The Accidental Beekeeper

[Posted Jan 31, 2018]

Written Nov 2009 for Books & Culture; includes reviews of Plan Bee: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Hardest-Working Creatures on the Planet by Susan Brackney  (New York: Perigree,2009) and Sweetness & Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee by Hattie Ellis (New York: Harmony Books, 2004).

I didn’t plan on being a beekeeper. It all started one afternoon when I was taking a walk around the block, and came upon a scene of chaos and frenzy. Some neighbors were having work done while they were out of town, and workmen had been taking down a big tree. One of the guys had been high on a ladder when his chainsaw bit directly into a honeycomb.

People harbor differing sentiments toward bees. The guy on the ladder began scooping handfuls of honey, laughing and telling his buddies how good it was, unfazed by the stings. His boss, on the ground, was gripped by a terror approaching apoplexy. By the time I got there the workmen had laid the trunk on the ground and were trying to drive the bees away from the tree by several methods; most recently, they had set it on fire.

I went home and phoned Gheorghe, a native of Romania who is a member of my church, as well as a beekeeper. He was delighted to hear of an opportunity to collect a new colony of bees; beekeepers look upon this as a windfall.

But we couldn’t just walk up and bag them. This was a delicate operation. It would require stealth.

The next morning I arrived at Gheorghe’s apartment at 5:00 AM. Everything was dark. We drove back to my neighbors’ house, and there Gheorghe got into his bee suit, a set of white coveralls with attached hat and veil. Heavy-duty gloves completed the outfit, and there was an Epipen in his pocket just in case. He walked over to the downed tree carrying a 5-gallon plastic bucket, and sent me to turn on the hose. The plan was to take the bees by surprise, pre-dawn, while they were still shuffling around in their bathrobes clutching tiny cups of coffee. If we sprinkled them thoroughly with water, they couldn’t fly away.  I did my part, standing by the faucet a safe distance away, while Gheorghe scooped handfuls of wet, confused bees into the bucket.

We put the bucket in the trunk, and drove to the half-dozen hives Gheorghe keeps at a friend’s house in the country. A line of six tall wooden boxes, painted white, stood in the dawn and dew like sentinels. Once again Gheorghe got into his beesuit, and then shook the now rather cranky bees into an empty hive.  As I drove him to work afterward, he began to tell me that it was significant that I had cared about the fate of those homeless bees. It meant I was born to be a beekeeper.

I wasn’t sure about that, but Gheorghe was sure enough for both of us. A few hours later he sent me an email reiterating the theme:  “I told you that you will be a very good beekeeper. You put a lot of time and energy to save some bees, that means that you love them a lot; and I can tell you that they know to recognize this kind of persons.”

But having recently attained an empty nest, I wasn’t planning on assuming the care of tens of thousands of tiny creatures that are sharp on one end. But Gheorghe’s soft-sell continued, and when spring rolled around he made sure I knew about the class for new beekeepers offered at a local park’s nature center.

“It’s five classes, 2 hours and 15 minutes each, and then there’s a 6-hour final session on a Saturday,” I complained to my husband. “How can there be that much to know about bees? It can’t be that complicated.” They must get through all the information at the first session, I thought; after that, it’s nothing but crafts. “Take your yellow construction paper and your black construction paper, and with your safety scissors…”

I was wrong. It turns out that there is a lot to know about bees.

Till recently there has been a disproportion between the quantity of facts available about honeybees, and the amount of curiosity prevailing among the general public. This has changed recently, perhaps due to news stories about Colony Collapse Disorder. This mystery illness (if it is an illness) has caused millions of bees across the country to simply disappear. There’s something touching about this, the image of so many miniscule, hardworking creatures vanishing without a trace. And since nearly 40% of our groceries require honeybee fertilization, we have practical reasons to be concerned. Dozens of bee books have come out in recent years, from The Shamanic Way of the Bee to Beekeeping for Dummies. I’ve just read two: Susan Brackney’s Plan Bee: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Hardest-Working Creatures on the Planet, a work that is typical of hands-on accounts, and Hattie Ellis’ Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee, which takes us from prehistoric cave paintings to the present.

