"Beekeeper keeping bees" by Michael Gäbler. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
“Why beekeeping?!” asked my cousin. I had explained that I couldn’t attend the annual St. Patrick’s Day bash because I had signed up for an all-day beekeeping workshop that day. But I thought it was obvious. “I like bees?” I offered.
Like many people, I’ve been worried for some time about declining bee populations. Recently I saw this TED talk and – in addition to falling hard for Dr. Marla Spivak – I wanted to do something to protect and defend the bees.
So when I saw in the paper that the local Beekeepers Association was offering a workshop, which would include everything you need to know (and buy) to get started – and there would be bee whisperers (!) there – of course I signed up! And Imaginary Lisa too.
“I think you and I make worse decisions together than we do alone,” I whispered to Lisa as we waited for packets to be distributed and speakers to get organized. She was all gung ho that we were going into beekeeping together. I’d provide the rural acreage and front money, and she’d be responsible for regular hive maintenance since I’m never home. I thought we should wait and see how much work is involved.
The bee whisperers, which is what they called the day's speakers, were … odd. Awkward, quirky, socially challenged; rural, rugged individuals; just odd. This was actually endearing, but the content was confusing. Although they thought they were starting with basics for beginners, they used terms we weren’t familiar with and assumed we would understand the reasons and purposes for the processes and equipment they demonstrated. We didn’t, or at least I didn’t. So we were being introduced to “supers” and “varroa traps” and arguments about the relative merits of different types of frames, all without really knowing why.
Nor could I understand why there was such a big deal about “swarm prevention.” It seemed like swarming is a perfectly natural and normal activity for bees, and I couldn’t figure out why it must be discouraged. They gave us clues to help identify when a hive is getting ready to swarm – which involved putting on all your protective gear and inspecting the hive every 10 days during “honey flow” to look for swarm cells growing new potential queens. I can't see me doing that.
"Bienenkoenigin 43a" by Waugsberg - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
But it turns out the answer is easy if you take it logically: the purpose of beekeeping is to harvest honey. The bees will continue to fill up all available space with honey stores, but once they fill up the hive, they quit. So you put “supers” on top of the hive to encourage them to keep making honey, which you can steal.
Honey harvest is also the reason for discouraging swarming. When a hive swarms, it’s looking for new quarters for expansion. What’s left behind are immature bees – one of which will become the new queen – and no honey. Those tricky bees take the honey with them to live on while they’re house-hunting. (Interestingly, this is one of the reasons a swarm of bees, while terrifying, is not very dangerous: they’re so full of honey that they can’t bend to get their stingers out!)
Anyway, the honey-oriented beekeeper doesn’t want her entire harvest to up and fly away, so the idea is to watch for signs of overcrowding or preparation for a new queen, and move some of the frames to new quarters so the bees will stick around.
I think I’m oversimplifying. But this is clearly more work than I’m willing to invest in beekeeping. I don’t care if I get a honey crop. I just want to help the bees! And it comes as no surprise that bees are pretty good at taking care of themselves. They could maybe use some help in controlling pests (e.g., varroa mites) and diseases, and sometimes a colony won’t make it through the winter because they run out of food and energy. As a beekeeper, I could make sure they have sugar water during difficult winters, and install varroa traps and treat diseases with antibiotics; but I probably wouldn’t. I just want to provide the framework and then let Mother Nature do her thing.
I was surprised to run into a man from my office at the beekeeping workshop. He said he started with three hives last year, but only one of them made it through the winter – and it wasn’t a very severe winter. I considered. I don’t need to feel like a failure at caring for bees. I have plenty of Opportunities To Fail already. Meanwhile, I’m hearing from bee detractors that “bee poop” is really hard to remove from things like your deck, your patio furniture, your car … it’s sticky. You have to scrape it off. I don’t see me doing that either.
So I could invest $500 in hive equipment and $125 in protective clothing and gloves, and then get on a wait list for next spring to buy some starter bees w/queen for a couple hundred more dollars; and in return I’d have sticky bee poop on my deck, ag inspectors checking for bee diseases, responsibility to feed and treat the hives; and if they survived the winter they’d probably still swarm and move on out. I kinda think this isn’t for me.