The Beekeeper’s Apprentice


“Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”       Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine    

Any summer day I want I can relax with the bees, iced mocha in hand.  I sit surrounded by the wild yet gentle buzz of thousands of bees going to and fro, the smell of sun-warmed beeswax wafting my way.  Ask me about a hive’s inner life! Or what constitutes a strong brood pattern, or the uses of propolis, the dangers of foul brood, the controversy around queen excluders!  I’ve gained knowledge and understanding and get to watch generations of bees carry on the business of pollinating fruits and vegetables and honey making!

This could be you.

You don’t need more than the desire to keep bees to get started.  Gumption and a bit of start-up cash help too, actually.  Mark and I made the leap into beekeeping late one fall and gave each other bee suits for Christmas–and a coupon for a one-day seminar at Ruhl Bee Supply, our Portland area bee supply store. I felt a little overwhelmed by what I didn’t know, so having a partner gave me confidence.  Nice, but not necessary.  It’s a steep learning curve, but totally doable alone, or with an apprenticing pal.beekeeping-suit

We started keeping bees partly because we wanted to do what we could to help save them–the bee population has plummeted in Europe and North America in the last 6 years due to the mysterious syndrome, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  We also loved the idea of adding stable and industrious pollinators to our farm, and of course, the golden nectar that we hoped to harvest was of no small consequence!

How to prepare to be a keeper of bees is a worthy conversation. One that requires more than I can adequately cover here.  So think of this as a primer—something to get you itching for spring, when beekeeping tasks start in earnest.

Two first steps I recommend the would-be beekeeper take: First, engage the bee keeping community.  You have started that already, by reading this post.  Engage me!  I’d love to hear from you!  And if you can, find someone in your area who keeps bees.  Introduce yourself. Go see their set-up.  Becoming familiar with another beekeeper in your area gives you a talking partner, someone who shares the particularities of your climate when questions about swarms, a cold snap, a hot spell, or when to harvest honey arise.   Local bee keeper and now friend, Mark Thompson has been that for us.

Second: get a hold of a good beekeeping book.  We have two, Beekeepers for Dummies (my favorite) and Backyard Beekeeping (also good.)  Spend some time getting familiar with bees by reading about them.  Learn some of the lingo, and how to tell the difference between a drone, a worker bee, and a queen.  Learn their culture. I know, I know—it is a stretch to say bees have a culture…but their organizational structure is truly fascinating.  They graduate onto different jobs over the course of their lives, communicate very effectively with each other, and work together, protect each other, and do a few other things human cultures do.

To make the learning curve manageable, I broke it down into four basic tasks: Housing, Moving-In, Check-Ups (& subsequent tasks related to what you find), and Harvest Day.  Playing with the wax and propolis is an optional bonus–for later. Once you’ve read a bit about bees, and know you want to move forward, then Housing becomes your first task.  And if you want to start with the annual bee cycle, you’ll need to get your housing ready between January-March as bees arrive (in the northwest at any rate) in early April.  If you are ready for that now, look at my post about Housing; posts covering the other tasks will follow in a timely manner…

Meanwhile, welcome to the warm and wonderful, even if at times odd and eccentric, community of beekeepers!honey


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