By Paige Patterson
The first thing you need to know about raising honeybees is that it’s a little intimidating and crazy fascinating at the same time.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The first time I ever held a bee was last year at Marder’s honeybee demonstration with beekeeper Mary Woltz. Owner of Bees Needs Honey, keeper of 100 hives and maker of the most delicious honey I’ve ever had, Mary extolled the inherently gentle nature of bees. As she talked she had handed me a bee to crawl across my hands and up my arm and had spoken about how we’d lost touch with our need for the tiny creature crawling on my sleeve. She talked about how we fear bees, but that they’re actually extremely unaggressive — unlike their black & yellow lookalikes the wasps — and really only sting you as a last chance defensive move. The males, drones, don’t even have a stinger and that’s what she had handed to me.
As its tiny feet tickled my wrist she spoke about how we take bees for granted, forgetting how we depended on them to pollinate both the foods we eat, and the foods the things we eat, eat. Blueberries, eggplants, pomegranates, plum, oranges, lemons, squash, peaches, almonds, pears, strawberries, alfalfa, raspberries, grapes, blackberries, sesame, clover, soybeans, and tomatoes — the list is endless.
When I bought my house it came with a stack of old beehives and a honey extractor that lived in the basement. Watching that bee crawl along my sleeve and listening to Mary talk about the loss of almost half the bees in the world inspired me to finally get serious about trying to start a hive.
Asking around, I learned that the man to go see was Master Beekeeper Ray Lackey. Owner of Sweet Pines Apiary in Bohemia and President of the Long Island Beekeepers Club (longislandbeekeepers.org) he teaches a course that meets once a month in Riverhead and covers all the basic information on caring for a bee colony and raising bees for honey.
A man stuffed with bee keeping facts — bees wear out their wings after 500 miles, a single bee, in its entire lifetime, will produce less then a tenth of a teaspoon of honey – Ray lectures at a rapid fire pace and has the course broken down into easy-to-manage sections. Or so it seemed until I was out there on my own (my husband was watching from about 20 feet away) dressed like Darth Vader in my beekeeper helmet and veil, holding a frame of bees in my elbow length leather gloved hands, sweating like crazy and worrying that I was doing everything wrong.
I smoked my bees (it supposedly calms them) and started to pry the pieces of the hive apart to inspect and see how my bees were doing. It took forever and my bees were far from calm (they even flew over to Dereyk and stung him but that was because I hadn’t told him not to flail around if they got too close as bees see this as aggressive behavior. Whoops, my bad.) Finally I pried a frame out and lifting it up found myself face to face with thousands of bees, capped cells of honey, lots of bee larvae and a billion questions. I inspected every frame, slowly flipping them so I can look at each side, in an effort to spot my queen. No luck! There are eggs being laid, so I haven’t given up hope of spotting her, and I’m a little confused by the extra wax the bees are building up under the transport frames I used to bring them into my hive.
Luckily, Ray has been teaching for a while and is used to the craziness of the honeybee newbie, so he’s created a website where we can post all our questions, read each other’s worries and concerns and learn from the shared experience and see that we’re not the only person who’s a little excited and overwhelmed by these new creatures we’re trying to care for.
It’s still early in my beekeeping experience and I’m not so sure I’m doing it right, but when I’m holding those bees up close to my face trying to discover where the queen is, I’m involved with nature in a way that is both mesmerizing and a little awe inspiring. For that I’m truly grateful, especially for Mary for putting that bee on my sleeve.
Paige Patterson recommends the Bee Café at Marders for their excellent coffee and honey treats.
Mary and some of her bees will be at Marders again this year on Saturday, May 14 for the making your own Wildflower Meadow Garden Lecture and Honey Bee Demonstration.