keep other bugs in check.
• Establish a bin for miscellaneous stuff: extra entrance reducers, the flat pieces of wood used to prop sugar-water jars in the hive, frame-building supplies, etc.
• Rotate any frames pulled from the hive through the freezer at 48-hour intervals to kill any wax moth larvae. Again, ignore protests. Store these on their long ends, like so many books on a shelf.
• Make sure all your honey extracting equipment is meticulously cleaned and covered.
• Wax rendering equipment is inherently messy, but do your best here to at least consolidate it on one shelf.

Order from chaos. Entropy to gravity, so to speak.

I love stepping back after this cleanup process to survey my corner, as neat and tidy as beekeeping equipment allows. And then, I proceed to unravel just a corner of it as I pull out all the wax rendering equipment. This is the amazing part – watching the transformation from a pile of raw wax complete with bee legs, antennae, and odd bits of organic matter to pure wax. It’s alchemy at its best, beeswax defying gravity to rise out of the muck as a golden disc.

From this:

Raw beeswax

To this:

Pure beeswax

I’ll take you through the process next time.

 

Beekeeping

Autumn Beekeeping

Life gets in the way. Isn’t that a song line? Between traveling, which includes pre-travel frenzy and finding my rhythm again post-travel, I haven’t been able to spend too much time in the hives lately. Not to mention that this organizing part of my brain keeps the writing side of my brain hostage.

So, yes, life gets in the way, but life also goes on. (Sorry for the clichés.) Bees are sturdy critters. Unlike most livestock, they don’t need to be tended to daily. Especially now that the cold mornings are here.

Aside from refilling sugar water supplies, it has been almost two weeks since my beekeeping buddy and I ventured into the hives. That day, Tim coaxed a frame from the top box of my hive, sticky propolis threads trailing. “What do you see?” Ugh, he was testing me again. Like any good teacher, asking questions instead of making statements. He tilted it so the sun caught the beads of nectar in a thousand reflections. I looked long, not quite sure what he was asking. A few capped brood cells winked up at me from the center of the frame. “Lots of nectar. That’s good, right?” Good because it’s October. If this had been June, it would have meant a failing queen. “Right, the workers are starting to shut the queen down.”

We were fully dressed in bee suits, veils and gloves; the smoker was fired up to calm extra-vigilant guards. Bees are more protective this time of year. This abundance of nectar in the top frames, mostly from goldenrod, asters and supplemental sugar water, was a good sign. As fast as the last brood cells hatch, workers fill them with nectar. This forces the queen down in to the deeper, warmer parts of the hive. We removed empty frames and consolidated full ones to take each hive down to 3 boxes. Too many boxes and the hive is like a big drafty house; the cold seeps in and they have to go too far to find honey stores.

It’s about this time of year that my worry gene kicks into high gear. Do my honeybees have enough stores to get them through the winter? Have I done enough to keep the mite level low? What if a mouse makes its home in there? There have been bear sightings not far from here; should I invest in an electric fence?

Worry, of course, gets me nowhere. A quick peek into the hives this afternoon tells me they’re alive and well. Lifting the inner cover would send waves of cool air into the depths so I only top off the sugar water up above and slip an entrance reducer in place down below to discourage mice who happen to like the warmth of the hive as much as bees do on chilly nights.

There’s not much out there in the way of flowers anymore so workers keep busy inside making honey. Beating their wings over 200 times a second, they fan the cells, taking the water content of the nectar down to 18%. They add enzymes and other compounds to keep it from spoiling, then cap it with a coat of wax. This will be their food for the winter. The queen stops laying, in tune with her own instincts as much as she is guided by the workers’ activities. The last generation of eggs hatched will be non-foraging workers that will maintain the hive and protect the queen through the cold months. Cold, lifeless drones lie at the entrance most mornings, evicted by the workers, their job done for the season. Hefting the hive from the bottom, it should be about 100 pounds. My shoulders feel the weight.

Fall is closing in, winter on its heels. These mornings I fold chilled fingers up into the sleeves of my jacket. The sound and scent of brown flavors the air, its earthy essence crackling in the leaves pushed along the road by the wind. Hay fields take on an amber tone and there are longer intervals between bird calls. The frogs have long grown silent, replaced by crickets and katydids, their beat steadily measuring the earth’s elliptical orbit. Even these have grown quiet. The sun sends the memory of all its summer sunsets into the maples reflecting yellows, reds and oranges so vibrant they crack my senses open. All this against an unblemished blue sky. I have to look into the pockets of shade tempering the brilliance, for counterbalance.

