So, You Want to Be a Beekeeper

This past weekend, the leadership of my local bee club unleashed me onto our newest crop of initaties. I’m proud to say I quickly winnowed the proverbial wheat from the chaff. In fact, only a few of those thirty-three bright and shining faces, who hours earlier were eager to learn the mysteries of the hive and do their own little part to help save the bees, withstood the thoroughness of my after lunch presentation. The strongest of the bunch were able to hold their eyelids open for a good 45 minutes without yawning. The weakest quickly dropped into slumber five minutes in. 

Alas, these days you have to teach to the test–and the test, in this case, was a multiple choice examination of the human brain’s ability to memorize a bevy of beekeeping facts. But as we all know, beekeeping is more than rote memorization. It’s a journey into some of the deepest moral quandaries of human existence–for instance, when faced with an overzealous guard bee that is determined to implant its stinger in your forehead, is it better to swat and flail or to never have swatted at all? It’s conundrums like this that really encapsulate what it means to keep bees, so the sooner we start teaching the advanced problem solving needed to face such dilemmas, the better off our fledgling beekeepers will fare. 

So, if any beginning beekeepers happen to be reading this and would like a true test of what it means to be a beekeeper, you can practice your problem solving skills on the following questions. 

Question 1: Ye Gads! A runaway grizzly bear is barreling toward your apiary. Because of your poor fence-building abilities, your electric fence is somehow cross wired and only has a enough voltage to protect one section of the apiary. In section one are fifteen hives–fifteen swarmy hives that have produced a pitiful pittance of honey. In section two are five hives–your crowning achievements, stacked high with honey supers. These five hives produce more honey than the other fifteen combined. Which section of fence do you electrify? Do you save the five or fifteen? 

Question 2: At 1:30 P.M. on March 25th, you are required to attend a mandatory meeting at your soul-crushing workplace. However, at 1:10 P.M. on March 25th, you get a text message from your neighbor who informs you that one of your hives has swarmed. The swarm is currently hanging on a little cherry tree, about chest high, and is bigger than a July watermelon. What do you do? 

Question 3: As an up-and-coming wealthy beekeeping bachelorette, you have attracted the attention of many suitors. However, two stand out from the crowd. One is charming and handsome, with an infectious smile that brightens even the darkest bee veil. The other is kind of annoying, though handsome enough, and comes from a wealthy family that owns large tracts of land, specifically forestland filled with gnarly old sourwood trees. You are currently trying to expand your beekeeping empire and need new apiary sites. Whose proposal do you accept?

Question 4: A varroa mite, wax moth, and small hive beetle walk into a bar. You, as a barkeeper and owner of the establishment, have the power to treat them to a free round on the house. Do you treat? If so, what do you treat them with? What are the label requirements for said treatment? What are the repercussions for not treating?

If you answer one out of four questions correctly, you are likely a master beekeeper. If you answer all four correctly, you are wise beyond all comprehension and well on your way to founding a cult. 

Beekeeping YouTubers You Might Like

It used to be if you wanted to get into hobby beekeeping, first you planted a little garden, then you got chickens, then you started a blog, then you got bees. Tomatoes, chickens, blog, bees–that was the natural progression of the homesteader’s journey to beekeeping. But this is 2021, and, let’s face it, blogs are dead. I mean, if your blog is like mine, it likely gets as much traffic as a dead-end road in the middle of the Sahara. 

Today blogs have largely been replaced by other social media platforms, and none is more popular among beekeepers than YouTube, which is not surprising. If we’re being honest, most beekeepers are a little bonkers, or at least they appear that way. In fact, the only people I know who wear white jackets and talk to themselves are beekeepers and the certifiably insane. Sometimes while I’m working hives, people will sneak up on me while I’m conversing with myself. It’s pretty easy to do because usually I’m in the beekeeping zone, focused on the inner-workings of the hives, and thus I lose awareness of most things in my immediate vicinity, like the location of my hive tool, the dwindling fire in my smoker, and the neighbor who just snuck up and listened to me mutter to myself for minutes before finally asking if I have any honey for sale. It’s a little embarrassing, but I guess it’s only fitting–add a few straps here and there and our modern beekeeping garbs would bear a striking resemblance to the early 1900s fashion trends at the looney bin. 

Anyway, the point here is that it’s not a big leap to go from talking to yourself to talking to a camera. Enter YouTube.  

