Context matters.

A lot has happened in the past few weeks. Some of them started happening in the middle of my accidental research paper on honey bee classification, but I couldn’t interrupt that process until it was all written. (Right? Of course, right!) So here’s what’s been going on:

I went to my first monthly Memphis Area Beekeepers Association meeting.

Well, strictly speaking, it’s just my first MABA meeting in a couple of years. I attended a few meetings when I first became interested in beekeeping – but even after going to a one-day beekeeping workshop, it still felt like 99% of the information shared at the meeting went over my head. I won a door prize (there are always door prizes) from among a sea of objects that I mostly couldn’t identify. I got to see honey extracted from comb, which was extremely cool. But other than that, I felt completely adrift, an outsider, and – unable to follow most of the conversational topics – a little bored. I intended to attend regularly, but just couldn’t muster the willpower to give up one Monday night a month for the sole purpose of being thoroughly confused.

But this latest meeting… a-ha! Armed with the intellectual spoils of my research (which makes me sound impressive!) and my “baby beek*” forays into actually buying and preparing what I dearly hope is the right equipment (rather less impressive…) my experience was entirely different. The discussions felt relevant and interesting! The door prizes were all items I recognized and could make use of (even if I didn’t win anything this time around). Best of all, on a few occasions another member asked the speaker a question, and my immediate reaction was to think: “Hey, I know the answer to that.” It wasn’t just interesting – it was a really confidence-building experience. I feel like I’m part of a community, and I’m looking forward to April’s meeting.

I met my mentor.

MABA tries to assign a mentor to every new (or new-ish) beekeeper who wants one. The list of hopeful mentees is much longer than the list long-suffering mentors, so it’s not a one-to-one ratio. I’m not sure exactly how many mentees my mentor is advising… but I’m definitely part of a cohort. I met some of them, and we exchanged contact information. (Hey! I know beekeepers! It’s almost like I’m a beekeeper myself! Gosh.)

My mentor is gregarious, witty, and no-nonsense. He’s an elementary school principal in his other life, which says a lot about his tenacity. He communicates with his mentees primarily by text, which is perfect for me: I can send a question and get a response, or we can arrange a meeting. He’s also an incredibly experienced beekeeper who knows about both backyard and commercial-scale operations, continues to work to expand his knowledge, and loves sharing what he knows. I am giddy.

He says all his mentees make honey the first year. I’m trying not to get too excited about that. I’ve been very carefully going into this experience with the idea that the first year is just about getting the colony established, and that I won’t see any sweet, tasty, edible results until next year, and my motivation is all about helping an important pollinator, but … methinks the lady doth protest too much.

First contact with actual, real-life honey bees has been made!

This may be my most exciting news. One of my new co-mentees has eight bee colonies in his back yard. Last weekend, he let me help him do a spring check-up on them. (He also gave me permission to take pictures for this post.) We were joined by his long-time friend and, later, by our mentor, so there was a lot of conversation for me to listen in on, and … well, I was going to make a “fly on the wall” reference, but it doesn’t really seem appropriate here.

I never thought I would covet a concrete slab, but I do.

First of all, let me say this: Any concerns I have about keeping bees in a suburban setting are now gone. I won’t say where my colleague lives, but it’s within walking distance of some very popular Memphis dining options, backs up to an apartment complex, and nobody knows there’s a pretty reasonably-sized apiary in his back yard. There are no problems with neighbors getting stung, no difficulties for the bees in terms of finding sustenance, and no challenge in keeping the yard maintained – though he does keep a mesh screen handy to cover the hive entrance if he has to mow or run a weed-eater nearby. That seems like a really good idea.

All right, now it’s confession time: For months, my super-secret worry has been that while the idea of beekeeping might be all well and good, I would suddenly panic when surrounded by droves of actual flying, stinging insects, and this would be the most short-lived hobby ever. Rationally, I didn’t expect this to happen… but panic isn’t rational, is it?

(Spoilers: As the existence of this blog entry suggests, this did not happen.)

Actual First Contact With Honey Bees was the moment of truth. When we first approached the hives, I edged up to them sidewise, walking softly (can you sneak up on 500,000 bees? I don’t know, but by God I was going to try) and monitoring both myself and the bees for any sign of alarm. My host pulled off the first outer cover, asked me to apply the smoker (new skill alert!), and then I braced myself for a wash of —

of —

…oh. Hey. The bees are just sort of chilling there, aren’t they?

Nobody’s alarmed. I’m not alarmed, they’re not alarmed. Everybody is good here.

Even after we removed a frame, they didn’t really pay us much attention.

