Just as the pandemic brought our world to a halt, Kerri and I began keeping honey bees. The family joke is that I did this to keep from having chickens, but that is a story for another time. This project, however, was not a whim of the pandemic. We had gifted ourselves two hives and had to wait until the package of bees could be picked up in mid-March (2020). A week after we installed the packages almost all of our world shut down. I had spent the winter and part of the early spring reading about honey bees and preparing the hive boxes to host our bees. Every beekeeper will tell a newbie to start with two hives. The reason for this is because no matter how well a person does at beekeeping there are factors beyond their control that affect the success of the hive. In our case, one hive thrived and its offspring queens continue to produce both strong hives and amazing honey. The other failed less than one month after we started (dumb hive beetles!) We now host between nine and eleven hives in our yard and pull as much as 120 pounds of honey (slightly over 7 gallons for those who don’t think in pounds). While a side hobby, from the months of mid-February through late July/early August, the bees can consume my time and energy. Some days I am grateful for their presence in our lives.
I have colleagues and friends who tell me that honey bees are an invasive species. Indeed, they are correct. Europeans brought honeybees to North American in the 17th century. Native bees, whose species number in the thousands, have suffered from honeybee populations. The latter tend to be aggressive regarding nectar pulling, and over against solitary bees like the bumblebee, they can clean out a small space of nectar producing plants. Conservationists correctly point out that honeybee populations have remained mostly steady over the past few decades (commercial honey bees have had a harder time) while bumblebee and masonry bees’ numbers have plummeted. I am reminded frequently when we pull honey from our hive box supers that this converted nectar could sustain quite a few other bee species. My hope with this post is to show how being a beekeeper made me a better agricultural citizen.
First, I am aware that my yard by itself cannot support honey bees, so if I were to lose the 12-acres clover field behind our house, I would lower our hive footprint to a couple of boxes. Second, I am also aware of how other invasive species play a role in disturbing the balance in our ecosystem. We have removed to the best of our ability all privet in our yard. While amazing for all kinds of bees given nectar and pollen production, privet can squeeze out space for native plants and bushes by dominating the spaces where they grow. Chinese tallow trees have a similar effect. Third, in place of the invasive plant species we have begun to plant native plants. The second photo above is a bumblebee on a mountain mint plant in bloom. In the future, we hope to plant native fruit trees. I am more conscious of the world the insects inhabit because I am paying attention to our bees. Fourth, and finally, I have become more observant of the natural world that we are part of rather than see it as adversarial to a beautiful yard. From snakes to rodents to insects, I am conscious of how they are part of the yard and my place in their world.
Honey bees make a beekeeper more observant by how they function as a hive. Cues from the hive opening tell the keeper much about what is going on in the hive. Lots of activity with bees zipping out and back during a nectar flow suggests the hive is thriving without ever opening the top of the box. Limited activity might require opening the hive to check the queen. Inside the hive, the keeper might see a queen but few larvae. Is she withholding laying eggs because of extreme heat or cold? Or is she weakening? The workers will take the latter into their own hands and begin the process of re-queening their hive. The hive is a social organization, and as such, it functions to the benefit of the whole rather than to the benefit of the one. In this way, honey bees serve as way think of nature as oriented to cooperation rather than individual self-sufficiency.
Even if the queen is in control of the hive, the hive will eventually turn on her if she proves to be less than sufficient for the life of the hive. The workers make the choice to replace her and do so in a concerted effort. The queen about to be replaced goes along with the plan by laying an egg in a queen cell, often several cells, known as a secession queen cell. The most important part of this organization, however, is that the workers are female like the queen. Male honey bees are useless except for impregnating a queen, which she will mate with up to several dozen drones, as males are know. When done, she flies away and tears the drone in half, killing him. In winter, without any skill to sustain the hive, the workers kick out the drones to die. The hive will create more of them the following spring, when the queen and the hive kick in to full resource mode. Their ability to expand rapidly means they will overwhelm the frame and boxes, requiring a new home. Excessive drone cells is a sign of a potential swarm. The process of swarming is a mechanism for protecting the species. Even then, the hive works to protect the abandoned hived by producing swarm queen cells and leaving enough food and eggs for the hive survive until the new queen mates and begins the process of carrying on the hive.
Honey bees have taught me how to think about creation without me or humanity at the center. Could other creatures have done this? Yes, but in my case, the work required to tend the honey bees helped me see how they function in the world and how the created order functions without so much as a care for humans. Creation care has taken on a new form in my life, and while I do not think of myself as a farmer, I understand how the process of moving from raw materials to edible form allows me a moment to participate. If we are better caretakers, creation can sustain itself and us.