In this article we asked a good friend of ours called Gwendolyn why she decided to become a beekeeper. This is her inspiring story.
The Beginning: If It Were Easy, It Wouldn’t Be Worth It
Everyone must start at the beginning, and that is where I find myself now. The only experience I have with bees is watching my father tend to the two hives he still maintains by the edge of the woods on his property, back beyond the garden. I rode in the car with him as he picked up his first packages of bees, two mysterious buzzing boxes packed with crawling insects, and I watched as he proceeded to install his first colonies without a veil. We both learned something that day: he learned to wear a veil and I learned what happens when a bee stings someone right below the eye. And I still wanted to be a beekeeper.
Clueless but optimistic, I signed up for a class aimed at giving beginning beekeepers a reasonable chance of making it through their first year keeping bees. Spending six Saturday mornings in a public library watching bearded old men elaborate on a series of PowerPoint presentations taught me more than I ever imagined about bees and how to keep them alive and productive. It also taught me that in beekeeping, challenges are inevitable. Unlike hobbies such as rock climbing or competitive eating, in beekeeping you can do everything right and still end up failing. Dead bees. No honey. All that effort (and money) spent for nothing.
On the first day of class, one of the presenters stared at the floor pensively, speaking slowly: “Bees are a lot like us.” The way the septuagenarian spoke suggested to me in a gut-niggling way that beekeeping will be one of those pursuits that teaches me far more about myself than I ever set out to learn. Something about beekeeping has always struck me as magical, with the bees existing in a universe parallel to my own.
Through interacting with the world of the bees, we learn more about our own world, and about ourselves.
Beekeepers shoulder a great responsibility. In charge of the lives of tens of thousands of beings, for any chance at success, it is of crucial importance to understand the bee as completely as possible. That means learning the intricacies of the brood cycle, the behaviors, and the threats to the vitality of the honeybee. It isn’t just learning about how to stay one step ahead of Varroa destructor and the hive beetles, though. Beekeeping, it seems to this newbie, brings the beekeeper as close as they dare to venture into an examination of something much deeper.
There is something about beekeeping that treads on the sacred. Opening the hive is a ritual. Just as in many religious ceremonies, it involves fire. And special clothing. Donning the bee veil – while on the surface serves as a precautionary measure – is also an act of pious submission to the power of the stinger and the almighty Apis.
The connection between the honeybee and the food we eat is not lost on me. The oft-quoted line, “every third bite of food is thanks to the bees,” is probably true, especially when one considers the proliferation of plant-based diets. But there is something profound in the extremes between the sweetness of the honey bees produce and the pain of their sting. I read in Laurence Packer’s Keeping the Bees that the stinger is a vestige of the past. Ancestors of Apis mellifera used their stingers to inject a paralytic substrate into insect victims. With their prey rendered immobile, these proto-bees could eat a meal that couldn’t escape. Humans have long valued bee venom, despite the discomfort of receiving it. It is an intriguing thought that the thing most people dread about the bees – creatures that produce our food – came about so that the very same creatures could obtain their own food.
Bees don’t eat us. They gain nothing from stinging us. As a barefoot child I learned that the bees don’t want to sting me…but they will if I get in their way. The only times I ever found myself on the receiving end of a sacrificial sting, it was my own clumsy fault. I stepped on a bee while she was going about her work in a patch of clover.
Some people are in it for the honey, I am in it because I have a vision. I want to create a paradise on my own land, replete with gardens and livestock to fuel my body and a beautiful space to enjoy as I work and live. For everything to proceed as planned, I need bees. Without pollinators to tie everything together, the plants won’t produce food and everything will be off-kilter.
News reports remind us that the world is burning and flooding, but through it all, the bees keep working. They adapt and adapt and then they can’t. Overuse of toxic pesticides kills the sisterhood of honey bees at their own doorstep. Overzealous, paranoid, or perhaps inept beekeepers cause harm through their good intentions whether through misuse of chemical treatments for varroa, or inaction when action is the neighborly thing to do. And still, the bees keep working. As long as a worker bee is alive and able to fly, she will go to work. Because her work is never done. At least not until the world is a soggy pile of ashes.
I can’t help but wonder what the world would be like if we humans organized ourselves as the bees.
With a single queen we may or may not be willing to die for (it depends on the situation, really), a group of dedicated nurses to care for the young and the queen, some domestics to do the housekeeping and security detail, and an army of workers who take advantage of every moment of good weather to forage in the daylight. Males would be relatively few and kept around for reproductive purposes only. Everyone would take turns, and resources would be distributed evenly. If we decided our queen was failing to do her job, or ineffective, or if we got a bad feeling about her, we could replace her in just 17 days. (They say diet is everything, and in an apian world, that is still true.)
I decided to start out with two hives. If one fails, I’ll still have the other. As for the bees, I am looking forward to the day I can carry my package out into the bee yard and release the bees into their new home. While I love the idea of a package, I am less enamored with the possibility of everyone not getting along. For that reason, I ordered one package and one five-frame nuc from my local bee club.
Perhaps the most common piece of information I receive from experienced beekeepers is the statement, presented in a variety of ways, that everyone does it differently. It seems to me that beekeeping styles are just as diverse as beekeepers themselves. Somehow, I suspect that colonies of bees exhibit the same diversity, whether related to temperament, vulnerability to disease, and the balance between productivity in the hive and actions taken by the beekeeper to keep the hive humming. Over all the contradictory advice from more experienced beekeepers, one line repeats itself loudest in my mind.
My father shared with me the words of one of the beekeepers he respects most: The bees know what they’re doing.
Leaving the library on the final day of class I felt not disheartened, but more optimistic than ever. By no means did the class make me an expert, but it did increase my awareness of the vast body of information humans have gleaned about the utterly fascinating Apis mellifera. I look forward to starting my first hives and learning more about bees. But as excited as I am to move my first bees into their new homes, there is no way I’ll attempt it without a veil.
Delaplane, Keith. First Lessons in Beekeeping. (2007). Dadant.
Packer, Laurence. Keeping the Bees. (2010). Harper Collins.