Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Fearful Beekeeper

I’m going to say this right up top: it’s okay to be a beekeeper and be scared of bees. You’d be a fool not to be a little nervous out there. You are literally stealing the food stores from a couple thousand kamikaze career women survivalists. They are willing to die to keep their little compound intact and even if they are only the size of a nickel, they friggin' hurt when they give you the 'ol right there Fred.

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.


Blogger Robin Follette said...

THIS! This is helpful. I want bees. I soooo want bees. Before I can get started I need to spend some time with them. Knowing that you've been doing this for a decade in spite of being fearful helps. I can do this. I can do this.

August 8, 2016 at 6:58 AM  
Blogger Clever Raven Croft said...

Yep, it's all about the energy you carry out there with you isn't it? I've been keeping bees for three years and each time I take those breaths before going out and tell myself to enjoy it as a zen insect/human experience it really does become one as opposed to when I go out strapped for time and stressed. Then, every little thing becomes an annoyance and worry and I leave the hives vibrating with anxiety instead of peacefully relaxed. The bees feel it and I know I've made a stressful event for them even worse with my crap attitude. Thanks for sharing Jenna. Bees aren't something we hear about a lot on the blog but it's nice to know that you have the same experiences as the rest of us beekeepers. Excited to hear about your small batch mead adventures-haven't gone down that honey trail myself yet!

August 8, 2016 at 8:21 AM  
Blogger Mountain Walker said...

Can you post some pictures of your hive set up? We are so interested in bees but have yet to make the leap. Don't you have a top bar hive? We were thinking of going the same route :)

August 8, 2016 at 8:56 AM  
Blogger wild rose said...

Thank so much for posting this. I really want to have bees once day but I am a little worried that I would panic if stung and cause the hive to freak. :)

August 8, 2016 at 11:49 AM  
Blogger Beth76 said...

I loved your remarks about beekeeping! It really is a zen experience...but I also remember that there are 40,000 fierce ladies and one awesome queen that I am dealing with. I always talk to my girls while I'm working with them. It helps me feel calmer and I like to think soothing to the ladies.

August 8, 2016 at 12:53 PM  
Blogger Jenna Woginrich said...

Thanks guys! You should certainly not write off bees if stings are what is stopping you (the fear of them, not an allergy - please do not come to this blog for any medical advice!) It's worth it indeed

August 8, 2016 at 4:47 PM  
Blogger Jenna Woginrich said...

Hey Clever Raven Croft, nice logo!

August 8, 2016 at 4:48 PM  
Blogger Jenna Woginrich said...

Elizabeth, I have photos but it's just a basic hive, bottom board (no screen) on 4 cinderblock, two deep boxes and one shallow. Metal lid.

August 8, 2016 at 4:49 PM  
Blogger crashdown said...

Or you can just buy local honey from the folks who have the bees--win, win!

August 8, 2016 at 4:56 PM  
Blogger Jenna Woginrich said...

crashdown <--- smartest lady in the room

August 8, 2016 at 4:57 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

We have 14 hives and one of the best advices I got as a beginner was to never pull out a frame faster than the bees can crawl- so that they will not be rolled against those of the next frame.
Starting with one good whiff of smoke and then moving slowly really does the trick for me.
I often work without a veil and pretty much always without gloves.

August 8, 2016 at 5:16 PM  
Blogger Mountain Walker said...

Could you tweet some pics of your hives? (can you even do that? I don't know anything about tweeting but I saw your post today about tweeting more than FB-ing)

August 8, 2016 at 8:17 PM  
Blogger Jenna Woginrich said...

I posted a pic from before the second deep was installed and set between the deep and shallow, it's over on twitter

August 8, 2016 at 8:21 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for admitting that your human and a little fearful which translates into respectful. I have two hives and I too was fearful every time I put on the suit until I realized that my fear problem had nothing to do with the bees but apparently I get claustrophobic in the suit lol! Particularly the hood. So much so that I stopped attending my bees (head hanging in shame). I've only been stung once. It didn't bother me much. So I'm going to try going out without my hood. I too LOVE my bees❤️

August 10, 2016 at 6:39 PM  

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