The Fearful Beekeeper
So yeah, being a fearful beekeeper is okay. I think that is something rarely talked about, and the reason some people don't have a hive. I want to point out that being fearful of bees isn't a reason to not keep them. Unless you are allergic or have a severe phobia - your hesitation about keeping bees might be exactly what means you'll be a mindful and respectful beekeeper. I am always scared suiting up for the hive. But you know what? Honey is worth it. Real, sun-warmed, raw honey collected from your own hive is worth the occasional sting and trepidation-filled morning pre-extraction. It really, really, is.
This spring I got over 16 stings installing my wintered-over nucleus colony from Betterbee. It was my own fault. 100% foolishness. I treated that nuc installation like it was a package of bees and not a fully-formed community with brood and honey to protect. So I just threw on my bee jacket and gloves and without a smoker opened the box of five frames. I set them into the hive with the same ease and gusto like they were books on a shelf. You know, like an idiot would. The first stings happened around my thighs and kept happening - but I had to complete the installation, there was no turning back on a new community in a strange place. And let me tell you guys, 16 stings hurts. My body inflamed and heated around those bumps and once they calmed down they itched like the dickens. It sucked. Yet I still keep bees and always will.
I have been keeping bees for almost a decade. I started in Idaho and have had hives in Vermont and New York. This year has been the most successful colony by far and their production is insane compared to the previous years of three-pound packages of bees. The nucleus colony cost double, but a few friends pitched in so we could all share in the harvest together. Buying the established colony of New York State bees that survived the winter was the smartest choice we made. They have filled two deeps and a shallow since May, and the reason I harvested five frames was to encourage them to refill their replacements instead of swarming off. I'll collect five more next week. The honey will be used to brew mead and go into winter storage for the owners of the hive. Our winter teas, breads, and meals will have summer in a jar. That's worth at few stings.
Over this summer I got to watch my friend Trevor (a Betterbee employee) work with my hive and I took note of how he acted, moved, even breathed around the hive. I watched him use the smoker, remove frames, and keep calm amongst the buzzing all around him. Part of me felt envious of his demeanor, but I had to remember - that yes, that’s Trevor keeping bees. But that is also Trevor drinking with friends, fly fishing in the Battenkill, or watching a movie - he is a calm and considering person no matter what he is doing. I, however, am a fever dream of a person compared to him. Thinking too fast, talking too fast, constant motion, and sidetracked with questions. I keep bees like Jenna. He keeps bees like Trevor. If I wanted to be better beekeeper I needed to be a little more Trevor.
So when I went to the hive a few days ago I did just that. I dressed right. I had on the white loose pants, high boots, goatskin gloves tight enough to use my hands, jacket and veil. I had the smoker ready to go with cool smoke that would last more than five minutes. I had taken time to make slow long exhalations, slowing my heart rate. I will always be nervous around bees. Always. But I can hide it for ten minutes. I tried to channel Trevor. It worked.
I approached the hive with the five replacement frames in a plastic food-grade five-gallon bucket. I smoked gently and set the smoker on the ground, like he did. Then I used the hive tool to loosen the lid and slowly set it on the ground beside the deeps. I used some more smoke and then went into the calm and even-paced work of removing and replacing frames. Not once did I get stung. Every minute I worked the hive I reminded myself that I was not yet bothered, was not being threatening, and even if I did get a hundred stings I was not allergic to bees. Like anything in homesteading, you need to always understand that doing the uncomfortable in the present has rich rewards in the future. It isn't fun for me to work the hive, weed gardens, trim hooves, muck stalls... but doing so means a future of mead, vegetables, healthy goats, and happy piglets. You do the work, period. It means cultivating pride and luck along the way.
I am proud to say I got the honey out and removed the bees from the frames with one of Lucas’s big primary feathers gently brushing them back into the hive. Almost fifteen pounds so far, and with more ahead before I start prepping the colony for winter. Now I am enjoying the little thrill of looking up small batch mead recipes and swapping tips with other brewers and bee keepers. I provided some beautiful food to the people who trusted me to be a little more Trevor and a little less Jenna. And I get to look forward to amazing drinks and stories come snowfly, when hot summer days around the hive are something we are all shifting in our seats a little, missing around the woodstoves and wool sweaters.
Keeping bees is worth it. It's okay to be afraid. Just be a little brave and enjoy the well earned and sweet reward for your hard work.