A beginning beekeeper

Domesticating bees is a very ancient art. There is significant archaeological evidence of beekeeping that go back to the Bronze and Iron ages. Hives were made of straw and unbaked clay and colonies of bees were installed. The hives were destroyed to harvest honey and new swarms of bees were captured each year. Domesticated bees were part of very diverse cultures including Greece, China and the Americas, where the ancient Maya domesticated bees. In addition to the harvesting of honey for use as human food, pollen and nectar were harvested and fermented to make mead and wax was used to make candles.

The harvesting of wax may have been the reason that there is a long-standing connection between the church and beekeeping. In medieval times, abbeys and monasteries were centers of beekeeping. The beeswax was highly prized for the making of candles for religious ceremonies. The abbeys and monasteries were also centers of learning and education and became sites for early scientific studies of bee behavior and discoveries of bee anatomy and the recognition of the colony as a super organism that reproduces not only individual bees, but entire colonies.

One of the most enduring discoveries about the nature of bees that has influenced modern beekeeping was made by Lorenzo L. Langstroth, a congregational minister who lived from 1810 to 1895. Langstroth was born in Philadelphia, graduated from Yale University and served Congregational churches in Massachusetts, including South Church in Andover. Langstroth is credited with the discovery of “bee space” though there is evidence that earlier apiarists had knowledge that bees need a specific amount of space within the hive. If the spaces in an artificial hive are too great, the bees fill the space with propolis and wax. If the space is too small, the bees won’t use that area. Bee space is between 1/4 and 3/8 inch. Langstroth used his understanding of bee space to create a simple wooden hive with a removable top and frames to hold the wax, brood and honey that could be lifted individually from the hive. His frames were precisely 3/8 of an inch apart. The Langstroth hive is the most common hive used in the United States to this day.

I have been interested in bee keeping for years, in part because of my love of honey. When I was a young man, I was taught about the use of small amounts of local honey to help desensitize myself to seasonal allergies. The allergist who treated me with a long series of injections, recommended that I continue the practice of eating local honey to keep myself symptom free. That practice has served me well and I have enjoyed many healthy years with few allergies. I have also had good friends who were bee keepers and who taught me about the basics of keeping domestic bees and honey production as a hobby.

Interested in the practice as I have been, however, I have not had a place where it was practical for me to become a beekeeper. Keeping bees requires a bit of space near pollen producing plants and a water source. Hives need a degree of separation from other human activity. People who don’t understand bees can agitate the insects and become stung. Some people have severe allergies to bee sting and can become quite ill as a result of a single sting. So, I have maintained an interest without any practical experience.

Moving near to our son’s farm, however, has given me access to a suitable space for keeping bees. Our son has an orchard with apples, pears, and plums as well as several different berry plants and nut trees. They also raise flowers including dahlias which are pollinated by honey bees. And they have several acres of hay land that sprouts dandelions and other plants favored by bees in the spring and early summer. The farm is well suited to a few hives and a good location for an amateur bee keeper.

I am proceeding slowly, wanting to learn before I start with my first hives. I have connected with active bee keepers through the Mount Baker Beekeepers Association and am learning from experienced apiarists. Last night I completed and passed the test for certification as a beginning beekeeper by the Washington State Beekeepers Association. Here in Washington, there are four levels for beekeepers: Beginner, Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master. After certification as a beginner, which allows one to keep active hives and register them with the state department of agriculture, a beekeeper needs to acquire at least one year’s experience with keeping bees before taking the apprentice course and receiving that level of certification. Although I could obtain bees in April and begin keeping bees this year, I have decided to take things slowly. I will apprentice and assist with beekeeping with others’ hives this year and aim to start two colonies in the spring of 2023. That means that I won’t have any honey to harvest before the summer of 2024, more than two years from now.

Since my primary reason for becoming a beekeeper is my interest in bees and the pursuit of the practice as a hobby, taking things slowly makes sense to me. I’ll have to discover my comfort level with the risk of stings and the amount of protective gear that is right for me. I want to learn about pests and diseases that affect colonies, about swarming and the recovery of swarms, and about the process of inspecting and tending hives. Of course, like any other type of animal husbandry, there are risks associated with raising domesticated animals. There is no guarantee that I will be successful. However, I am willing to assume that risk provided that I have obtained sufficient education in advance to mitigate the risk. Taking things slowly is one of the advantages of being semi-retired. I have time.

Our new home happens to be in the only county in the United States where the presence of Asian giant hornets has been confirmed. I’ll be participating in setting traps provided by the Washington Department of agriculture this spring and summer to assist with the study and work towards the elimination of this invasive species from our area.

It should be a year of learning a lot more about insects and insect behavior. I’ve taken the first step by completing the class and taking the examination. Perhaps I’ll become yet another Congregational minister who learns about keeping bees. If so, I’ll be taking my place in a long tradition.

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