Thursday, July 23, 2009

An Aspiring Bee Keeper

My friend Kathy took me on a field trip this week. We went to her apiary, a yard where she keeps bees. Kathy has been keeping bees for the past 10 years. As an aspiring bee keeper myself I was delighted to spend the day with Kathy, see her hives, her bees, the brood, the Queen and get my first close up experience with honey bees. I am in! I am completely swooned and compelled to embark on this adventure.

The day held some surprises, including my willingness to be vulnerable and expose some of my most intimate thoughts about my yearning to keep bees. Somehow I felt completely safe, which says volumes about Kathy.  I have been struggling with the validity of my desire and needed to know if I was completely off base. You see, it isn't about the honey, although that would be nice. And it isn't about the benefits of pollination which I would be happy to be a part of. It is far more selfish and self-serving. While the bees were surely a high point, the affirmation I got about my visceral desire to keep bees was just as much a highlight. I come at this endeavor with a need to be tamed, with the idea that the bees can empower me to be more mindful, more deliberate, more contemplative, and to be  slowed down. I had only shared these thoughts with Tina. Perhaps Kathy would think, hum, she needs some therapy, not a colony of bees. I took a risk, sharing my thoughts, I knew it was a deal breaker, either I was meant for bee keeping or I wasn't and I had to know. Did I say I am in? I am in!  I was completely affirmed. I would much rather spend my money on bees than a therapist!

We  went to the bee yard, taking with us Kathy's observation hive, a small hive she keeps on her back porch for observation purposes, and teaching. The bees in this hive were not doing well and Kathy planned on adding them to an established hive. Only in doing so she needed to dispatch the Queen, something no beekeeper wants to do! The Queen seemed to have stopped laying eggs which is a very unfortunate problem, so she had to go. I felt enormous sadness for Kathy but honestly I was so intrigued in her ability to locate and extract the Queen that I lost sight of the killing. 

Then Kathy began her inspection of her equipment, one entire colony had simply absconded! The other hive, a hive that feral bees had taken up residence had encouraging activity outside the hive. Bees buzzing about, heading in and out of the entrance with nectar and possibly some pollen although I could not appreciate either of these elements. We both donned  protective veils at this point. Kathy did not really know the temperament of this particular colony, after all they had been living in the wild and simply moved in! In no short order Kathy removed her veil confident that the bees were docile and it would be easier to see and work. I would have removed my veil as well, things were going well for me, I felt enormously calm. However, it really was my first experience and I thought keeping the veil on was prudent.

 Kathy went through the boxes inspecting the frames and pointing out cells with eggs, brood, comb, nectar, honey . . . and then she spotted the feral Queen. Finding the Queen, or at least good evidence that she is well, is a critical part of the inspection. Kathy seemed very pleased, good brood, good brood patterns, a thriving hive, it was all very positive, and maybe even unexpected considering the unusual nature of the acquisition. Once the hive was put back together I did remove my veil and watched the activity outside the hive, trying to appreciate the presence of nectar in the belly of the bee or see some pollen being carried in on their back feet,  I could not. 

We left the bee yard and went to see Kathy's farmer friends who host her apiary on their land. Catherine and Melissa have been farming for the past 15 years or so in Zumbrota, MN. They raise lambs, cattle, chicken and have lama's, ducks, dogs, cats and a beautiful peacock. They wool and butcher the lambs. Catherine is a writer, and wrote The Compassionate Carnivore, a book on how to keep animals happy, save Old MacDonald's Farm, reduce your hoofprint, and still eat meat. My kind of book and I intend to read it soon. Melissa took me a tour, showing off their stunning and well cared for animals and then we went to lunch.

It was a completely empowering day. I felt calm, centered and content. I felt like the world was full of possibility and that I could in fact do this, keep bees. I realize that I come to bee keeping at the worst possible time for the honey bee! Honey bees are facing unprecedented threats which include the introduction of mites, the arrival of the Africanized bee, the prevalent and persistent use of agricultural chemicals and more recently the so called Colony Collapse Disorder which is decimating hundreds of managed honey bee populations. It is a upward battle for the beekeeper, especially  a novice like myself!

But I am in! I am hoping to find a host for my hives in Northfield and if all goes well I will hive two colonies next spring. I am registered to take a weekend class on honey bee management at the U of M in March and I am going to join the MN hobby Beekeepers organization. I have a new friend (which is the best part of all) and a bee keeping mentor. Life has taken a turn for me and I am full of energy, enthusiasm and some healthy trepidation.

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