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We’ve had our own hives for just over a year. I started two hives at my university last spring, and then Darwyn caught a swarm that summer. Our hives overwintered well, so we’ve split them up and truly fallen in love with these incredible creatures!
I’m actually allergic to both bee stings and honey, so it’s pretty ironic that I’m beekeeping at all…. That said, I’ve always been interested in bees, and when I had the opportunity to open up a beehive while working on a farm in New Zealand a few years ago, I was instantly hooked. What struck me first was the smell of the hives. It was so warm and sweet and floral… I’m still trying to figure out how to bottle that smell into a perfume. What amazed me next is how calm the bees were. They were all going about their business, and until we started taking the honey frames out, they didn’t seem to care we were there. It was my first time beekeeping so we were pretty rough with the bees, which understandably made them agitated! I’m much more slow and deliberate in the hive now.
I was worried I would kill the bees! I really had little idea what I was doing when I started. I relied on websites and YouTube videos and the advice of a kind professor when I started my first hives. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to commit enough time to the bees – it’s a bi-weekly commitment for most of the year! I’d really recommend having a mentor to help you start your first hives, from your first discussions to installation to upkeep over the years. There is no substitute for experience!
1. Patience! You can’t rush bees. From moving slowly in the hive, to waiting for a new queen to mate, it all takes time, and they will do their thing when they are ready. 2. Persistence and learning from your mistakes. We’ve made our fair share of mistakes in the bee yard, and things don’t always work out the way you want them to. I’m especially learning to be okay if things don’t work the first time, and take a step back and learn from what happened. For example, we expected small colonies to raise great queens early in the season. We ended up with a bunch of runty queens that we are having to replace now. One of those queens literally flew away when I was trying to make up a nuc! It was pretty traumatizing. We’re also trying our hand at grafting, and with so many variables in the mix (like a virgin queen getting into our cell builder!), it’s taken us almost 10 tries at grafting to start getting results we’re happy with. But once you get it it’s so rewarding! We’ve had bear and skunk attacks, sugar water floods, comb disasters, and more… they’re all opportunities to do what you’re doing better. 3. Going with the flow. Again, bees do what they want most of the time. You can’t fight it, you just have to re-evaluate and sometimes take things in another direction. We’re not trying to make money at this yet, so this year it’s about learning from the bees and what they want. It’s been fun!
I’ve definitely realized how messed up our world is in terms of agriculture, and how working with and augmenting nature rather than trying to control it is essential if humanity wants to survive. There are so many problems with modern agriculture-the mono-cultures, how there is hardly any natural land around farms, the reliance on pesticides, the migratory beekeeping we have to rely on for pollination…. How are bees supposed to help us pollinate our food when we are giving them essentially the worst conditions to thrive? We need to completely re-envision our agriculture systems to allow for nature to give us a hand, through pollination from native wild bees (not non-native honey bees), pest management of crops, replenishing the soil, etc. We need food to exist, and if we don’t figure this out fast, it’s going to lead to our demise!
I love getting to take a break from my life, and take care of our bees. I’m forced to slow down and to pay attention to what the bees are doing. It’s quite meditative. It’s also made me pay more attention to the seasons, what’s flowering locally and where, what flowers the bees like best…. I’ve become much more in tune with the plants and weather around me.
I’ve been loving propolis lately. I infused some in oil for making salves, and in alcohol for a tincture. It’s an amazing product! We also just love beeswax. We use it in salves, lip balms, we make our own queen cups for grafting out of it…Darwyn made a solar wax melter last year, and that’s been an easy way for us to melt and filter wax without heating it too much. It’s awesome!
Bees don’t want to hurt you unless you directly threaten them or their hive (e.g. by squishing them). I think it shows just how important bees are because even though I’m allergic to bee stings and honey, I still deeply appreciate bees for supplying most of our food! Often the buzzing insects that bother people are actually wasps, not bees. Bees mostly do their own thing and stay away from people.
We sometimes like to use a sage smudge stick for smoke, which is really nice. You can also dust icing sugar on top of your bees when you’re putting the hive back together to get the bees to go down into the hive and avoid getting squished. This is a natural way to deal with varroa mites in combination with a screened bottom board. We love using a big feather to brush bees of the comb. They don’t get stuck in the bristles and get angry that way.
I think that is a valid concern for many people. Basically, small scale beekeeping is pretty much a completely different thing from commercial beekeeping. I understand not wanting to support commercial beekeeping! Small scale beekeepers are often much gentler on their bees, so hardly any bees get squished. We try to keep our bees as healthy as possible by letting them live like they would in the wild (natural comb, letting them build new comb, not using chemicals inside the hive, letting bees eat their own honey in winter, etc.). It’s similar to eating eggs from backyard hens instead of factory chicken farms-you know the backyard hens had a great, healthy life, you know what they ate, etc. I know some vegans who eat eggs, but only from chickens they know! Makes sense to me.
Most people have the basic idea of the importance of honey bees down. What needs more attention is the work of native wild bees that pollinate wild plants so our entire ecosystems keep functioning. Wild bees also contribute to many agricultural crops. Honey bees are actually pretty poor pollinators in general for most crops. Wild bees do a better job at pollinating in fewer visits to flowers. Bumblebees in particular, buzz while they pollinate, which releases pollen from flowers. Some flowers like blueberries, tomatoes, and eggplant, need buzz pollination to make fruit. It takes four honey bee visits to a blueberry flower to equal one visit from a bumblebee. So why do we put so much emphasis on honey bees? It’s because they are our only option because we have destroyed so much wild bee habitat around farms, and monocrops and pesticides are not very conducive to wild bee health. We now need to bring in honey bee hives because bees can’t survive in agricultural areas year round. Scary stuff! We need to promote this knowledge.
Locally, I’d say everyone should plant flowers in their yard and let a patch of their lawn go wild. On a municipal level, governments should make bylaws that allow for bee-friendly practices-wild lawns, promote flowers and gardening, banning pesticide use…. Internationally, I’d like to see incentives for farmers to go organic, and move towards more bee-friendly farming, i.e. pioneering solutions for large scale and high yield, yet low impact agriculture. We need big farms to experiment with companion planting, crop rotations, leaving wild spaces, etc. This will hopefully reduce our reliance on crop inputs and pesticides, too. Right now there is not much incentive to change until our systems just stop working altogether.
Buy bee products from a beekeeper you trust! One of the biggest food scandals EVER involved honey, which was tainted with illegal antibiotics and chemicals, and in many cases wasn’t even honey. Ask about the beekeeper’s practices. Support small scale, organic farmers when you can! They are much more bee-friendly. Buying organic from big grocery stores is better, but small scale local is better if you can afford it. Give bees more food in your yard by planting flowers that bloom successively all season long. Tell your local government representatives that bees matter to you and to make policy changes that help bees. This can include pesticide bans in municipality landscaping, changing zoning bylaws to allow for wild spaces, etc. Small changes in bylaws can have big impacts!