Traverse Classics: Lessons in Beekeeping

My husband David’s favorite dinner-party story tells of our first bee expedition. Friends from Maple City, the story goes, had offered us three hives abandoned on their farm by a beekeeper-turned-monk. Free bees! We couldn’t believe our good fortune. For years we’d admired bees from a distance as they kept busy pollinating cherry orchards in spring or slept under heavy snow-blankets in winter.

Now, all we had to do was move the bees and they’d be ours. We had no bee experience nor bonafide bee equipment, but we did have two good sets of foul-weather gear for sailing. So, on a warm June evening, we zipped, clipped and Velcroed ourselves into red and yellow rainsuits. Then we hitched a semi-legal trailer to our Jeep, and set out to meet our tiny livestock.

At the farm, we found the bees about a half-mile down a two-track in a grove of trees, not far from honeysuckle and raspberries. The monk-man must have been a bit of an artist because the hives were painted beautifully—pastel blue, green and purple. Some of my favorite colors.

We arrived at dusk, which seemed like a good time to move bees. They would all be home, docile, we figured, and we wouldn’t leave anyone behind. Turns out that was only partially true. They were all home, but at dusk they didn’t have anything better to do than defend themselves against a couple of brightly colored intruders.

We hadn’t been there more than a few minutes when I felt bee feet on my shin, inside my jeans. As my husband tells it, I began to do a squirmy walk that evolved into an all-out flailing dance.

Meanwhile, he calmly counseled me to “step away from the hives” and remove my pants, with the authority of the bee police. I tried to obey but before I could, the shin-crawler stung me while another bee zapped my finger. We fled to the Jeep and abandoned the mission. One thing was clear—we needed help.

In nine years of living Up North I’d seen plenty of evidence of bees: hives in fields, hives on truck beds, local honey products. Now I needed the experts who managed all that bee business. Later that week, I stopped at a pole barn on M-72 where I’d seen a black and yellow bee bus.

What kind of people would bee people be? I wondered. Maybe they wouldn’t have time to talk to hobbyists. Maybe they would defend their sweet secrets like the bees defend their hives. But I thought I could at least get a couple of hints.

Inside the pole barn, the air was dark and sweet. Bees zipped past my face, and I soon realized that one entire wall was stacked floor to ceiling with white bee boxes. Two men in stained coveralls emerged from a back room and cheerfully introduced themselves as Brad and Brad, father and son beekeepers. I tentatively explained that I was a beginning beekeeper and asked if they had any advice they could share. Brad, the dad, didn’t hesitate. He gathered bee supply catalogues and an old American Bee Journal from his office. He pointed out the smoker and hive tool I would need. No secrecy. No Brad-to-Brad sly glances. He said they’d be happy to help with supplies as well, if I needed anything.

Back home, I pored over the bee catalogues. As I looked at hives and equipment, my list of questions grew longer and longer. What do the different layers and sections of a hive do? What does the smoke do? Where does the honey come from? How do we move bees?

The next day I phoned in our order for bee gear. The man on the other line identified himself as “Tiny Tim” (who later confessed he’s not so tiny, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 300 pounds). As soon as I mentioned I was a beginning hobbyist, Tim began a combination pop-quiz/bee seminar with the question: “What do you do if you get stung—do you scratch the stinger or pluck it?” For $180 I got bee suits, veils, a smoker, hive tool, and a lot of helpful advice.

In fact, information and advice began to flow freely over the next few weeks from many sources. Friends and friends-of-friends who kept bees shared their experiences. People gave me equipment. I went to the library and checked out all the books on beekeeping.

While I explored the apiary realm, my husband David was doing his own research, but not about bees. Three years into our Leelanau County life together, he’d contracted truck-on-the-brain. For months I’d listened to an ever-growing list of reasons why we needed a truck. Now he had the angle he’d been waiting for. “The trailer just doesn’t seem substantial enough to move the bees,” he said with a look of compassion. Several of my library books contained equipment lists for beginning beekeepers, but they tended to top out at $500. None of them included the price of a full-sized pickup truck.