There are so many strange things to know about bees that most bee-book reviews include a lengthy procession of Wow Facts. Bees keep the interior of a colony at a constant 92 degrees! The hexagonal pattern of a honeycomb is the world’s strongest structure! Worker bees live six weeks and a queen bee up to six years—but both come from identical eggs! Honey is the only food that cannot spoil! It takes the nectar of 2600 flowers to make a teaspoon of honey!

I was a bit hesitant about learning just how honey is made, because I thought it might involve some intimate or digestive process, and no matter how noble the bee, honey would surely lose much of its appeal. It was good to find out that honey is pretty much a de-humidified version of nectar, the drop of sugary fluid found, for example, at the base of a honeysuckle. Foraging bees suction nectar into an inner carrying bag known as the “honey stomach,” and upon returning to the hive transfer it to a “house bee.” (Young worker bees start out doing household chores, cleaning cells and feeding the baby bees; as they grow older they become defenders of the hive, and forage for nectar and pollen. All worker bees pass through all jobs. They work themselves to death, literally, when their wings are too tattered to carry them any more.)

After more transferrals, the nectar is deposited in a cell of the honeycomb, and drop by drop the cell is filled. Flower nectar can be as much as 68% water, but bees evaporate it out by fanning their wings across the open cells. When the proportion drops below 18.6% it is officially honey, and bees cap the finished cell with wax. (Wax is produced internally. Worker bees extrude thin, transparent sheets of wax, like fish scales, from their abdomens. They chew and soften it, then use it to build the comb. Bees also make propolis, a very sticky brown substance made mostly of chewed tree sap. Propolis serves the bees as caulk. They hate drafts. In their home, any space smaller than 3/8” gets filled with propolis; any larger space gets filled with honeycomb.)

A bee that has found a good nectar source returns to the hive to tell others about it, and communicates this information by “dancing,” moving in repetitive patterns, narrow circles or figure-8’s, that convey what direction and how far to go. (A good nectar source is one that offers many, many blooms close together, such that a stand of goldenrod is much better than a rose bush. A blooming tree—locally, the tulip poplar or black locust—is even better, since height is no object.) Scouts also bring home a sample of the nectar, and the fragrance assists fellow-bees in finding the source.

The life of the hive is also greatly affected by pheromones, chemical compounds that bees secrete and which communicate necessary information. If a bee should sting you, remove the sting quickly, because it will soon begin pumping out the “alarm pheromone” that signals to the other bees, “Strike here.”

The existence of pheromones was discovered by biologist E. O. Wilson in the mid-1950’s, when he dissected some fire ants and tested which of their internal organs laid down a fragrance the other ants would compulsively follow. He told Robert Krulwich, host of WNYC’s RadioLab, that when he identified the correct organ he found that “it was so effective that, for demonstrations, I would write my name, and a column of a hundred, 200, 300 ants would come pouring out, back and forth, and they’d actually write my name in ant.”

As bees go in and out of a flower gathering nectar they get covered with pollen, and when they go into the next flower some of it is dusted of and gets left behind. If you don’t know what happens next, ask your mom or dad. They should have talked to you about this a long time ago. From time to time bees stop to clean themselves up, and they comb the pollen backward from head and body, packing it into indentations on their back legs called “pollen baskets.” It looks like they are wearing harem pants. Pollen is stored in the comb as well, and mixed with honey to make “bee bread,” a staple of the colony’s diet.

Bees are neatniks: a rectangular frame of honeycomb will have honey in the top corners, and below that a rainbow of pollen, sorted by type and color. (The color and flavor of honey varies according to the type of flower that is its source. Colors range from “water white” to dark brown. Not all varieties of honey taste good, to humans. Near the Black Sea there is a kind of rhododendron that yields a poisonous, hallucinogenic honey. In 67 BC, Pompey’s army was lured to a place where this honey was abundant, and by the next day suffered from such severe indigestion and confusion that they were easy pickings for the Pontian troops.) Below the arch of pollen, the bottom center of the frame consists of rows and rows of baby bees.

