Turns out it's a lot more difficult to raise bees since the age of the varroa mite, insecticides, suburban sprawl, and monoculture. There was a time when you just wrangled up some bees, dumped them in a hive, placed it in a field, and waited a year for a honey crop. Those days are gone. We learned everything the hard way.
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- Artwork, Sarah Krakow, talented 8 year old daughter of Samuel Krakow.
Lauren and I met a little over two years ago on the first day of spring, 2015. Neither of us were beekeepers. In fact, the closest either of us had gotten to a honeybee was as incidental neighbors in our respective gardens. However, as we grew closer and contempated a life together, we talked about our long term goals. They included a laundry list of dreams, but one was a bit odd....at first.
"I've always wanted to keep bees. But I didn't think I could do it alone." Lauren looked at me and gauged my interest.
"Ok. Let's give it a try. How hard could it be?"
Soon Lauren's desire turned into our mutual obession and a lesson in humility.
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So we ordered a box o' bees. They mass produce them in the south and ship them north to hungry hords of wanabee beekeepers like ourselves. We arrived at the Worchester Honey Farm north of Philadelphia like eager parents in some strange rural labor and delivery ward. Cars were parked for miles along the edge of isolated farmland. We were giddy. There was the distinct hum of bees in the distance. We were going to be beekeepers!
Things went wrong quickly. After a rather exhilerating ride home with over three thousand bees clamps firmly between my wife's knees, we opened the box to look for the queen cage. It was difficult enough to keep the other bees inside as we checked Her Highness for her health status. My son, always the know it all, looked inside.
We were devastated. You have to remember how much hobbyist beekeepers plow into this endeavor - hives, tools, brushes, suits, emotional expectations of saving the future pollinators of our extensive garden. It was heartrending. And how do you return a dead queen? Is there a customer service department? It's not like Home Depot. A box o' bees without a queen is about as likely to survive as a man in a fallout shelter without a can opener.
After a few frantic messages left on the Worchester voice message service, I drove back and presented the queen as proof of death. Turns out it's a rather common occurance.
"It's a long trip from Georgia. Some don't make it. Take your pick of queens so your girls have a mama."
That was just day one. We were addicted.
It was a weekend so my kids came along. My son Josh, long since determined never to interact with any animal unless it was in a zoo, and my daughter Sarah, ambivalent at best, were surprisingly cooperative even as the air thickened with bees from the local hives. Even the stacks of hundreds of caged bees didn't send them into a panic. Were these my kids?
Our bees prospered. At least we think they did. Over the following weeks the bees did what they were supposed to do. They flew in. They flew out. For no good reason other than naked curiosity, we opened the hive to see these little industrious wonders draw out comb and rear brood. One day I opened it before I drove out for work for a quick peek. Some stragglers hitched a ride on my clothing and I got stung in the car. Walking in the house later in the day with egg shaped welts on my head, I related the story and Lauren shook her head.
"You know you're absolutely nuts! You could have crashed the car."
"Let's get more bees!"
It's cold out there, but it isn't too early to think about spring!!!!! If you're getting a bee package or a nuc, think about getting a beehive from Beeleavers! We make our own hives in our basement workshop. If you want a handmade, local hive for the spring, order now!
So we posted our interest in collecting swarms in the "Free" section of Craigslist. It wasn't long before we got a call from a homeowner near Swarthmore.
"There's a big ball of bees hangin' off the fence in my yard. Every year we get one. There's a hive in my roof that throws off a few every year. You want it?"
Who knew a Prius could break 80 on the Blue Route? Armed with a Rubbermaid bin, we arrived post haste.
To be continued....
We heard all sorts of stuff in line for our bees.
"All mine died last year."
"I didn't feed them enough. I'm back for more."
"You think you know enough. You don't."
Oh boy. This didn't sound encouraging even after a winter beekeeping conference and a hundred and one YouTube videos.