Learning by bumbling with bees

story by Tanya Veitch | illustration by Stephen HaighFirst, a confession: I am a full-on honey bee nerd. I love my bees and am totally addicted to beekeeping. I’ve been “keeping” bees since July 2010. In that time I’ve lost sleep, been stung (my fault), felt terrified and overwhelmed, and of course, made what feels like a million rookie mistakes. Still, I kept returning to the hive, and eventually I started to get the knack for this crazy hobby.

My first bees arrived from a nice guy named Fred. I found him on Craigslist and after a few informative, pleasant emails, he showed up at my house with a nuc – a small starter hive involving three frames of bees with brood (baby bees) and a queen, and two frames of honey and pollen. I was very nervous. Not as much about the bees, but of making a fool of myself in front of Fred. I had never handled bees or even taken a class; all I had was a how-to book and a strong desire to have bees.

Fred spent an hour showing me “the girls” and giving instructions. He was calm, moved slowly, wore only a veil (no gloves) and used no smoke. My bees settled into the new hive, and I attached a feeder full of sugar syrup before saying goodbye to Fred.

I watched my new pets as often as I could and kept their feeder full. They seemed to be thriving and even managing common pests, like Giant Hornets and Small Hive Beetles. When fall turned cold, I bundled the hive in foam board and wished them well. I nervously watched from a distance all winter, praying they would pull through. Sometimes I stood with my ear against the hive listening for a reassuring hum.

On the first warm day I opened the hive for inspection. After months away I was clumsy and not prepared for the huge number of bees. I lifted the box from the top without first loosening individual frames, and comb – laden with brood – began to tear and fall off. One well-deserved sting and panic set in as angry guard bees took to the air. I dropped the box and made a dash away from it all. I felt overwhelmed and stupid. What was I thinking?

After recovering from what happened, I realized I couldn’t just leave the bees. Once I walked away the bees had calmed down, so I put the hive back together as best as I could. I felt like I must have squashed a hundred bees in my bumbling first attempt to examine them. I was shaking and covered in sweat. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this hobby.

Over the next few months I cleaned up the hive and made sure not to repeat my mistakes. I tried to move slowly and not squash bees. I used my smoker. I worked on being calm. I got stung three more times. I bought leather gloves and wore thick pants. I started to feel more confident.

In June 2011, we harvested 35 pounds of honey. It was a delicious, sticky mess and a great day. I turned it into a family affair, dragging everything inside, escorting a few remaining bees back outside, “spinning” the honey from the comb and finally, pouring the sweet amber goodness into sterilized jars. We sold some, used lots and gave away even more to our family, friends and (very importantly) neighbors.

Since then, another winter has passed. Now it’s March and the bees are flying around, gathering pollen and nectar. They seem to be enjoying the unusually mild weather as much as we are and I look forward to sampling honey influenced by these early flowering plants. I’m excited for another season with my bees and while I’m becoming a better beekeeper, I’m sure there will be mistakes – maybe fewer this time around!

Tanya Veitch, a fulltime urban homesteader and part time RN, is a wife (to a very tolerant husband) and mother of two lovely girls. She and her family live in East Falls.