Nearly all the YouTube channels I follow are beekeeping-related. There’s a couple of Star Wars channels and sports channels thrown in, but my video history is heavily-dominated by people jabbering to their cell phones or GoPros about Apis mellifera. So in an effort to share my YouTube addiction with others, here are some of my favorites beekeeping YouTubers:

Ian Steppler: Ian lives in Canada, but don’t hold that against him. His videos provide a great source of insight on the hard work it takes to be a full-time professional beekeeper. He may have an EZ-loader, but commercial beekeeping isn’t easy, and his videos prove it. 

Kaylee Richardson: Kaylee is an up-and-coming beekeeper, and bees are a major part of her small-scale homestead operation. If you’re wanting to get into homesteading, her videos would be a great place to start.

Bob Binnie: Bob is the Mr. Rogers of beekeeping YouTubers. Much beekeeping wisdom flows through his calm and soft-spoken voice. Bob is a full-time commercial beekeeper and owner of Blue Ridge Mountain Honey Company. 

Kamon Reynolds: Kamon is a commercial beekeeper in Tennessee. His videos are very informative, but I also appreciate the fact he’s willing to video himself doing stupid stuff, like standing on an empty bee box atop the roof or his car to catch a swarm in a tree branch overhead. It makes feel good knowing I’m not the only who does dumb things.

Mr. Ed: Mr. Ed is the beekeeper for a monastery in Louisiana. He is quite possibly the world’s most positive and happy person, even when he’s extracting mean bees from walls. He is a master of cut-outs and removals. 

The Dirt Rooster: Another master of the cut-out, occasionally the Dirt Rooster and Mr. Ed will team up for a cut-out and appear in each other’s videos, at which point it’s like watching a major superhero crossover movie. YouTubers, assemble!

Some Serious Beekeeping Advice

There’s a certain cruelty to beekeeping: By the time you finally figure out what you’re doing, you’ll likely lack the drive to do it. And by drive, I mean the DMV will have revoked your license because you’ll be old and decrepit and generally untrustworthy to operate a motor vehicle. The learning curve for beekeeping is that long and arduous. 

This is my tenth year keeping bees, at least if you count the first five years which were mostly me killing bees. So in commemoration of ten years of beekeeping, I thought for once I’d actually try to give some practical advice on this blog, so here it goes: 

For bees, the next three months are incredibly important. Hives aren’t lost during winter. They’re lost during July, August, and September. Usually what happens is beekeepers (myself included) get really excited about bees in the spring. As spring progresses toward summer, some of that excitement fades because, let’s face it, working hives is hard work. Harvesting honey during the middle of July is even harder work. Once your honey is in jars or buckets or barrels, you feel like you’ve accomplished your goal and take a well-deserved rest. Wrong. At least here in NC, July, August, and September are the most crucial months in beekeeping. Often there is a severe summer dearth of nectar and pollen. Couple this with exploding varroa levels, and you’ve got a recipe for a dwindling hive. So by the time October rolls around, you may only have a few frames of bees, which is not what you want going into winter. Though that hive will likely die during a February arctic freeze, it was really lost in late summer.  

So my advice is this: steel yourself for the upcoming dog days of summer and invest in a bee jacket with good wicking technology. It’s a lot cheaper than buying new bees each year.

Happy July 4th!

Brace Yourself: A Wonkish Agriculture Deep Dive

An ancient wise man once said, “A calendar is a tool best used for kindling.” I don’t know many biographical details about this ancient wise man because I just made him up, but likely he was a beekeeper. Indeed, a nice glossy calendar burns well in a bee smoker, where it does much more good than it would hanging on my wall. In fact, I consult a calendar so infrequently I still have a 2020 edition hanging in my office–only six more years and the days of the week and month will match up again.

The thing about beekeeping is that the calendar doesn’t really matter. Bees use a calendar even less than I do. In the past, I’ve tried to jump the gun by doing early grafts for new queens, only to be disappointed by a cold snap that caused the bees to abandon the queen cells. And I’m sure glad I didn’t try it this year. The freeze we had before Easter weekend was devastating. It’s not even mid-April yet, and many commercial blackberry growers here have already filed complete losses on their early varieties. Several weeks of warm weather had the blackberries forming flower buds early. Then it got down to 26. Not good. 

And it’s heartbreaking for these blackberry growers. They won’t grow broke because of crop insurance, but any hope for a bumper year is dashed, replaced already by worry for next year. And though one bad year won’t break them, several in a row could. 

Which brings me to my second wise man: Charles Brannan (brace yourself–what follows could rival watching paint dry in terms of entertainment appeal). 

The Wonkish Part

Brannan was the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under Harry Truman. I’m not sure if he said anything quotable and pithy, but he did come up with the Brannan Plan, which was basically a plan for an unabashed farmer subsidy.

