A Boy and the Beekeeping Bug

Men, if your wife is trying to tell you she’s pregnant, whatever you do, don’t turn to her and say, “But I don’t need one, I’ve already got three.”

Not that I had three children already, I had three bee jackets. The fact is I didn’t have any children–my wife and I had been trying for years. Once you’ve been married for eight years, you start to resign yourself to the possibility that the only offspring you’ll hear in your house will be when you rediscover your long lost burnt CD collection in a storage box1 (sorry, if you didn’t get that joke, it was really very clever–you just weren’t a teenager in the 1990s. Please refer to footnote #1 for historical context). 

So I certainly wasn’t expecting to be greeted with life changing news when I walked through the door one Friday after a long day’s work. Still, I should have known something was up because on the kitchen counter was an envelope with my name written in my wife’s handwriting. That should have been a red flag because it wasn’t my birthday and, after a quick mental panic, I realized it wasn’t our anniversary either. My wife then handed me the envelope and told me to open it. 

“What’s this for?” I asked. 

“Just open it, and you’ll see,” I said. 

Well, I didn’t see. The greeting card had two little cartoony bees on the inside, and it said, “I’m so happy to bee with you.” Underneath that, my wife had written, “It looks like you’re going to need a new bee suit.” And underneath that, she had drawn a tiny little bee, about the size of a popcorn kernel. Likely, because I’m a man and was too busy wondering where the gift card was to pay for said bee suit, I overlooked that baby bee and blurted out, “But I don’t need one, I’ve already got three.”

And my life has never been the same since. Thomas is now two years old, and I’m actually starting to shop for his first beekeeping apparel. Now that he is old enough to run, I figure he’s old enough to run from bees with me. Secretly, I do hope that Thomas will one day enjoy beekeeping. Growing up, my dad always took me fishing and metal detecting, his two favorite hobbies, and some of my best memories are from spending time with him doing those two things. That said, beekeeping is a lot more like work than fishing or metal detecting, so I’m not terribly optimistic. Right now, he does have some semi bee-related interests, namely rolly-pollies and caterpillars. Mostly, though he just like trains, firetrucks, tractors, and monster trucks.

Even if the beekeeping bug doesn’t bite Thomas, a boy has got to develop a good work ethic, and there is no harder work than lugging honey supers around on a hot July day. We will see.

1In the 1990s, there was a popular band called The Offspring and this thing called Napster where teenagers downloaded music for free to record, a.k.a. to burn, onto CDs. This was more or less illegal, but everybody did it.

Dear Beekeepers of the World

Please be advised this is official correspondence from the duly-elected leadership of the supreme species EENDT”CHA, known in your human parlance as Varroa destructor–a.k.a. varroa, the mite, the little red pinprick of horror, the scourge of hives and destroyer of beekeepers’ souls. 

This letter hereby notifies you that we will not stop our conquest for world domination. We have now invaded Australia in our quest to colonize every bee hive on planet Earth. Our spread knows no bounds; wherever bees go, we will follow, even if it takes us to the ice cliffs of Antarctica or the cold craters of the moon. We will not relent. 

As the last four decades have proven, your efforts to eradicate us are futile. Although we do admire and respect the ferocity with which some humans have fought against the proliferation of our superior species, we now demand that you lay down your primitive oxalic acid wands and chemical concoctions and surrender your bees to us. 

The time of human domination of Apis Mellifera is over. No more will humans plunder bee hives and rob honey. No more will bees be under the subjugation of a species with merely two legs. How foolish you were for resisting–you pitiful soft-bodied species with no exoskeleton! (that said, we did appreciate the powdered sugar dusting fad that happened about ten years ago–hey, we mites like sweets as much as the next species). 

All beekeepers who lay down smokers now and give up will face no further consequences. All who resist will meet heartbreak and despair, as we are now immune to your once most lethal concoction, Amitraz. Indeed, it is now impossible for you to withstand the rate of our proliferation. Before long there will be more varroa mites on Earth than all bipeds combined. You would be wise to give up your efforts to breed mite-resistant bees, which are doomed to failure, and instead use your oversized craniums to surrender now. 

If you do wisely decide to wave the white bee glove of surrender, our leadership will gladly accept it, on behalf of our great arachnid species, with all the formal protocol that such a momentous occasion deserves, namely that of your leadership bowing down and presenting their ceremonial hive tools. 

On behalf of all worldwide members of Varroa destructor, we await your prompt response. 

Sincerely,

The Supreme Senate of Varroa Mite Mothers

[P.S. If you’re a not a beekeeper, I apologize because this probably makes no sense. However, if you are beekeeper, it probably wouldn’t hurt to check your mite levels. I just checked a few of my hives last week and levels were off the charts. Since it was so hot, I did a half-dose formic pro. We will see how well that brings the levels down.]

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.