A bugophobe's guide to beekeeping
When her curiosity and concern about colony collapse disorder reached a peak, this writer put her deep, personal fear of bees aside. Sort of.
Thu, Mar 21 2013 at 5:28 PM
I’m a bugophobe. I’m one of those people who, upon seeing a cockroach crawling around inside my home, will make mental preparations to simply wall off the room and never speak of it again. I once slept on my couch because I couldn’t bring myself to address the issue of the tiny spider crawling across my bedroom ceiling one night back in my 20s.
I’m not unsympathetic to insects, spiders, and all their many-legged, stinging, buzzing, biting, or crawling friends. I just want them to stay on the far side of my door — and just over the property line on my quarter-acre city lot would be even better still.
So it was into this mindset that, in the middle of the last decade, the news of a mysterious vanishing of honeybee colonies was absorbed. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) was decimating bee populations all across North America, and no one knew why. Drought? Pesticides? Cellphone towers? Parasites? GMO pollen? Urban sprawl?
I read voraciously about bees and CCD for several years. The alarm the media was sounding was accurate — many of the commercial migratory beekeeping operations that provide vital pollination services to crops all around America were suffering huge losses over the winter, with devastated beekeepers sometimes finding hives with just a few hundred dazed workers and the colony’s queen wandering aimlessly about, too far gone to save.
Over a few years of reading, the picture of CCD began to look a little clearer to me. As I discovered urban beekeeping websites and read through the hobbyist sections on beekeeping forums, it seemed more and more like whatever factor or factors were causing CCD, bees in the city were largely isolated from it.
As the middle decade moved toward the end of the decade, this bugophobe began to understand that if she wanted to be part of the solution to the decline of honeybees, she needed to step beyond her comfort zone and welcome a bunch of stinging insects to her backyard. This was not the easiest decision the bugophobe had ever reached.
In early 2011, flush with a hefty tax return and the zeal of the newly converted, I ordered components for two hives, and two packages of bees from a major bee supplier in South Georgia. I spent the weekends in January, February, and March, nailing and gluing hive boxes and frames and clearing and leveling an out-of-the-way spot not too far from my vegetable garden to be the eventual home of the hives.
I was utterly confident as I went through these preparations. I rehearsed lighting my bee smoker, and wondered whether the “hive tool,” a miniature pry bar, was completely necessary. I mean, how strong can bees actually be, right? I didn’t invest in a protective bee suit or jacket, or even bee gloves. I figured a veil would keep my eyes safe and I didn’t want thick gloves interfering with my nascent but — obviously — profound beekeeping abilities.
This bugophobe may sometimes overestimate herself.
I was at work when I got the call from the post office on a sunny day in May telling me that my bees had arrived. I raced out and rushed through my reverse commute to pick up the wooden-framed, mesh-sided boxes that held my buzzing charges. Just being near them flooded me with adrenaline. I stowed them in my cool basement for the day, sprayed them down with some sugar water like the websites suggested, and returned to a very distracted day at the office.
I’d watched many, many YouTube videos on installing bees, and the process is nothing short of insane if you’ve never done it — which, of course, I hadn’t.
Basically, the “right” way is to pry the wooden lid off your large, brick-shaped package of bees and then lift out a metal can of sugary syrup that the bees have been eating during their journey. Then lift out the special cage that holds the queen. Then invert the open package over the hive the bees are destined to occupy, and knock it sharply against the hive to dump the bees out of it. Then knock it a few more times to shake loose any stragglers.
Right! Okay, so once I had the syrup out and the queen cage (which was covered in bees) set safely aside and a cloud of confused bees was buzzing around me, I realized there was simply no way on God’s green Earth that I would be banging this container around and sending other bees skyward to hunt down the giant mammal who was inexplicably ruining their already bad day.
Welcome to the wild world of bugophobic beekeeping, where I’ve done nearly everything wrong, and somehow — so far — the bees have come through just fine. And I’ve gotten a lot better at being a beekeeper, and a lot less skittish around them. Before the end of my first beekeeping season, I had invested in “bee armor” — an inexpensive white bee jacket with mesh hood and a good pair of goat skin gloves to minimize the damage to my amateur hands.
Bees, I have learned, are extremely honest creatures. When you handle them well, everything’s fine. When you make mistakes, they let you know. Sharply. Painfully. But at long last, I don’t feel afraid of them. And I’m extremely proud that by keeping bees in my city yard, I’m helping to maintain a living and productive DNA bank for the honeybee in North America, even if the wild and rural populations end up entirely obliterated.
We still don’t know what causes colony collapse disorder, though personally I’m persuaded that systemic pesticides used in commodity agriculture represent, at the very least, the last straw in the life of an affected hive. What continues to be true is that among the many, many challenges facing urban beekeepers and their winged charges, CCD doesn’t seem to rank high on the list. So for a small monetary investment, and a handful of hours each month in the warm seasons, I get to be part of solving one of the major dilemmas we’re facing today — the loss of pollinators in a world full of people who need to eat.
All I had to do was learn to live with my terror of bugs. But still — show me a cockroach in my living room and I’ll show you a great excuse to move.
Stacie Boschma is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. Follow her on Twitter at @staciewrites.
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- 5 ways to help our disappearing bees
- Urban beekeeping: When bees stop making honey
- Keeping bees: 4 tips for beginners
Inset photo of bee on a flower: Serg64/Shutterstock