Under his proposed plan, which was never approved, when prices of commodities dropped below a fair price, determined by averaging prices from the last ten years, the government would pay farmers directly to make up the difference. The government, however, wouldn’t buy the surplus causing the price drop. Instead, the government would let the free-market determine prices. Thus, if farmers flooded the market with eggs, the government wouldn’t buy eggs and let them go rotten just to keep prices up. Instead, the consumer benefited from a flooded market of eggs, with lower prices per carton at the grocery store, and farmers received a fair price. Eventually, the ten year average would drop because of the lower free market price. In the meantime, farmers weathered the down market and had time to pivot to another crop without going out of business. That was the grand idea within the Brannan Plan. The idea is the basis for modern-day crop insurance, except the subsidy is now funneled and hidden through private crop insurance companies.

In Brannan’s day, as now, the word subsidy doesn’t play well. In the age of Joseph McCarthy, Brannan’s plan was attacked as socialism. But perhaps the most controversial aspect of the plan was the limitation on that subsidy. The plan would only subsidize production on farms for what a “family unit” could produce to avoid encouraging “large, industrial farming.” The conservative Farm Bureau and Grange opposed, wanting instead a “food stamp” plan which subsidized consumers’ purchases of surplus foods. The liberal National Farmers Union supported Brannan’s plan. And, yes, conservatives and liberals have now switched sides. Liberals often rail against subsidized agriculture and promote “food stamps.” Conservatives often lobby for more farm subsidies and bemoan food stamps.

The two biggest criticisms of agricultural subsidies today are (1) subsidies are based on production and acreage, so the biggest farms receive the most subsidies, increasing their ability to buy out small farms, and (2) subsidies benefit field crops, like corn, wheat, and soybeans, more than other sectors of agriculture, like livestock and produce. Brannan foresaw both of these problems. He wanted to solve the first with the aforementioned limitation on subsidies based on what a family could produce. He wanted to solve the second by subsidizing nearly everything, based on the fair price approach. 

With the decline in small family farms, I sometimes wondered what America would look like had Bannan’s plan been approved. But it never happened. Instead, the philosophy of Earl Butz, another US Secretary of Agriculture, eventually won out. His mantra to farmers was, “Get big or get out.”

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More Infrequently Asked Farming Questions

Is it hard being an all-around farm expert?

The hard part is perfecting a belly laugh. Laugh too hard at another farmer’s mistake, and you’ll be attacked with a large ratchet. Yet show any hesitancy in your laugh, and people will doubt you’re an expert. Thus, pointing out another farmer’s problem and belly laughing afterwards, which is the major job responsibility of an all-around farm expert, is like tight-rope walking with no net–meaning it’s a very perilous activity that should only be attempted by trained professionals or those who pack up and leave town after a week. 

What’s the best ladder for farm use?

Every farmer needs a good flimsy ladder, one that bows and bends and bounces. A sturdy ladder is a big mistake. Nothing hurts worse than being wallopped by a stout ladder seconds after you’ve plummeted back to earth. Nowadays it doesn’t pay to add insult to injury. In the old days, some orthopedic surgeons offered two-for-one deals (for each shattered ankle, you got a cracked rib for free). But now, with the state of modern healthcare as it is, you can’t count on free handling for secondary fractures, so it’s best to be whalloped by a flimsy ladder. 

Nobody fell off a ladder like Ernest. RIP Jim Varney.

What do you know about nude beekeeping?

Little. I only know one nude beekeeper, Ned. Ned was just a regular guy who wore clothes in public, especially in the bee yard. He never once thought about disrobing outdoors until he accidentally left his shirt tail out and bees (from a dropped frame) regrouped on his shoes and started marching (unbeknownst to Ned) up his pant legs. The bees formed two flanks along the belly and the back and coordinated a simultaneous assault. Underneath Ned’s shirt tail and over his belt, the bees charged onto bareskin, where many sacrificed their lives on the rolling terrain of Ned’s mid-section. Afterwards, Ned began running and shedding clothes simultaneously, leaving a trail of garments behind, including his whitey-tightys. This disrobing routine was captured and posted to YouTube by a random passerby and thereafter Ned became known locally as Nude Ned. 

How does evil spread in the world?

Sandspurs in your shoe laces. If you’ve never experienced sandspurs, picture yourself strolling through a blooming meadow. Smell the flowers and feel the gentle breeze. Watch bees glide from flower to flower. Then, while listening to meadowlarks sing, take one more step and hear yourself utter, at the top of your lungs, your favorite exclamatory phrase. Hear it echo throughout the countryside. Then start hopping one-footed while calling for a medic.

(For more infrequently asked farming questions, check out this post. )