The Accidental Beekeeper

It was the eve of my wedding, May 11, 1979. Friends and relatives were gathering at the house in West Pawlet, Vt., for a pre-nuptial celebration. One of the guests came up to me and said, “I didn’t know you were a beekeeper.” 

“What are you talking about?” said I.  

“Well, there is a beehive in your backyard,” said he.

In 1979, the back-to-the-land movement was peaking in Vermont.  Mother Earth News, get your butt off the grid, grow your own, etc., etc.  I had been wandering the earth since graduation and was ready to put down roots. My bride-to-be and I had just purchased 100+ acres of undeveloped land on a mountain in Danby, ready to begin our homesteading adventure, hoping to attract other like-minded folk and share the land. But really, what does a kid who grew up in the streets of Brooklyn know from all that? Beekeeping? It was hardly on his radar that there was such a thing.  Honey comes from those jars at the store.

Sure enough, a wooden box, about 18 inches wide by 24 inches deep by 12 inches high with a flat metal roof and a long rectangular opening at the bottom with dozens, if not hundreds, of bees flying in and out, had appeared in a far corner of the yard. Apparently, a small consortium of friends decided here’s something that ensures the kid will be bound to the earth. They were right. And just like that, my life was changed again, as if getting married wasn’t going to be enough of a change. It was May, and there was no time to wait around for Beekeeping 101 to be offered at the local community college. One of the members of the erstwhile bee conspiracy, Ned, a beekeeper himself, at least let me know that this was a crucial time of year for the bees, and I’d better get my rear in gear. And the only way to learn is to get in there and do it. 

Before honeybees can make honey, they need to make lots more honeybees, 20-50,000 to be exact, and they will need another box just like the first one for their nursery. These two boxes are called the hive body. Additional boxes will be for storing honey and are called supers. So, two days after the wedding, I buzz down to my local bee supplier 50 miles away, pick up materials to build the second box, including frames, wax foundation, reinforcing wire, nails.  Was buying an already built one an option? No. And, of course, I needed all the associated equipment – helmet, veil, gloves, smoker, hive tool. This was not going to be easy. The learning curve is steep, but it was then, and has been ever since, a labor of love.

Honeybee society is comprised of one queen, many workers, all female, and hopefully just a few drones, male. The queen’s job is to lay eggs; the workers do everything else, and every year, one lucky drone gets to mate with the queen. The bees in northern climates must make enough honey for the colony to survive the winter. A healthy colony makes quite a bit more than it needs, and that’s where the human comes in. The beekeeper’s job is to provide the bees with plenty of space to make new bees and encourage them to make their excess honey where it will be accessible.

In ancient times, the tribe’s beekeeper was considered a holy man. He would find a wild hive, most likely in a cave or hollow tree, and grab as much honey-laden comb as he could handle.  Bees have never appreciated their home being destroyed, and, surely, he would end up covered with stings. Not only was honey an important source of nutrition, but also, when mixed with water and allowed to ferment, it turned to mead, which was important for religious ceremonies and watching baseball games.

Most modern beekeepers wear protective clothing, but it’s possible to manage the bees without getting stung if you are calm and handle the hive gently and carefully. At some point in my beekeeping career, I decided to give it a try. But gradually.  First, I gave up the gloves, then the suit and finally the veil. I was fine for the entire summer, but I made the mistake of gathering honey unprotected that fall. When I dropped a super full of honey and everything broke apart, the girls were pissed! All you can do at that point is walk slowly and calmly away until the bees no longer consider you a threat. I was more than half a mile away before they stopped attacking. I had to sneak back home, change clothes and wash off any trace of bee scent before I could begin to pick up the pieces. I had more than two dozen stings and felt just like one of those ancient holy men.  P.S. – From then on, I usually worked without gloves, but nearly always with a veil.

In the mid-1990s, Varroa mites arrived from Asia. Varroa is a tick-like parasitic animal that feeds on honeybee larvae and transmits diseases that are often fatal to adult bees. Without human intervention, mite-infested colonies will die off within three years. There are almost no wild bee colonies in North America. Despite extensive research, a simple, effective treatment has yet to be developed. Since the beginning of civilization, humans have relied on honeybees for food crop pollination. An estimated 15 billion dollars’ worth of the U.S. food crop depends on honeybees for pollination. Beekeeping and intensive hive management are more important than ever.

I maintained an apiary of two or three hives every year for 33 years. Typically, I’d extract about 50 pounds per hive, just enough for my own use, gifts and barter. I held a Beekeeping 101 workshop of my own in my town of 600 and now have 15 bee-ciples, all helping to save the planet. To this day, I still find myself truly blessed and grateful for the wedding gift that changed my life.