It’s the end of the active season for bees and beekeepers. But endings are also beginnings. A new cycle begins silently inside the hive. The queen is protected and fed, waiting for cues to start laying again. This period of dormancy before the frenzy of spring activity is vital – bees need the rest in their cycle as much as anyone. My beekeeping chores shift too, taking me inside to the cluster of supplies in a corner of the basement. There’s equipment that needs cleaning and organizing, containers of raw beeswax to render into blocks of pure gold, candles and lip balms to make, jars of honey to label. Beekeeping has its cycles too – like the bees, I’m ready to come inside.

Beekeeping

The Dilemma of Domestication

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines domestication as the process of reorganization of wild animals and plants into domestic and cultivated forms . . . to meet specific requirements or whims. [These animals and plants] are adapted to the conditions of continuous care and solicitude [that] people maintain for them. (https://www.britannica.com/science/domestication) Basically, living things in the natural world were brought into the fold of human everyday living to enhance survival by offering protection and reliable food sources.

I also believe that there’s some innate desire to bring what’s out there, in here, closer to the practicalities of everyday life because instinctively we’re aware that nature has a way of balancing us. We’re wooed by shampoos with natural botanicals or laundry products that are free of chemical dyes, and everything from breads to dairy products that are labeled all-natural with no additives or preservatives.

This softening of the edges between outside and in is more pronounced in some and is expressed in other ways too. In our house, there are little collections of the natural world gleaned from walks near and far on windowsills and bookshelves, filling elegant glass containers and the odd plastic cracker sleeve alike. The windows are usually open, even if just a crack in winter (if I can get away with it). The cat adorns my pillow by night and the piano by day; the dog has his spot on the couch. Spiders nest freely in the upper reaches of the cathedral ceiling, not because I can’t reach them but because I like them there looking down at me. They also find little habitats within my plant collection. About the only living thing I won’t allow inside are ants . . . and the occasional tick I find crawling up my leg from a walk through the woods.

To invite the essence of the natural world into our lives means that unwanted pests hitch a ride on the animals we domesticate – bacteria, viruses, mites, fleas, ticks . . . the Pandora’s box of vermin. So we need to take responsibility for those creatures we domesticate. The spiders are on their own but my dog is protected against fleas, ticks and heartworm on a regular basis. He gets his vaccinations. My cat, also vaccinated, is not allowed outdoors to share parasites with the chipmunks, or play hide and seek with the coyotes that watch from the woods.

Likewise, I take care of my honeybees, even if they’re not invited inside. I provide them with a home, food when necessary, and an added layer of protection against winter winds. I monitor for mites and other pests, treating both mechanically and chemically. Just like I treat my dog. I won’t get into the pros and cons of various chemical treatments. Some beekeepers use chemicals, some don’t. And I understand this – why pump a creature of nature full of chemicals? Everyone has their favorite side of the fence. There are as many ways to protect against honeybee pests as there are flea and tick products for dogs.

Mites, nosema and American foulbrood are the most notorious honeybee pests. Any of these infestations can stress a colony, weaken the bees’ immune systems and decrease honey production – honey they’ll need in winter. Mites also vector some pretty nasty viruses. American foulbrood is deadly, and contagious. The only course is to burn your bees and equipment, a huge loss. If there is one pest to treat for prophylactically, this is it.

Why can’t we just let the bees be? For the same reason many of us don’t allow our dogs to roam the woods unprotected from ticks and why dairy cattle need to be vaccinated and dewormed. It’s about quality of life. My lab mix can expect to live a healthy life of about 12 – 14 years. The average lifespan of a wild coyote is only 6 – 8 years. A housecat can live to 17 or 18; a bobcat lives only 7 years. The average natural lifespan for a domesticated cow is 25 years; a deer only lives a measly 4.5 years on average. Many of these animals in the wild succumb to illness brought on by other living creatures that take up residence in or on them. Deer in the woods live unprotected from ticks, deerflies, and the diseases they carry. They’re hunted by predators that carry their own load of pests. The image of Bambi with his shiny healthy coat and bright eyes is an exaggeration. Animals in the wild don’t have it easy.

If we’re going to domesticate animals for our pleasure and use, we owe it to them to care for them properly. The ultimate health and well-being of our domesticated pets and livestock (yes, bees are considered livestock) depends on it. It’s in the definition of domestication – continuous care and solicitude. How you do it is up to you. But please do it.

Chrysalis

Pass It On

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.