Our second trip to see the bees, about six weeks after the first, was much more fruitful. With bee suits and veils, we were better dressed. With smokers and a truck we were better equipped. With some reading and all the advice we’d gathered, we were savvier. Section by section we moved each hive and covered it with a fine mesh screening to provide ventilation. We settled the bees as gently as we could into their new home in our meadow, complete with southern exposure and a pine grove windblock to the north.

Soon I decided to spend a sunny afternoon investigating one of the hives. I wanted to see the brood, the workers, the drones, maybe even the queen. But when I pulled the hive apart, my untrained eye saw just a whole lot of bees. I did notice, though, that each frame I removed was surprisingly heavy. Solid slabs of patterned wax sealed cell after cell of honey. I accidentally cut into the surface with my hive tool and golden honey bled out. I unzipped my veil and had my first taste of our sweet summer crop.

That’s when the honey dreams began. I pictured gifts of Christmas honey for all our friends and relatives. I drew pictures in my journal: an army of white-capped jars with red ribbons and handmade tags. The next day, I called up Tiny Tim and ordered an inexpensive hand-crank honey extractor. It was basically a big plastic pail with baskets to hold and spin two frames at a time.

On a Sunday afternoon in October I harvested honey. Frame by frame, I ran a sharp, hot knife just beneath the surface of the wax and watched the cappings fall off in big, easy sheets, like corn from the cob. Then I placed the frames in the extractor and set them spinning, slowly for a few minutes, then faster. A thread of honey turned gradually into a string, then a thick ribbon. Warm, honey-fragrant air filled our basement as honey filled the strainer basket.

We made one more visit to the hives that fall to prepare the bees for winter. We installed wire mouse guards on the hive entrances and sealed up cracks and holes. Most of all, we made sure there was plenty of honey left on each hive for the long cold months ahead. We also gave them preventive medication I’d received from Brad and Brad. It seems strange to think about giving medicine to insects until you begin to learn about all the health challenges—like foulbrood and tracheal mites—facing bees. The diseases and pests have dreadful names and kill a hive of bees in a hurry. Many experienced beekeepers say it’s not a good time to get started in beekeeping, and won’t be until there are better ways to protect bees from these threats.

Christmas arrived and I handed homemade honey gifts to everyone—red ribbons, white caps, bee tags and all. It was the fulfilling of my golden vision. Honey from our own bees—straight from the hive. I especially liked how suspended flecks of pollen caught the light and gave our honey a subtle glitter.

We ate honey through the winter and trusted that the bees were doing the same. But when April came, with birds and spring peepers singing in the pond, one sound was missing. Out in the meadow, where there should have been a hearty hum, there was silence. I was devastated. Had I done something wrong? Were they sick? No, they were all dead. A handful of dead bees littered the baseboards of each hive. There was plenty of honey left, so surely they hadn’t starved. I carried the lifeless bee boxes back to the house and wondered what had gone wrong.

During my mourning I repainted the hives. The colors cheered me, and I felt ready to try again. But first, I called Bill and Millie Hathaway. It took me a while to track them down. Turns out they were in transit, making their annual move north from Florida along with 500 beehives. I’d heard they were experienced beekeepers but that was about all I knew. When I finally did reach Bill on the phone, he spoke two words I would hear often in coming months: “four years.” He said it would take four years before I could even have an intelligent conversation about bees.

Four years!? I was willing to admit that I had a lot to learn, but hadn’t I already successfully moved bees and harvested honey? That had to make me at least an intermediate, I figured. But in the course of our first conversation, Bill used terms and phrases I didn’t know, like “spotty brood pattern” and “laying workers.” It sounded like another language, and I began to think I didn’t know the first thing about keeping bees.

Bill said other things that caught my attention as well. “Beekeepers are the longest lived of any group of people. They have the lowest incidence of cancer and they don’t have arthritis.” Wow! I wasn’t sure where this information came from, but it sure sounded good! He mentioned that he’d adopted many beekeeping beginners over the years. Apparently my phone call made me eligible for adoption because he offered to help me prepare for new bees.

