Everyone should keep bees. At least, in my biased opinion they should. Bees are, as beekeepers like to say, less trouble than a dog, but more trouble than a cat. More to the point, every third bite of food we eat is brought to us thanks to bees and their work as pollinators.
I became interested in bees when I learned about "colony collapse disorder" which since 2006 has ravaged the global bee population. In that year the bee population dropped by some 30-40%, and in the years since the syndrome has persisted (though it seems to be getting a bit better). Given that so much of our food depends on bee pollination, this is a big deal. The PBS program "NOVA" did a great overview of this phenomenon. The jury is still out on why this is happening, but one of several potential culprits to emerge is pesticides.
I got my first hives – two of them – last month. I built the hive boxes, painted them and put them on stands in the backyard (ok, to be honest my husband and his father did most of the actual labor, but I made many helpful suggestions). I ordered two "packages" of bees, each with its own queen, through a local beekeeper. I "hived" them almost three weeks ago and named my queens Elizabeth I and Kathryn the Great.
Generally I am a risk-averse person and am completely un-brave about being stung. I have all the protective gear (suit, hat, veil, smoker, not to mention Benedryl and an Epipen, just in case). But somehow in the thick of a cloud of bees I feel quite calm (maybe it’s the suit). The thing is that one must be totally in the moment while working with the bees, move calmly and deliberately, breathe and focus. Bees can tell if you are impatient or irritated and will react accordingly.
To prepare for this adventure I took a beekeeping class through the county extension. This was really helpful, plus it introduced me to kindred bee-spirits who are as obsessed as I am. I joined the local beekeeping association, and was given a mentor (whom I try hard not to continually badger with anxious questions). And I read everything about bees I could get my hands on from fiction to entomology articles.
I also prepared my neighbors beforehand. One doesn’t just pop a hive up in the city without giving folks some warning. I live in a small city, which tends to be fairly eco-groovy, surrounded by farmland. One of my neighbors has gotten as excited as me and helped build the hive stands. He comes out to the fence and drinks a beer and talks with me when I work the hives. My other neighbor’s father kept bees. Who knew?
Bees are extraordinary creatures, living in a highly specialized, exquisitely sensitive, matriarchal society. They communicate among themselves both by "dancing" to indicate where food is, and by chemical exchanges through pheromones and feeding one another. The more I learn about them, the more in awe I am.
I did not get bees for food production, although I would be very happy if my garden produced more due to their presence. Nor even for the honey, although that certainly would be nice. I am in it for the bees.
American Bee Journal
Bee Culture Magazine
John's Beekeeping page
New York Times topic: honey bees
Karen O'Brien is a novice beekeeper (so far just a "bee-haver", we'll see about the "keeping" part), who lives in Charlottesville, VA, with her husband and son. When not thinking about bees, she is Executive Director of Advancing Green Chemistry, a non-profit organization linking science and sustainability (www.AdvancingGreenChemistry.org).
If you have any comments or beekeeping questions, feel free to ask Karen here or on her blog!