Traverse Classics: Lessons in 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.

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