I’ve long had a fascination with social insects, species that live in colonies, manifest group integration, division of labor, and overlap of generations. It all started with the book The Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration, an intriguing read about the cooperation and communication of these complex colonies. My first foray into hosting my own insect community came by way of a birthday gift from my then boyfriend, now husband, Morgen. My very own Ant Farm!
Ant Farm box circa 1970, toy designed by Martin Levine in 1950.
Sadly, it was a flop. Federal regulations prohibit sending queens so all those in an Ant Farm are male harvester ants. This means they will not reproduce, and with a life span of one to six months, it quickly started to feel more like a Death Farm. The instructions note that you will need to remove expired ants regularly. Luckily for me, true to their supportive society, the remaining ants in the farm would move the dead to the top, making them easy to remove. Depressing as that Ant Farm was, I was undeterred - there were other social insects to study, namely wasps, termites, and honey bees. The choice was clear and my love of honey bees began.
Vintage scientific illustration of honey bees (Free Vintage Illustrations)
I read everything I could find on bees, honey, and the how-to of beekeeping, the most magical of the lot was Sweetness and Light by Hattie Ellis. “In Sweetness and Light, Hattie Ellis leads us into the hive, revealing the fascinating story of bees and honey from the Stone Age to the present, from Nepalese honey hunters to urban hives on the rooftops of New York City. Uncovering the secrets of the honeybee one by one, Ellis shows how this small insect, with a collective significance so much greater than its individual size, can carry us through past and present to tell us more about ourselves than any other living creature.”
Sweetness and Light by Hattie Ellis (Amazon) – I cannot recommend this book highly enough!
As Morgen and I were splitting time between our Brooklyn apartment and a house on woodland acreage we found in rural Northwestern, Connecticut, beekeeping was the obvious next step. I was thrilled to find that my enthusiasm for bees was catching - Morgen jumped right in.
Our trusted guides: The Hive and the Honeybee, often referred to as the "Bible of American Beekeeping” originally published by L.L. Langstroth in 1853, and Beekeeping for Dummies, of course.
Neither of us realized how much labor beekeeping and its preparation requires; immensely rewarding but a lot of work. In the winter before we picked up our bees, we sent off for all the components to build our hives. They mostly arrived as a pile of boards ready for assembly. Our kitchen became a de facto beehive workshop. We built frames and the hive bodies, painting the latter a Robin’s Egg blue. Morgen installed an electric fence to keep out the neighborhood bear.
A beeswax frame before and after
Anatomy of a hive. Designed by Langstroth “after closely observing 'bee space,' which meant that, by cooperating with a natural tendency of the bees themselves, beekeepers no longer had to hack apart their hives in order to lift out the frames.” (Sonoma Bees via The Old Farmer’s Almanac)
That spring we took a lovely drive up to Betterbee in Greenwich, New York to pick up our +/-12,000 new pets.
Our new bees! A 2 lb. package of Italian bees holds +/- 3 to 4,000 bees and one marked queen in a separate sealed cage.
Letting our new bees find their way into their new accommodations.
The completed hive. The queen will eat her way out of her separate cage through a sugar plug after about a week and once the worker bees have exposure to her pheromones, they accept her as their queen. The hive is raised off the ground so that hungry skunks and raccoons must expose their sensitive bellies to bee stings to get to the bees inside, their fur protecting the rest of their bodies from stings.
We kept bees for 3 years with up to 4 hives at one point. The answer to one of our most often asked questions is, no, we did not ever harvest the honey. Beekeeping is a tricky business and timing is everything. We had many missed opportunities: once before they swarmed, they ate much of the honey on their way out, leaving only a winter subsistence for the bees left behind; another when they pollinated and collected nectar from the abundant yellow field of Ragweed. It made for a hive full of honey but smelled like stinky socks.
After a year of sick hives, starting with a tragic arrival: the truck bringing bees to New York from Georgia got caught for hours in traffic in a dramatic early summer thunderstorm; the moisture prohibited the bees from moving their wings to cool the colony, so thousands of bees died and the ones that survived were distressed - we decided that sporadic weekend beekeeping was too much for us and not enough for the bees. We planned to continue to tend the two hives we had without new spring bee introductions until they reached their natural end. That end came early, as unbeknownst to us, the electric fence battery died over that final winter, and our bear took it upon himself to end the operation with total annihilation.
Engraving, bear, bees, skep, 1916 (Vintage Ephemera)
My love for honeybees endures, and one day I can see a hive or two in the yard of our new home in the Hudson Valley in a symbiotic relationship with my newest love, the garden… and safe from bears.