Traverse Classics: Lessons in Beekeeping

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 audience.

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