Honey bees are too busy to bother with our nonsense.

Speaking of frames, let’s talk about those for a minute. In a previous entry, I lamented my carpentry skills and rejoiced over my success in installing wax foundation into my frames. The bees pictured here are on frames that started out like mine, but have long since had honeycomb constructed outward from either side of that foundation. Most of the comb in the frames we worked with last weekend were filled with one of several potential contents: Bee brood (eggs/larvae/pupae), pollen, or honey. (It’s pretty important to be able to identify which of these is inside a honeycomb cell or group of cells. For example, extracting honey? Great! Extracting half-developed bee larvae? ….not so appetizing. Fortunately, this is a pretty easy skill to learn.) Most of these frames were full, and they were heavy. Frames this size weigh in the neighborhood of four to five pounds when full. Multiply that by the eight to ten frames in a typical hive box, plus the weight of the box itself, and beekeeping quickly starts sounding like a pretty good weight-training exercise.

Worrying about accidentally dropping one of these frames quickly subsumed all my other fears. It was a bit tricky efficiently manipulating frames and wielding my hive tool (a heavy metal implement that could easily double as a self-defense object) and I didn’t want to fumble anything! My instinct was to expect the bees to crawl up my hands the minute I was holding a frame, and by this time, I was a lot more worried about crushing a bee than I was about being stung. But, nope – the bees were all still too busy to be bothered with our nonsense, and had no interest in leaving the frames even when they were in hand.

The comb on this frame is fully drawn, and about half the cells are filled with capped honey.

We spent some time hunting for the queen in each hive. Let me tell you: If Martin Handford ever really wants to up the ante on Where’s Waldo? he should dress everyone in the picture in red-and-white stripes, display each picture in constant motion, and add a footnote that reads: “Waldo might be on this page. But he might be on another page. And it’s possible you picked up the wrong book, and Waldo is currently residing in the next book on the shelf. Good luck!” Queen-hunting is not an easy task.

Some beekeepers mark their queen with a small spot of paint to make her easier to find. I didn’t order a marked queen, on the premise that I need to learn how to find queens without paint spots on their backs eventually – so I might as well start now. But after last weekend, I’m reconsidering the merits of “training wheels” as a general concept in life.

The queen in the photo below is marked with a yellow spot. She has a notably longer abdomen with fewer stripes. The blue circle surrounds a drone – the only male bees in the colony – identifiable by his larger size and gigantic eyes.

Easy drone ID tip for new beekeepers: Every time you think you’ve FINALLY found the queen, it’s a drone.

I didn’t realize we were moving relatively slowly and carefully, until our mentor showed up. Then things got busy. He recommended some adjustments to the hives, and once he started moving, he moved a lot faster than us. There were a few instances where he had to disturb the bees more than we had done, and soon there were a lot more insects in the air, and a few bees pinging off my veil from time to time — an aggressive action short of actual stinging. By then, I was so used to having bees all over the place that this wasn’t alarming at all.

Three hours. Four humans. 500,000 bees** (give or take). Zero stings. The take-home lesson here is this: Honey bees in the hive are absolutely too busy to deal with your nonsense. I’m sure I won’t always be working with bees as gentle as these, and everybody gets stung sometimes. But beekeeping done right is clearly not a hobby that puts you at high risk of frequent bodily pain.

Also, I didn’t panic. That’s gratifying.

I’ve done buckets of reading, but this past month has put everything into so much more context. I learned so much in the three hours that I was suited up that I can’t possibly fit it all into one post. My head felt stuffed full by the end of the workday, and there’s still so much more to learn, but this was a great start.

Countdown to Bee Day: T minus nine days.

*“Beek” is my new favorite word. Though it appears to be short for “beekeeper,” I believe it’s officially an elision of “bee geek,” which is definitely an accurate description of the boundless and not-entirely-practical enthusiasm I’m feeling right now.

**I’m estimating 60,000 bees per hive, and eight hives, but some of the hives were packed full and others were rather small, so my math here is very squishy.

2 thoughts on “Context matters.”

    1. Yeah, we provide frames and foundation and the bees build comb from there! The foundation isn’t necessary at all – but it speeds up the process and (importantly) gives the bees a guide to make sure they build in the right direction. I’ll try to get some good process pictures as my own bees build their comb. Honeycomb that has been emptied (either because the brood have hatched …or because the beekeeper stole the honey out of it :D) can be re-used and re-filled many times, so kept bees don’t have to do the work over and over. But my bees will have to start from scratch and will have a lot of building to do – which is why I was so surprised when my mentor said I could expect enough honey to harvest some this first year.

      Liked by 1 person

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