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Sweet Buggery

Adventures in backyard beekeeping, a growing trend among foodies and hopeful development for these threatened pollinators

by B.A. Nilsson on May 8, 2014

 

Until last summer, I hadn’t been bee-stung in 25 years. Last time, it was a wasp in the attic that puffed my thumb to the size of a novelty toy. So I figured I’d better find out how I react to the sting of a honeybee, and I approached the hive in my backyard wearing no protective gear.

Almost immediately, a bee smacked against my shoulder and stung it. I suspect I’d simply gotten into the flight path of a very determined critter, provoking a flash of grumpiness. Honeybees have barbed stingers, so there’s a likelihood of it remaining in your skin, which is then fatal to the bee—one of the true examples of “this is going to hurt me more than it does you.” I carried no epipen or other palliative, reflecting the level of witlessness I’ve brought to my new-found hobby of beekeeping. But the venom proved only momentarily and mildly irritating.

I’d long been contemplating putting in a hive or two. At food-related trade shows I always made a, well, beeline to the honey distributors, who insisted that backyard apiarists are the ones who will keep this much-threatened population alive. I visited my nearby friend Nathan, whose dozens of hives were producing enough honey to pay for the investment and put a little cash in his pocket. And I lived in a household struggling to stay free of refined sugar, which meant we were going through pounds of the amber sweetener.

The cost was daunting. A hive kit can run $300 or more; bees add another $100 to $150, depending on how you obtain them. And this doesn’t begin to approach the cost of ancillary gear—clothing, hive tools, honey extraction gadgets, buckets, bottles, medication and more. Although I was advised that you really should start with at least two hives to shorten the learning curve, last spring I could only put together cash enough for one.

My wife and I started the process with a daylong beginner’s class at Betterbee in Greenwich, Washington County, which is also a one-stop source of hives and bees. The class was illuminating, informative, inspiring—until the afternoon portion kicked in, which was almost exclusively devoted to the issues of pests and diseases. We came away from the day with our eight-frame hive kit, hats, gloves, veils, smoker and a couple of guidebooks.

The bees start out in a brood box that’s filled with eight or (if you have a good lower back) 10 frames, each of which surrounds a sheet of waxy foundation on which a honeycomb pattern is imprinted.

As a rank beginner, I purchased a nuc, short for nucleus, of bees, which is a five-frame set on which the workers have started drawing the comb into which the queen deposits her eggs. A hive typically consists of two brood boxes, above which are stacked the honey supers—smaller boxes on the frames of which the bees draw comb and create what’s hoped to be excessive amounts of honey.

Each honey-filled cell is capped with wax, so the process of extraction requires those caps to be removed with any of a number of handy tools of varying expense, and the frame drained by gravity or centrifugal force. If you do no more than strain the honey (some people freak out at the sight of bee’s legs in the brew), you have it in its healthiest, purest form. Supermarket honey is also heated and can contain a huge amount of corn syrup that the FDA believes need not be label-noted.

But a beginner is told to expect little bounty from that first hive. They’re getting established; they’re building their population. They may make honey enough only to get through the winter.

It’s a fascinating sight, watching the bees return to the hive, their leg-sacs bulging with bright yellow pollen; it makes me feel horrifically lazy to see the magically intricate sight of those ever-growing wax hexagons. A bee colony is a superorganism, able to exist only as an interdependent colony. The more I read, the more I observe, the more fascinating they become.

One of my beekeeping ambitions is to become the kind of cool at-one-with-nature type who can fuss with frames and supers without hat, suit or gloves, too mellow to incite the bees to any state of concern. I was dismayed to discover not only that I’m nowhere near that point, but that my wife, who has expressed no such ambition, barehandedly handles them with ease.

As last year’s days grew colder, I consolidated the hive’s boxes and hoped for the best. They didn’t make it past the beginning of December. You can send your dead bees to the USDA for an evaluation; mine suggested that the queen had died, leaving the colony vulnerable to a parasite called nosema.

We uncapped and drained what little honey we had. Because I had drawn comb, I’d ordered next season’s bees as a less-expensive package, which is a cage of a few thousand of them along with a separately caged queen who gets introduced into the colony over a period of a few days.

Don’t reuse nosema-infected comb, I was told. I had no choice but to put the package in a box with new foundation. To make it worse, this was at the beginning of April, when winter-like weather persisted. The bees need a succession of 60-degree days in order to successfully forage and build. They had only rain and cold. Although I fed them with sugar water and pollen patties, there were no larvae visible, which meant the queen had died quickly. The workers live for only a few weeks, and without replacement brood they were gone by the beginning of May.

In the meantime, I’d found an Amish craftsman not far from where I live in Montgomery Country who sold hives for far less than what I’d paid before. Alongside that ill-starred package I’d ordered another nuc, which I installed in the new hive. I was even able to pick up another nuc a few days ago, which now is installed in my older hive. The warm weather means that the workers are returning to the hives with their pollen sacs bulging. In a few days I’m going to have to inspect the frames to make sure that the brood is coming along. I’ll probably get my first sting of the season. As my friend Nathan puts it, “It’s almost sweet.”