Oh, How Far I’ve Fallen

Not that I’m jealous, but I don’t get all the hullabaloo over bees’ work ethic. Sure, a bee may transport pollen to and fro 50,000 times over its sixty day lifespan, but by the time I retire, I may have pushed paper to and fro a gazillion times over my 30 year career–and yet you rarely hear us paper pushers lauded as hard-working, industrious creatures. 

And I don’t get those beekeepers who say humbly, “Well, the bees did all the hard work.” I say humbly, hogwash. Bees don’t lug sixty-pound supers around on 95 degree days while baking in a bee jacket. Nor do they lug cases of honey to the farmers’ market on Saturday mornings to peddle honey to the masses. And, let’s be honest, some patrons of the farmers’ market just need to be told, “Buzz off!”

ME: [trying to remain polite] “Not worth 20 dollars? If you knew all the hard work that went into that quart of honey, you’d probably say it’s worth more.”

CUSTOMER: “Well, don’t the bees do most of the work?”

ME: “KA-BLOOM” [it’s hard to write phonetically the sound of a beekeeper’s morale imploding]

Best I can tell, my bees work four months out of the year–March, April, May, and June–then they shut down shop and goof off in the dearth, then eat and mingle with each other all winter. Meanwhile, a lot of us sideline beekeepers work full-time jobs all year long just to afford our beekeeping addiction, and yet the bees steal all the credit. 

And, I hate to admit this, but sometimes I feel a little resentful toward all the press that bees get about being endangered and on the verge of extinction. You know what’s on the verge of extinction? Beekeepers’ backs, and I can’t remember the last time I saw the press writing about the chronic back problems that beekeepers face. Heck, if they need a catchy scientific name to drive traffic to their articles, may I humbly suggest, “SCCD:” Spinal Column Collapse Disorder. Basically, it’s when a beekeeper’s lower vertebrae abscond from normal alignment and leave behind only a few pinched nerves and a big chiropractor bill. 

And let’s not forget the parental responsibilities that many beekeepers face that bees just don’t. Bees emerge from the womb of their hexagonal cells as fully capable members of society. There’s no tantrums of the terrible twos, no pre-teen drama, no teenage wasteland, no adult child living in the basement eating them out of house and home. Sure, I guess drones fit that latter category, but even then, the worker bees usually kick them out before they turn 35 years old. 

For me, trying to balance sideline beekeeping with working a full-time job and corralling a toddler who has more energy reserves than a small solar system–well, all that, feels like hard work. Add to that the call from my neighbor about a cloud of bees plundering her trash can, and you’ve got a recipe for burnout. Yep, no one ever told me when I was a new and aspiring beekeeper that one day I would be dumpster diving through my neighbors’ trash to excavate Coke cans, but that’s how far I’ve fallen. 

Of Dearth Vader Bees and Bears

Seemingly, every June, the old men in my county will begin the annual ritual of lamenting the rain deposits in their rain gauge. And that’s if we even make it to June. Sometimes it turns dry and hot in May, at which point the sound of old men talking about dry rain gauges is the first indication that the Dearth has officially arrived, that nothing is blooming, that nectar has dried up, that the bees are getting ready to break bad and turn to the dark side. 

Dearth Vader bees, I call them. Angry, menacing bees that strike fear into even the bravest beekeepers. Not that I’m claiming to be one of them, but don’t let my trembling hive tool fool you–bravery is not the absence of fear, but action in the face of fear, trembling action included. 

Also, I just want to point out there is no shame in bravely running away from a boiling, raging Dearth Vader hive. Discretion is the better part of beekeeping. However, I’m pretty sure I have scientifically proven that bees can fly faster than an out-of-shape man can run, so you’re better off just laying down on the ground and playing dead–plus, that will save you from any Dearth Vader bears in the vicinity. Bees and bears alike, nobody likes the ninety-plus degree days of summer. 

Recently, a man spotted a large black bear in his fenced suburban backyard in our county, and it made front page news in our local newspaper (we don’t get many bears this far down the mountain). This particular bear was merely trying to empty a bird feeder of its contents. However, the man felt the need to confront the bear, armed only with a pot and large spoon. He said later, “I have read that that is what you’re supposed to do, but in retrospect that was probably not the best thing to do.”

I’m not sure what is more intimidating–Dearth Vader bees searching for any drop of sugary liquid or Dearth Vader bears that are willing to breach backyards for mere bird feed? All I know is that the Dearth is upon us, and bees and bears alike are hot and hangry. 

Save Yourself, not the Bees

Beekeeping is not for the faint of heart–or faint or mind either. A beekeeper who is “keeping bees to help save the bees” is a beekeeper who has yet to wrestle with the harsh reality that most beginning beekeepers will kill more bees than they will ever help save. The beekeepers who reload and return to the beeyard, despite the despair of dead outs, may eventually tilt their cosmic scales back toward bee savior, but, on average, I wonder how many hives die before a beginning beekeeper actually becomes proficient enough to save bees–that is to keep bees from drowning under the virus load of varroa. It probably took me thirty dead outs over five years before something finally clicked and I started overwintering hives successfully and my hive numbers started multiplying

Now I’m in my tenth year of beekeeping, at least if you count the first five years which were mostly me killing bees. Sure, I could say it was varroa that killed them or pesticides or small hive beetles or poor nutrition or extraterrestrial bee snatchers or whatever the excuse de vogue at the time was (at the time, I, like many others, just lumped all these excuses into a singular catch-all excuse called Colony Collapse Disorder). But the truth is my hives died because, first and foremost, I didn’t listen. I didn’t listen to the advice of seasoned beekeepers because I thought I knew more than they did. I didn’t listen until, finally, enough cognitive dissonance erupted between my bee savior desire and my bee killer despair that I finally asked the great existential beekeeping question–“To beekeep, or not to beekeep?”

I chose to continue to beekeep–that is, to get serious about beekeeping, which is really the only way to keep bees now.

I hate to say this, but the term hobby beekeeping is now an oxymoron. Think about it this way: suppose you took up some other hobby for pleasure and relaxation. Let’s say fishing. You could just dig a few worms, buy a cheap Zebco and basic tackle, and then go catch bream or sunfish to your heart’s delight. And if by chance you don’t catch any, well, a bad day’s fishing is still better than a good day’s work. 

To fish, you don’t have to buy high-priced fishing gear, subscribe to Field and Stream, and join BassResource, the most popular bass fishing forum on the web. Of course, you could and many fishermen do. But even if you did–and this is the point–you still wouldn’t have to build your own farm pond and become an expert in farm pond management and ichthyological parasites to keep your bass from going belly up every winter. 

Or, put it another way: a fisherman just needs a hook, line, and sinker. A beekeeper needs a hive, veil, and standing appointment with a shrink.

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!