To Bee or Not to Bee

The culmination of adventure is often a mix of feelings. My latest with that of honeybees was no exception. Much like other adventures: marriage, parenting, kayaking, photography, sewing, and even friendships, the challenge is what keeps me coming back for more.

Just over a year ago, on a whim, I picked up this fascinating and compelling book, The Honey Connoisseur, by C. Marina Marchese and Mr. Kim Flottum. Exceptional photography and thorough research, the world of honey was opened up like a propolis-sealed top of a beehive. Each chapter wedging open more of what I should know and question in the world of honey: the benefits of not only the honey but also the wonder of honeybees and their perpetual contribution to our crops.

Last week was my first, and back-to-back, experiences in physically meeting these creatures. Donned with my newly arrived bee suit and accompanied by my latest indoctrinated honey connoisseur, my Dad, a new goal in my honey adventure was achieved! Mr. Leif Berner of Southern Material Handling, Inc., in Portsmouth, Virginia was our first mentor. On a golden Sunday afternoon, we found ourselves in a corner of his creek-side yard surrounded by seven hives of varying intensities. He showed us his method of lighting the smoker with pinecones and mulch, both of which are readily available on his property. Bellowing the smoke out of the chamber, Leif began to encourage the bees to eat their honey, head-down, in their cells so as to not be too grouchy or curious about our visit.

We learned that his first colonies came from one of his soccer-loving son’s 4-H Club projects. Five years later, the rest is history! Leif is a member and former president of the Tidewater Bee Association where they gather on first Thursday of every month to exchange notes of their beekeeping endeavors. Leif’s latest thrill is a birthday gift from his mother, a ventilated bee suit. He said it is worth every penny. I no doubt agree after being in my less suitable non-ventilated version in the 90-degree heat!

After a general inspection of a few of Leif’s hives and the fuzziest and gorgeous honeybees, we toured his warehouse where he keeps his bee supplies. Wooden frames, tubs left over with wax cell caps from the latest honey harvest, and even the piece de resistance, a motorized extractor! I took mental notes of these superb hobbyist’s toys in hopes of learning more from Leif when I become a Virginian beekeeper too!

We left with a generous gift of honeycomb in hand, harvested earlier in the season by Leif himself. Giddy with the satisfaction of seeing bees up-close coupled with the feeling of inadequate skill to perform this myself in my soon-to-be apiary, I was exhausted. But before my uncharacteristic self-doubt was able to seep further, I was texted by Mr. Dennis Heidenthal, treasurer of the Beekeepers Guild of Southeastern Virginia. “I have hives to open at 0900 tomorrow. Want to join me?” Boy did I!

Monday morning, Labor Day, 0851, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, I was early to Dennis’ doorstep. With my somewhat dirtied suit from yesterday over my shoulder, I felt a little more confident I wasn’t completely incompetent for the morning’s task of reorganizing Dennis’ hives for winterization. Met with the sweetest golden retriever, Maggie, any nervousness evaporated. Her only complaint was that I was gaining the attention of her dear Dennis for the morning. I apologized to her and promised to be out of her territory in no time. She gathered a ball in her slobbery jaws and I took this as a sign of acceptance into yet another apiary in less than 24 hours. “Excitement” would be an understatement.

My Dad soon arrived to join our morning’s tasks. Dennis rattled off the various procedures we would be forming, lining up tools like a skilled surgeon that has performed these tasks with such dedication that it is ingrained into his muscle memory for life. Dennis handed us both a hive tool and like a true mentor, spoke evenly and patiently while letting us do the dirty work. The smoker, lit by pine needles and dryer lent, was puffing and billowing away as we worked swiftly. The hives, nestled in Dennis’ small vegetable garden between his in-ground swimming pool and the house’s vast sunroom windows, were busy with the morning’s tasks.

Frame after frame we lifted and inspected these rectangles of beauty. Learning to recognize larvae and pupa, pollen and honey, drones and workers, and even the occasional uncapped queen cell, we were intoxicated with all things bees. The hardest part was deciding to lift another heavy frame dripping with honey and bees or choosing my camera instead to forever capture it in digital memory.

One hive reorganized, we took a water break. Never in my life have a sweat like I was in my suit. Really, it didn’t bother me once I accepted the fact that this was part of the initiation into beekeeping. Dennis wiped his sweating face with paper towels as he filled our cups with water. We didn’t rest long for fear the morning sun would change to noon and dressed for another round. The second hive, apparently not broken down in the depth we were attempting since the year prior, was getting grouchy. What gals wouldn’t be, “pissed” as Dennis put it when their home and brood were being interrogated in the hot morning sun? Once again, frame-by-frame, we sorted the brood frames from the honey frames. The bees were fighting back and their victim was Dennis.

I have learned, or maybe strongly hoped, that my observation of beekeeper stubbornness is a quality attribute (and an attribute I can readily offer). No doubt Dennis was questioning his current stubborn decision of blue jeans with his beekeeper’s jacket and veil. The stings continued and we were instructed to abort inspection procedures. I think Dennis might have thought I was scared, as I was very quiet waiting under the trees. But truly it was all very fascinating and I was in awe. The typically docile creatures were simply defending their home. The smoke in the air was of help but with the instruction of our skilled mentor, our retreat was helping even more. The behavior of the bees was amazing and the smells of the smoker and sweet honeycomb in the air were unreal. I realized my hands were buzzing as I held my camera. Not thinking that my camera and its strap are black, the buzzing wasn’t my adrenaline but rather the cluster of bees trying to fight the camera’s body. Their buzz under my leather gloves was powerful! Apparently black is aggressive to bees and white is nearly indiscernible. Hence their fight to my camera and not to me! Whew!

These gorgeous and dedicated girls knew their roles. God-given talents of caring for the hive, storing honey to survive, and working together as the only true means of survival, I was reminded of why I have fallen in pure appreciation for these creatures. No, I may not be even on the rookie scale of beekeeping just yet. Initially, I will not be able to keep a hive alone. Beekeeping will be like all other adventures I have traveled – it takes a village to breed success. It takes humility and passion. No doubt, it ultimately takes a level of love and dedication to make this work. And like the previous adventures, I am excited to partner with others like Leif and Dennis along the way to enjoy the results and the satisfaction in knowing I have learned, I have grown, and I will be challenged. Three cheers for beekeeping!

A special thank you to Leif and Dennis for literally opening their cherished hives to my Dad and me. What an honor it was to accompany each of you in your beautiful Virginia apiaries!

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