On Mother's Day, I brought home 10,000 honeybees. (Which was OK, since I don't live with my mother.) They buzzed about inside their screened box until I misted them with water and jogged the contraption like a salt shaker. Through the can-sized opening on top, hundreds poured out at a time, into the hive I'd laboriously constructed over a couple weekends prior.
Like many firsts in life, that moment, that initial up-close encounter, will stay with me forever. The palpable, frenetic energy of so many creatures (with stingers) moving en masse right before me. The "Holy shit" voice in the back of my veil-protected head. The surprising calm that washed over me as the bees, demonstrating typical bee behavior, immediately went to minding their own rather than swarming into a beard over my body.
My manifesto was simple: I wanted to pollinate my vegetable garden. I wanted to establish one more healthy, chemical-free hive to defend against colony collapse disorder (CCD). And most of all, I wanted my own honey. And I wasn't alone.
Bees in the bonnet
With roughly 150 hives, Black Forest-based John Hartley is one of the most knowledgeable members of the Pikes Peak Beekeepers (PPB), and certainly the largest honey producer. He's also the go-to guy locally for bee removals. The former Navy chief petty officer carefully relocates 25 to 30 feral, or wild, colonies on average each summer, getting referrals from exterminators who refuse to spray honeybees.
(For the record: Honeybees aren't really yellow like yellowjackets and many wasp varieties, which lack the bee's fine hair for collecting pollen.)
Since 1995, Hartley has attended the annual, weeklong Eastern Apicultural Society conference, which usually attracts 700-plus bee enthusiasts. A couple years ago, all the talk was about the sudden disappearance in the winter of 2006 of millions of bees.
Beekeepers knew the ramifications could be huge: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that 80 percent of insect crop pollination is accomplished by honeybees, and approximately one-third of the total human diet is derived directly or indirectly from insect-pollinated plants. When the media learned of the danger, and produced reports and programs like PBS' Silence of the Bees, hobby beekeeping started to take off.
"The whole CCD issue," says Hartley, "has made people more aware."
The USDA estimates that between 140,000 and 210,000 beekeepers live in the U.S. Bee schools bolster the ranks of hobbyists and part-timers (those with between 25 and 299 hives), who together account for about 50 percent of total bee colonies and about 40 percent of honey produced, according to USDA numbers.
In the Springs, PPB school has seen attendance double, according to organizer Kim Gravestock. In March, I joined about 50 students of virtually all ages paying $40 for a two-day introductory class at Bear Creek Nature Center. (A side note: Watching friends' faces when you tell them you're off to bee school for the weekend is alone worth the cost.)
Aside from learning our first recycled bee clichés and bee-isms — "Ask five beekeepers and you'll get six answers" — Gravestock and other PPB members taught us bee history, biology and behavior, in addition to seasonal hive management, hive construction and honey extraction techniques. By school's close, I felt confident enough to sign a check to Hartley for bees ($85) and an all-inclusive starter kit ($225).
Tales from the hive
As I was allowed only one hive inside city limits, my duties as a beekeeper wouldn't be overwhelming. Any apiarist will tell you: The bees do all the work. We just observe and occasionally intervene before robbing our honey share late in the season.
Every two weeks or so, my beekeeping buddy Matt would come over, and we'd inspect my hive for egg-laying patterns, honey stores, new comb building and early indicators of disease. Before suiting up in veils over long sleeves and jeans (at first, alarming my neighbor, who was thankfully cool with it), we'd stuff pine straw and wood chips into our bee smokers and release thick, gray, fragrant clouds into our neighborhoods. The smoke masks the bees' alarm scent and prompts them to gorge on honey to prepare to swarm, an evolutionary response akin to "Um, girls ... I think our tree's on fire, let's load up and go."
A few puffs won't actually drive the bees that far into departure mode, and most just continued to clean and fill the wax cells on the 9-by-19-inch wood frames. My girlfriend Sam, wearing no protection, took to watching from about 10 feet away, and I held frames out for her to inspect closer, sometimes just a foot from her face. She was amazed by their gentle disposition and calmness, and never incurred an inspection sting.
My dog, equally curious but less fortunate, took one on the nose one day, which inspired quite a whimpering yard dance.
As the weeks progressed, we became increasingly charmed by our bees, unconsciously fitting them into daily chats. I began using terms like "brood chamber" and "nectar flow" in conversation with friends. On calls from work, I'd ask about them. My mom would, too, when she called each week.
Beginner beekeepers are told not to expect any honey in the first year, as bees devote a great amount of resources to building comb; between 13 to 20 pounds of honey are required to make a single pound of wax. Usually, the honey they do make is enough only to feed them over the winter.
That changes after year No. 1. The national harvest average, according to National Honey Board data, is 69.9 pounds per hive per year. According to Hartley, Colorado's average nears 65 pounds annually. (Since the average person has no appreciation of this figure, consider that workers from a hive fly 55,000 miles and tap 2 million flowers to make a single pound of honey.)
Thanks to a generally wet Colorado summer and favorable weather overall, I pulled roughly 30 pounds, or two and a half gallons, off my hive in late October. On harvest day, Matt and I were chased from my garage by several bees, who decided to rally to steal some of their honey back. While working the remainder of the day in the kitchen, a few buzzed longingly about my window screens.
Licking our fingers all day in an impossible effort to not sticky-up everything around us, we twisted our final jar lid on in the early evening. Though we only live a mile apart, Matt's honey came out a beautiful blond color with a detectable hint of mint, while mine turned out much darker, looking almost like chocolate or caramel sauce in the bottle, with no detectable standout flowers, just a wonderful flavor.
With my bees now clustering in the hive to overwinter, I only see them on warm days when they take cleansing flights. But on freezing mornings at dawn, I see where their generated heat has kept frost from forming on the metal top cover, so I know they're OK.
And that's what becoming a beekeeper will do to you. You'll realize that you don't recall a day when you didn't think about your bees at least once for a brief moment. Usually with fondness and unnecessary concern. I'm guessing that keeping bees feels like parenting a bit in that way.
Which is convenient in a way for me, because next time my Mom asks casually about grandchildren, I can remind her of the tens of thousands of new family members I brought home on her special day.