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When I tell people I’m a beek, inevitably the first thing they say is, “Yes, we need to save the bees! They’re very important!”. While totally true, it is a noble statement that I cannot claim. I was dragged into beekeeping, kicking and screaming… well almost. 

We purchased our dream property here in our southern US state. The previous owners used the land for livestock so it had an existing agricultural exemption. If we wanted to keep the exemption we needed to provide proof of the agricultural use prior to closing. A neighbor suggested bees and honestly, it was the fastest thing we could arrange.

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Chickens and other poultry livestock do not count. Getting a dozen head of cattle quickly wasn’t feasible; and we were not living on the property to care for any type of livestock, so bees were the answer. We contacted our local beekeeper’s association and were paired with an experienced couple who also sold hives and equipment.

My husband and I took a beginner class to learn the basics. Even at my age, I had never been stung by a bee before so the sting fear was off the charts. I had no idea if I would have an anaphylactic reaction. Luckily, or unluckily, I was stung right away at class and survived.

It would ‘bee’ the first of hundreds I was to experience with time.

People will tell you they get used to the stings and some beeks don’t wear protective gear when they are around bees they know are gentle. In my experience, a bee sting for me now is like a paper cut. You’re never expecting it so it catches you off guard with the initial ouch. Then it’s just annoying because of the swelling and incessant itch.

 

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The bees were there on the property by closing so we were grandfathered in to the AG exemption. In my state an AG exemption can be worth thousands of dollars off your tax bill, so our initial investment of less than $1000 for 6 hives was worth it. A new nuc (nucleus of a hive) runs around $375 USD each today. Queens cost $75 each. Once you’ve begun with however many hives you choose there should be no need to purchase other nucs. Your bees will multiply naturally and you will split them off into new hives. Queens will reach the end of their laying lives in a couple years so new mated queens are a normal beek purchase.

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The first thing I learned from beekeeping is to “Bee Open to trying new things.”

I have learned and experienced so much through my bees. If I’d have let my fear and intimidation nix the bee idea, I wouldn’t have all the joy of my hobby or the endless supply of +local honey.

People always remark, “you’re so brave, I could never do that.” They watch my videos and see the thousands of bees flying around and always say, “how are you so calm?” I’ve learned to Bee Brave and Bee Calm. My protective gear is the best on the market. I need to trust my safety to that gear so I don’t buy the cheap stuff. I’ve learned through mistakes, to make sure every zipper in my suit is zipped tight because bees will find a way in if you let them.

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I still get stung in the face or hands every season. The screened veil does no good when you’re touching your face to reposition your eye glasses or scratch an itch. A baseball cap keeps the veil farther from your face so if I don’t touch my face, I will get stung less. Being calm when I work with the bees is paramount. They keep the hive at the perfect 94F degrees (34C) for the brood. When I open the hive, I am messing with their mojo and they are rarely happy about it. A beek must look at a portion of the hive frames weekly to make sure there is brood at every stage. One must see eggs, larvae and capped brood. If a beek doesn’t see babies then something is wrong with the queen. If I remove the frames calmly they get less upset about it. Even seasoned beeks will drop a frame full of bees, that’s when the chaos really begins (think Hitchcock and The Birds).

I’ve learned that a smoker can help but it’s not a magic bullet. Smoke smell indicates an emergency to the bee so they will suck up all the honey they can in case they have to leave the hive. This is why in photographs you see of swarms in a tree or on a fence, the bees look so plump and healthy. They’ve absorbed as much of the hive resources as possible before they left looking for greener pastures.

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I’ve learned to have all my beekeeping equipment with me and even those things that I may not think I’ll need. You cannot just buy the bare minimum where hive boxes or tools are concerned. I can’t count the number of times my hive tool has fallen into a 2 or 3 deep box during my inspections.

During honey season your bees will multiply exponentially and if you don’t have extra boxes they will swarm. There are always a pile of unused hive boxes and frames in my garage.

I have learned to Bee Prepared and to expect the unexpected.

Most hobby beeks don’t have to be concerned if their number of hives fluctuate. Since ours is an AG exemption, we must maintain a certain number to qualify, and we are inspected annually by the county.

No one can know everything there is to know about beekeeping. Experienced beeks know the basics that are universal to bee life, but the bees will always surprise you.

I have learned to Bee Humble in all things, not just where my bees are concerned.

The bees are like the human eye, too complex to have been created by accident. Queen bees are fertilized once for their life. The worker bees know when she is ending her egg laying capabilities and will make new queens to replace her. They will make several in case one is defective for some reason. They know in advance how long it will take a new queen to leave the hive and mate and return. When she’s returned the hive will kill the old queen and begin working for the new queen.

 

The bees know when the hive has become too crowded for the queen to lay the number of eggs necessary for survival. They send scout bees out to look for a new home and when the scout bees return they use a shimmy dance to indicate the direction of the new home. The queen leaves and the rest of the hive swarm with her. The bees know and build the exact dimensions of a wax cell needed to lay a female bee versus a male bee (drone).   The queen knows when she dips her abdomen into the wax cell which sex to lay in it. It’s just amazing how intelligent and productive honey bees are.

 I have learned to have a teaching spirit when it comes to the people who want to keep bees but haven’t yet made the leap.

 

I keep in mind all that I didn’t know when I started and all that I’ve learned. Therefore, there are no stupid questions that can be asked of a humble beek. Humble beeks want to share their passion and their experiences. People will often ask, “How do the bees know where their hive is if you have multiple hives?” Bees know their queen by her pheromones. They are guided to their queen by her smell. The lifespan of a honeybee is measured by flying hours. Do your bees have to fly far for water, pollen and nectar? Keeping your apiary a useful ecosystem for your honeybees will prolong their lives and cause them less stress so they can focus on making honey and making new bees.

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We don’t sell our honey. We are hobby beeks and there are state regulations on moisture content that we just choose not to deal with. We give our honey away to anyone that wants it. Our 6 hives produced 5 gallons of honey when we harvested July 2019. During the covid lockdown in 2020 we were so busy with navigating the ever-changing rules for our family-owned business and moving our college student, her dog & cat back home, that we didn’t harvest at all.

This turned out to be very providential when we experienced a February snow and freeze, which is rare for our southern area. Because we did not take any of the honey stores from the year before, the bees had the reserves for heat retention and food, and all six survived.

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Beginner beekeepers sometimes make the mistake of harvesting too much honey the first year. They don’t leave enough for the bees and the hive dies. The bees use the honey, pollen, and nectar stores for heat retention and food over the winter. I was always taught not to harvest the initial year so that you have a chance to gauge what stores they need to overwinter.

Lastly, I’ve learned to Bee Thankful.

 

I’m thankful for the ways the bees challenge me. I’m thankful for the friendships they’ve exposed me to from fellow beekeepers all over the world. I follow beekeepers in all sections of the US, Tasmania & Africa on social media. Are our bees and situations all the same? No. Do I need to insulate my hives to survive a long, northeast US winter? No. But have I learned so much from so many people? I have.

I’m thankful for all the experiences and joy my hobby has given and continues to give me.

 

 

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