There are days when I don’t know whether to be overjoyed or scared stiff about raising bees. On one hand, that first taste of honey from my own hives sent me over the moon with joy. Then I read about Varroa mites and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and I want to rush out and check to make sure my bees are still there, then check every square 1/16” for anything that might possibly look like a mite. Instead, I force myself to be calm and begin working on my observation skills. Still, I think I might be hauling a book or two with me for a while, and use them as reference if I see anything unusual – which is everything as a newbie. If you are considering adding bees to your place, here are a few things you may want to think about first:
It’s a Good Thing –
1) Get yourself a Mentor: I hosted a booth at last year’s Parish Fair as The Farm Wife. I now realize that it was the smartest thing I could do, as it gave me an avenue in which to meet Johnny and Audi Adams. They are local beeks (the shorthand term for beekeepers). We talked for a while, and Audi offered their help in my beekeeping venture. Both of them have turned out to be my mentors, as well as the suppliers for my latest drug – bees and their honey. Not only was I able to get my nucs from them, but they also delivered them, instructed me on how to move the bees from the nuc to the permanent hive, coached me on what to do, how to use my tools (at that time it was just the smoker and the hive tool), and showed me how to locate my queens, all with extraordinary patience. As the icing on the cake, I was able to harvest a small portion of honey, and they showed me how to harvest it. The cherry on top of that cake was that they were willing to sit and visit for a bit. The conversation was a perfect blend of getting to know one another combined with tips and advice on beekeeping. I think I am going to be an Adamskeeper, as well. These are wonderful people!
2) A Honey of a Deal: The first taste of honey from my hive surprised me a little. Johnny was able to tell at least a couple of the flowers from where the bees got their pollen – Goldenrod and Jonquil. Me? I am used to store-bought honey, so the delicate, more floral flavor (as opposed to what I now see as almost pure sugar sweet) was different. And so much more delicious. Johnny explained that the honey we harvested consisted of plants around their home, with only a faint touch of pollen from our farms. My first true honey harvest will have a different flavor, as the bees will forage on pollen around us. Considering there is a 15 mile separation between Honey River Farms and Paradise Plantation, there are different foraging opportunities. Some different. Some the same. It may take me years to be able to identify what goes into my honey, but I know I am going to have fun learning the information in this class!
It’s Panic Time –
1) Varroa mites: the vampires of the bee world. They piggyback on the worker bees in the field, then enter into brood chambers along with the bee larva. The mite lays eggs on top of the larva and are ready to go about the same time as the baby bee. Those new mites then infest the other bees in the hive. As they suck the bee blood (called hemolymph in bees) they leave a hole where infection can set in, essentially signing that bee’s death warrant. Since the mites are on a 10-day laying cycle, they love bunking in with the drone larva, as that gives them an extra three days to lay and hatch more eggs. Just for the sake of understanding the numbers – If a mite lays an average of three female eggs and one male to a cell, and you have 100 brood cells (eight to ten frames per hive body could easily give you 100 cells and probably a lot more), within 21 days you are going to have 400 mites in your hive. If I have that many of the little buggers in my hives, you’ll have to come scoop me up out of the pasture, as I will have passed out from so much sobbing! One thing I can tell you about this is that I admit I don’t fully understand it. But if it is something that could potentially hurt my bees, I will know everything there is to know about it before the year is out, including the best way to get rid of them!
2) CCD: The mystery of the bee world. Consider this: You wake up one morning and wander into the kitchen. As you open the cabinet to grab the fixings for your coffee, you notice that things seem a little too quiet in the house. You open the door of a full food-laden refrigerator to get cream. As you come fully awake (after that cup of coffee, of course), your spidey-sense tells you something is up. You walk through the house, checking bedrooms, bathrooms and even in closets and behind shower curtains, only to find your family is not there. Worry begins to set in. You quickly dress and go outside. As you look around, you notice that all the houses are just as empty. Not a single sole remains. This is the equivalent to CCD. For some mysterious reason, a hive will disappear, leaving the queen, full honey and pollen stores, maybe a nurse bee or two and any young or unborn brood behind. No signs of predatory animals, such as bears. No dead bees surrounding the outside of the hive, or even on the inside, suggesting disease. Nothing. It’s as if an alien bee spaceship landed on the cover and hauled all the bees away. The problem is, a hive cannot survive without worker bees. Although the experts still aren’t sure of why this is happening, their studies have been narrowed down to a few things such as: transporting bees across country for pollination services, which goes hand-in-hand with drastically changing the bees habitat and foraging; severe infestations of Varroa mites; and possibly new diseases such as Israeli Acute Paralysis. The aggravating thing for me is that this is something I cannot research for a ‘cure’. I just need to watch out for it.
I will be the first to admit that I have a lot of learning to do in keeping bees. One thing I do know – I refuse to focus on the negative things that could happen. Instead, I will do everything I can to prevent any problems. I will continue to read and research. I will improve my observation skills. I will buy a pair of magnifying glasses so I can see those tiny vampires, then eradicate them and smoosh them into an early grave. I will watch for any ‘For Sale’ signs going up on the covers of my hives. And I will keep Johnny and Audi on speed dial. Both of them seem like the type that can talk me off a bee ledge.
No matter what you undertake in life, you are going to have to walk hand-in-hand with the good and the bad. I have felt sheer joy and deep desperation here on the farm, so keeping bees will be just one more section of track laid down for the emotional roller coaster. Instead of giving into the ‘what ifs’, I will just enjoy my bees, and look forward to that first true honey harvest. I am just not sure I am going to head out to sample pollen from flowers so I can determine what has gone into making it, though. Hey! I have to draw the line somewhere!
Not only are you an entertaining writer, but you are also a great teacher. Thank you for sharing this essay on being a new beekeeper. I am amazed at all you do!
Thank you, Jen! Knowing these words came from such as talented musician, writer and teacher herself, it makes it just so much sweeter! I have to give full credit to The Good Lord, though. There are days that I have no doubt that posts only get written because He is spoon-feeding me the words!