The queen’s job is to provide those babies; though she mates only once in her life, she stores the sperm internally and fertilizes eggs as needed, laying up to 1500 eggs per day. The queen is simply a breeder and does not rule in any sense. Nobody rules a beehive; there is no leader; no one has a master plan or provides supervision. This is a continuing mystery.

For this reason some scientists say that we should think of the entire colony, rather than the individual bee, as an organism. Individual members of such an organism function perhaps as the cells of our body do, which grow, cooperate, replicate, and die without our having to give it a minute’s thought. Nobody’s in charge of that immensely complicated project, and the organism keeps going anyway.

In addition to queen and workers there are drones, the only male honeybee. A drone’s sole job is to find a virgin queen and mate with her. (She would necessarily be a new queen, from a different colony, since this colony’s queen is already laying.) Each queen makes one and only one “maiden flight”. The lucky drone who finds her mates with her high in the air, but then discovers that he cannot get free. In attempting to separate, his sex organ tears away, and he falls to ground and dies. The drones who miss out on this exciting adventure spend their lives back at the hive eating, relaxing, and playing video games, leaving the workers to provide their food and clean up their mess. The tables turn in the fall, when the colony must conserve its resources to make it through the winter. Workers then drive the drones out of the hive to starve.

This is an enormous operation, and the role of honey is to feed the colony, particularly through the winter. In cold weather the workers are so committed to clustering over the developing bees, keeping them at that constant 92 degrees, that even if their honey stores are a few feet away they will die rather than abandon their post. The art of beekeeping consists of keeping the bees healthy and fed, protecting them from parasites and disease, so that a strong colony can produce more honey than it needs. Only surplus honey is harvested.

(Bees may also need protection from raccoons and other nocturnal critters, who think of them as a tasty snack, crunchy on the outside with a sweet drop of honey in the middle. Such varmints sidle up to a hive and scratch and tap beside the entrance till a few defender bees come out to protect the hive. Tap, tap, crunch; tap, tap, crunch: it’s like an M & M dispenser.)

Beekeepers develop a fond, protective feeling toward their little charges. Bees are so diligent, self-sacrificing, and devoted to the common good that they have been held up as instructive examples for thousands of years. The sense of connectedness with them is not wholly sentimental: Susan Brackney tells us that researchers have found that “the regulation of genes in the honeybee is more similar to that of humans than it is to other insects.” (Brackney’s book is a good compendium of bee-facts, though she sometimes displays the weakness for puns that seems to creep up on beekeepers, speaking, for example, of going “above and bee-yond.”)

The scale of individual labor in a colony of bees is hard even to comprehend. In her whole life, a worker will produce only a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey—an image that is very nearly heartbreaking, as I picture my fondness for standing at the kitchen counter, reading a magazine, and having just one more teaspoon of honey.

The more you learn about bees, the more fascinating they become, and the instructor’s first sentence in our beekeeping class was “Welcome to the fascinating world of the honeybee.” The instructor, Jerry Fisher, is the Maryland State Apiary Inspector, and he wrote the bee class and has been teaching it for 28 years. He initially comes off as rather gruff, and I was intimidated; another student whispered, “I have a question, but I’m afraid he’ll bite my head off!” It didn’t take long, however, to see how widely he is loved, and he is the honeybee’s best champion.

Jerry’s accent gave me some trouble, however. He’s a rapid-fire talker from east of Baltimore, and as I scrambled to write down everything he said some terms simply eluded me. I figured out that “beekers” are beekeepers, and “Central Maryland Beekeeper Association” was that thing that sounded like a cement mixer. “Kwee scooter,” however, had me beat. Oh, “queen excluder.”

