I was semi-profiled by The Gazette at Memorial University in December 2018 (I work with a film & video production crew at the university). It could be a collector’s item some day because it’s one of the rare instances where I gave someone permission to publish a photo of me. I was asked some general questions about beekeeping and I gave some general answers. The Gazette didn’t have room to published the full Q&A, but I do, so here it is:
Why did you begin beekeeping?
I stumbled onto a gardening blog written by a guy who kept a few beehives on the roof of his apartment in Chicago and I thought if he can keep bees in a cold, windy place like Chicago, then I should be able to do it my tiny backyard in St. John’s. The more I looked into it, the more fascinated I became with honey bees. That was almost ten years ago and I’m just as fascinated today as I was back then.
How much does an average person need to know to become a beekeeper? i.e. Is it difficult to learn?
There are some basics you need to know before you begin. First there’s understanding honey bee behaviour. The Biology of The Honey Bee by Mark L Winston isn’t a bad place to start. Then there’s learning the practical aspects of taking care of the bees. The Beekeeper’s Handbook covers that. But no matter how much research you do in advance, you’ll learn the most from the actual practice of beekeeping and by making mistakes. Beekeeping is a constant learning process. While there is more to it than just putting a bunch of bees in a box and “letting the bees be bees,” it isn’t difficult to learn or as expensive to get into as some might think. It mostly requires the time to just sit and watch the bees, to pay attention to them and to learn from them.
What is involved, day to day, in keeping bees?
There isn’t really a typical day in beekeeping because the work varies depending on the time of year and the weather. But when the weather is warm and the queen is laying up to 2000 eggs a day, it’s my job to stay ahead of the queen and make sure she has room to lay all those eggs. I do that by inspecting certain frames of comb every ten days or so and adding empty frames where the comb is quickly filling with brood (i.e., baby bees). At the same time, foraging bees are bringing in nectar to be cured into honey. I add empty frames for them, too, if they’re running out of space to store nectar. It takes time to learn all these rhythms of the bees throughout the year, to know when to leave them alone and when to help them out, but it’s a rewarding experience when the bees do well. An average hive inspection lasts about 15 minutes.
I like hanging out with the bees and watching them do their thing because they’re docile little creatures that do everything for a reason. It’s like being in the presence of a force of nature and feeling a connection to it. It’s natural to feel a certain resistance towards buzzing insects, especially ones that can sting you, but when you let go of that resistance and approach the bees calmly, somehow they can feel that and will land on your hands and crawl around your fingers and they’re totally cool. It might not be like snuggling up to a wild mountain lion that I raised from a cub, but it’s in that ballpark. And when the bees sting me, it’s usually because I did something stupid and I deserved it. And I’m okay with that too.
How many bees do you have?
I’ve had as many as ten honey bee colonies, though at the moment I have seven, and each colony, which lives in its own beehive (or bee house), contains about 50,000 bees at the height of summer when everything is in bloom. 50,000 bees per colony seems like a lot, but most of the bees are inside their hive taking care of baby bees and making honey, and the ones that are flying around collecting pollen and nectar have so little interest in humans that most people, even closely situated neighbours, wouldn’t know the location of a beehive unless I pointed it out to them. However, four or five hives close together in a small area can create a certain kind of hum in the air that’s either relaxing or ominous, depending on how you feel about bees. But if I didn’t tell you that that sound in the air was being created by bees, you’d likely think it was just the wind blowing through the trees.
Any horror stories? Or has it all been smooth sailing?
I have a few horror stories, but here’s the big one: I was inspecting a hive in the woods at a friend’s place when a branch poked a big hole through my veil at a moment when I did something wrong that put the bees in a bad mood. All those bad-mood bees flew through the hole in my veil and tried to sting me in the face. They couldn’t do anything else because they were stuck behind my veil with my face. I immediately ran through the woods, tearing my veil and bee jacket to pieces while trying to flick all the bees out of my eyes and nose. My glasses went flying (and are gone forever). I had bees crawling in my ears, in my hair, down my back, and they were all trying to sting me. I reached a field of tall grass where I continued to run and tear off more clothes until I made it to my car and had to roll up all the windows to prevent some bees that were chasing me from getting into the car. Bees that are unhappy with humans make a unique sound, and to this day when I hear that sound (which I know very well), I walk away and leave the bees alone. I eventually called a cab because I couldn’t drive home without my glasses. That’s the day I probably should have quit beekeeping. But I didn’t.
What do you recommend to people who are interested in keeping bees? Are there some basic requirements (e.g. live in a rural area, space for making honey, etc.)
For people interested in keeping bees, I would first recommend learning as much as you can about honey bees and let fascination be your guide. I did that by watching endless hours of beekeeping videos on YouTube and devouring blogs such as Honey Bee Suite. I’ve also heard good things about the Mud Songs blog, which, from what I understand, might be the most practical online guide to backyard beekeeping in Newfoundland. Getting to know a local beekeeper or two doesn’t hurt either. The requirements for people interested in beekeeping aren’t as restrictive as they used to be. I managed to start up my first two hives in the tiniest speck of a backyard when I lived in the city, at a time when I was living paycheque to paycheque, when there were hardly any beekeepers around to talk to, and when there wasn’t a local beekeeping supplier on the island and I had to ship everything in from Manitoba. Most of that has changed and subsequently it’s much easier and more affordable to get into beekeeping in Newfoundland today.
How much honey do you harvest, and at what time of year? Can you describe the process?
The amount of honey I harvest depends on the strength of each colony and the weather we’ve had during the spring and summer. It can be a feast or famine kind of situation and I don’t take any honey if the bees don’t have enough to get through winter. But when things are running smoothly, I usually get somewhere between 20 and 50 pounds of honey per hive beginning in August, though I’ve gotten as much as 100 pounds from a single hive. Selling honey to friends helps defer the cost of building the hives. When the bees have made more honey than I know what to do with, I use a device called an extractor that flicks the honey out of the frames through centrifugal force. But for honey that I keep for myself, I bring the frames of raw honey into my kitchen and cut the honeycomb right out of the frames. I’ll either crush and strain the comb for liquid honey, or I’ll keep it intact and eat it as comb honey (wax and all), which is absolutely 100% delicious, especially on a fancy cracker with blue cheese. I know many beekeepers who enjoy all the calculations and manipulations involved in pushing the bees to make as much honey as they can get out of them, but honey production doesn’t motivate me to keep bees. Honey is just a bonus, a very sweet bonus.