I got directions to Bill’s place and loaded a few frames into the back of our truck. Bill wanted to inspect the equipment I’d been using to make sure it was disease-free. Once David and I reached the Hathaways’ road, it wasn’t hard to find their farm. Stacks of hive bodies in a crazy array of colors lined the driveway, watermelon pink, lime green, mustard yellow, unwanted custom color mixes from Florida paint stores.

When we arrived, Bill was up in the tomato field working on a tractor. We talked with Millie and learned that during winter months in Florida she helps Bill with the bees, but in summer she devotes her full attention to growing vegetables for the Traverse City Farmers market.

With the tractor going and Millie tilling the tomato field, Bill turned to my bee equipment. He pulled a sharp, silvery hive tool from his pocket and peered into the boxes I’d brought. Bill’s handling of the hive tool and frame were steady and practiced. He examined the brood pattern, checked for signs of foulbrood and eventually gave everything a clean bill of health. During our visit, he continued to remind me of how little I knew. Four years. That would make me a freshman beekeeper. If I truly wanted to learn about bees, I realized I would have to accept my place in the beekeeping community, just like the well-ordered world of the hive.

By mid-June I had new bees. Dad Brad sold me three hives for a little money and some traded equipment. Within days I was out in the meadow, getting to know my new bees. When I removed the inner cover of the first hive I was amazed by the number of bees I saw. Every frame, ten in all, was jam-packed with buzzing bodies. So this was what a strong colony looked like. By comparison, my hand-me-down hives had been weak and sparsely populated. There must not have been enough bees in each colony to rear the replacements needed to survive our long months of snow and cold. It eased my self-blame to learn they probably wouldn’t have made it in their old location either.

During that second summer I was doing something with the bees every week, checking my own hives or tagging along with Bill at his Fredrickson Road apiary on my days off. I’d never been to a large bee-yard in the height of summer. Some days I’d arrive early and watch the bees from a seat in the shade. It was like watching a summer snowstorm, a whirling, swooping flurry of bees in the hazy sunshine. And instead of a fierce howling wind there was a low, happy hum.

As I worked alongside Bill, I learned new lessons in listening. Many of his answers to my questions began with, “The bees will tell you….” Sure enough, by the end of the summer I could tell the difference in pitch between bees at work, bees alarmed and bees communicating “do not disturb.”

My eyes also began to discern the subtleties of bee distinctions. I came to recognize the big, bumbling blunt-ended drones. I spied new worker bees emerging from their cells. I watched nurse bees feed brood, and field bees return to the hive with baskets full of pollen packed on their legs. Always, our work in the bee yard was about listening and observing. Bill wasn’t concerned with speed. Some of my most valuable freshman lessons in beekeeping were simply about slowing down.

By late summer, after the star thistle bloomed and faded, Bill was thinking about Florida. On Labor Day, we met at my hives for a pre-winter inspection. With his blessing and some advice on fall feeding, I harvested my second crop of honey and prepared the hives for the coming cold.

Six months later, on a snowy day in late winter, I strapped on skis and crossed the meadow to the hives. I bent down and put an ear to the entrance. I didn’t hear anything at first, and my heart took a momentary plummet. But then I picked up the sound—like the heartbeat of an entire community. I skied home with a smile.

In the spring there will be bees, and sophomore lessons in the bee yard, and honey.

Bee Life

  • The average American consumes a little over 1 pound of honey in one year.
  • A healthy summer beehive might contain as many as 40,000–60,000 female worker bees, 1,000 male drones and one queen.
  • The workers from one hive will fly 55,000 miles and tap 2 million flowers to make one pound of honey.
  • A productive hive can make and store up to 2 pounds of honey a day.
  • Each worker bee may live for 15–38 days in the summer months.
  • In her lifetime, she will make 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey.

For over 30 years the staff at Traverse Magazine has written about the history and natural world of our region. For the web series, Traverse Classics, we’ve reached into our archives to bring our favorites to our MyNorth.com audience.

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