When I start a new project, I sometimes get overwhelmed by all of the things I don’t know. It happened years ago when I started growing food. I had only limited experience with it when we moved into our current home and made a big commitment to build a large fenced-in vegetable garden complete with raised beds. My first thought when I first saw the completed fence was, “Uh-oh. Now I really need to get good at gardening!” I did get good at it even though I still have my challenges.
It happened again when I dusted off our copy of the Tartine bread book we bought years ago with ambitions to make our own homemade artisan bread. Since I’m not working full-time right now, I decided to tackle the entire chapter devoted to the recipe and technique for Tartine’s “Basic Country Bread” that enjoys a cult-like following among bread enthusiasts.
The book is intimidating, warning against over fermenting your dough while fermenting it just enough, using precise water temperature for mixing your dough and more. I tried anyway. I’ve now logged five pairs of Tartine loaves that proved to be unbelievably good rewards for my effort. I am hooked!
This pattern of being overwhelmed and intimidated combined with curiosity and excitement is what’s fueling my newest hobby, beekeeping. I have been interested in it for several years now, and it’s always been part of my amateur urban homesteader dream. Like many of my dreams, this one is about to come true!
I decided that, instead of just reading books for years, the best way to learn beekeeping was to take a class with my local beekeeper’s club and jump right in. What I have encountered so far is a group of people who are really geeked up about bees. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and there is no shortage of support for beekeepers at all levels. I highly recommend this route if you are interested in keeping bees. My classes started in the winter and they meet just one evening each month designed to take beginners through their first year of beekeeping.
My primary reason for keeping bees is because more backyard beekeepers are needed. Bees are in crisis with colony collapse disorder (CCD), the mysterious disappearance and death of entire colonies literally overnight. The introduction of the varroa mite has been devastating for bee populations, too. Did you know that easily one-third of all the foods we eat need to be pollinated? Honeybees, along with native bees like the Mason bee, are powerful pollinators. Without them, we wouldn’t have foods like cucumbers, apples, pears, almonds, eggplant, peppers, melon, squash, and so many more. Small-scale beekeepers maintain healthy hives responsibly and with a minimum of chemical treatments. While bees are known to seek forage for several miles from their hives, I hope some stay nearby to pollinate plants in the Tomato Envy garden.
Secondly, I find bees to be fascinating creatures with their complex, highly-specialized society and clearly-defined division of labor. Bees are all about existing for the good of the colony and they work to sustain it, even at their own peril. Us humans with our boundless greed and selfishness could learn a thing or two from them.
Finally, not to be overlooked: bees make honey! We don’t consume a huge amount of honey at our place, but when I buy it, I prefer it to be raw and local. There’s no better way of supplying your own raw, local honey than keeping your own colonies. Harvesting honey usually doesn’t happen until the second year. Honey isn’t created for people. Bees make honey as food for themselves to get through winter when there is no nectar available from forage. Harvesting honey is essentially stealing some of the bees’ hard-earned food. The first year, there usually isn’t a surplus to steal. I’m also looking forward to harvesting beeswax from which I hope to make our own fragrance-free candles.
I am scheduled to pick up my bees next weekend. I’ve been very busy readying my equipment for the big day. I was able to purchase complete woodenware for two hives from my beekeepers’ association – it’s assembled and includes everything I’ll need this year. To protect the wood from the elements, I elected to have the hiveware dipped in a hot wax solution rather than painting it. I placed an order for all my supplies: a good hive tool, a smoker to calm the bees for inspection, pollen patties for feeding, and yes, even the super-fashionable protective jacket and veil so the bees won’t get me in the face.
I even consulted with my allergy specialist to find out if I have an allergy to honeybee stings. Honeybees are not aggressive. They don’t want to sting you because to do so actually kills them in the process. But, working with bees and invading their home from time to time means that beekeepers do occasionally get stung. It turns out I am not allergic to honeybee stings, but my doctor warned that it could change over time.
Talking with some of the very experienced beekeepers I have met makes my head spin. Many of them started small like me but then got hooked and expanded their operations significantly. They talk about things like splitting hives, breeding good “queen stock,” preventing swarming, and the benefits of early varroa treatment with oxalic acid. But, my enthusiasm is stronger than my fear of failing in this case. I love nature and beekeeping will be one more connection I have with it.
For all you parents, I heard something recently that may help you: Get your kids into beekeeping and they’ll never be able to afford a drug habit!
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