Homegrown honey from backyard bees—part 1

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114064185726838.jpg’, ‘Photo by Ross Thompson’, ‘In the larger "brood" boxes beneath two boxes of stored honey, the queen lays eggs and new bees are born and raised.’);

This is Part One of the Three-part series.

“Of course, you’ll want to keep bees,” said an old family friend with whom I had recently reconnected. “But not the first year—you’ll have too much to do. Study about them all winter, and start your hive in late spring.”

I had called him to tell him about the farm my husband and I had just bought at the edge of Rockford to see what advice he had for us. My friend was born in Italy, and learned beekeeping from Italian relatives. He now spends his summers on a farm in Wisconsin caring for the property and tending to his hives. “I’m middle-aged and unmarried,” he said almost as an apology. “What else am I gonna do?”

Being middle aged and unmarried is not a necessary prerequisite for beekeeping. We soon learn this at our first “Beekeeping Workshop” held at Jarrett Center in Byron that winter. We expected a two-hour introductory workshop that would teach us all we needed to know to fill our kitchen with jars and jars of sweet amber liquid, bottled to share with friends and family. Instead, we walk in to hear Jeff Ludwig, the experienced and impassioned workshop leader tell the already-assembled group, “the first thing you want to do is open your hive when you get home and check to see if your bees are still alive.” Gulp. We realize this “workshop” is, in fact, an ongoing thing—a monthly meeting of bee enthusiasts.

We scan the room of young and old— engineers, farmers, housewives, customer service reps. The members of this beekeeping group are more diverse than other “hobbyist” meetings we’ve encountered. And age did not seem to correlate to experience or involvement. Some folks older than my “middle-aged” friend may be tending their first hive, while other younger men and women were veteran beekeepers.

What could make these people so interested in a bunch of bugs in a box? It’s not long before we realize that beekeepers are just inherently inquisitive people drawn to beekeeping by the remarkable aspects of an insect society referred to as The Hive. They’ve learned that bees are amazing creatures that live within a very organized society, have a highly sophisticated language and that, despite mite infestations, herbicide poisoning, robber bees and other invaders, our fast-flighted friends are remarkable in their orderliness, strong work ethic, and unwavering loyalty to their queen and citizenry. Through centuries of innovation in hive design, we humans have figured out how to get close enough to view and marvel at their habits and provide a way for them to produce more food than they actually need to survive, so that we too, can enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Janice and Ross Thompson are first-year beekeepers and have optimistically named their honey business “BeeBoppin’ Honey.” The next two submissions in this three-part series will examine the health benefits of honey products and the state of the bee population in North America. You can visit their Web site at www.beeboppin.com.

From the Feb. 22-28, 2006, issue

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