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Sweetness of Beekeeping and Fatherhood

July 15, 2014

Enjoying the sweetness of beekeeping and fatherhood

 As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

Starting a beehive could be fun. So I thought after reading a book, “Robbing the Bees,” which chronicles the essential role of bees and beekeeping in producing honey, sustaining agriculture, and promoting biodiversity.

Given our family’s prolific honey consumption, learning that a healthy hive can produce as much as one hundred pounds of honey per year was also enticing.

So, after a few web searches, chatting with experienced beekeepers, and receiving used equipment from a family member, I confidently concluded that starting a hive would be a fun learning experience for the whole family – especially our soon to be kindergartener, Adam, and second-grader, Zoe.

The day after Memorial Day I visited a local beekeeper who happily sold me a starter-hive, which included a mass of bees crawling around on wood framed sheets of plastic board on which they build honeycomb for raising young and making honey.

I watched with awe as the seasoned beekeeper, protected by his white, hooded, jacket, entered his apiary. One by one, he calmly extracted five frames of bees from a small wooden box, examined each to note the presence of an egg-laying queen and placed them into my used boxes. After temporarily plugging the entrance and strapping the boxes together, he helped me gently set the hive in the back of our family car.

On the drive home, my enthusiasm waned as awareness that I knew very little about how to actually care for the bees grew, which was reminiscent of how I felt nearly eight years ago while driving home from the hospital after Zoe’s birth. And in this case, my wife, Lori, had already made it clear that I would be a single parent to the bees.

A week later, wearing my own hooded bee jacket and elbow length gloves, I marveled at the life force buzzing in my hands. Worker bees crawled about, crafting cells of honeycomb, making small pockets of honey and darting off in search of pollen.

I saw tiny eggs in open cells, worm-like larva wiggling about, and capped cells in which pupae developed, all evidence that the queen was happy. And, I imaged our family seated at the breakfast table, each spooning fresh honey on a steaming bowl of oatmeal.

During the first month, I visited the hive three times, observing and learning as the colony flourished. Zoe and Adam accompanied me; curious to know if what I saw in the hive boxes looked like the images we had watched together on a DVD about beekeeping. Mostly they were excited to play in the adjacent woods.

The day after my third inspection of the hive, while driving to our annual July 4th holiday at the Connecticut shore, Lori and I simultaneously received voice and text messages from our beekeeping partners, in whose backyard the hive sits. The bees had swarmed, meaning there was a mass of bees – thousands of bees – hanging from a tree branch near the hive.

So during the first couple days of vacation, while Lori and the kids enjoyed time on the beach, I read about how to prevent and manage bee swarms, traded voice and text messages with our beekeeping friends about the status of the hive, and obsessed about all the essential beekeeping knowledge to which I was oblivious.

I learned a bee swarm is a common and instinctual response to an overcrowded hive. The queen signals its time to find a new residence and half the bees dutifully follow.

When last examining the hive, I observed small, white, tubular structures and wondered what they were. Apparently, they were queen cells, each containing a baby queen. Since typically there is only room for one queen in a colony, the reigning queen often leaves just before the cells hatch.

The first queen that emerges instinctively destroys the other queen cells, killing her potential rivals to ensure her matriarchal status. She then takes a nuptial flight with a group of fertile males, and returns to resume the essential egg-laying function of a healthy hive – if all goes well.

So, while it is too early to know if our colony will survive, let alone produce 100 pounds of honey, I take solace knowing that beekeeping cannot be as complicated as fatherhood, or as sweet.

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