We newbies felt overwhelmed with information, but the old-timers were themselves amazed: the class was overfilled. This had never happened before. Sixty people had registered, in itself an unusually high figure, but on the first night ninety had shown up, and every chair was taken. What’s more, a goodly number were women. It was different years ago, Jerry said, when “there were only two or three females at meetings; they were tag-alongs with their husbands.”

The rise in beekeeping is another example of the confluence of traditional farming with the greening of suburbia. (“Honey’s the only ecofriendly sweetener around,” Brackney writes. “While sugarcane, beets, and corn require irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides—and in some cases, a ton of backbreaking human labor in Third World countries—honey does not.”) Beekeeping is technically a subset of agriculture, and my single hive requires a certificate from the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Many experienced beekeepers have a farming background. Jerry told us of walking the rows alongside his grandfather as a child; his granddad told him that you want to count three bees for every seven steps.

Perhaps the rising numbers of new beekeepers, and the rising proportion of females, is due to news coverage of CCD. I learned that experienced beekeepers are not as alarmed about this as the general public. There’s always something endangering the honeybees, they say; earlier episodes were termed “the disappearing syndrome” or “the fall dwindling act.” In time the numbers would come back up, and research into the problem would be pushed to the back burner.

One theory about CCD is that bees are overly stressed by their role as trucked-in factory-farm pollinators. Foraging in the wild provides a variety of foods, but at the factory farms bees can feed on only one kind of pollen at a time, and being jostled in a truck from place to place distresses them. You try being bounced daily to an all-you-can-eat restaurant where all they serve is blueberries, and see how you like it.

Bees suffer as well from “foulbrood” diseases that lay waste to larvae and pupae. Though adult bees resist disease well, they are prey in turn to parasites like the varroa mite, which locks on like a tick and drinks their blood. An even smaller villain, the tracheal mite, lodges in a bee’s tiny little breathing tube, and when enough of these mites have accumulated there, she suffocates. That is just plain wrong.

Due to these diseases and pests, the feral honeybee population virtually disappeared. For some time, the only honeybees with a chance at survival were those being cared for by humans, who could take measures to protect them. But every once in awhile an independent colony shows up, as in my neighbor’s tree, and that’s an encouraging sign. With time, bees always develop a resistance to whatever is troubling them. They are so good at this that they have been around for at least 80 million years, the age of the oldest fossilized bee. In her fascinating, well-written history, Hattie Ellis tells us that that date could possibly be pushed back to nearly 220 million years, because bees’ nests have been found in the Petrified Forest. (“Some say you would need to find bees’ bodies to be certain,” the cautious author notes.) Ancient rock-art sites in southern Africa depict humans gathering honey (on ladders, wielding smoke, besieged by angry winged dots), and date back 15,000 to 20,000 years.

Bees propagate by swarming. I was unclear on this, thinking that a swarm was just another word for a colony. No, bees swarm when a colony needs to divide, perhaps because their numbers have grow too great for their current home. The queen and a majority of the workers leave the hive and find a place to wait while scouts search for a new home. You might see them clinging to a tree branch or an awning in a clump, or hovering in an enormous sphere.

“Swarming is beautiful,” Jerry told us. “It’s the most beautiful thing in beekeeping. Sixty or seventy feet in size, and solid, like a cloud. You can walk through it.” Honeybees spread across the country by swarming. They are not native to North America, but were brought to Virginia in 1622 by English settlers, who had packed a few hives among their baggage.

When scouts locate a promising home, they return and signal the location by means of enthusiastic dancing. Other scouts, however, may be arguing—that is, dancing—for a different site that they prefer. Onlookers whose curiosity is aroused will fly over and take a look and a sip for themselves and, if they like it, join the team of dancers for that particular site. “The group that attracts the most bees the soonest usually wins,” writes Susan Brackney. “Most intriguing, fifteen seems to be the magic number.” The first site to attract fifteen (or more) advocates will be the swarm’s new home.

Beekeepers are happy to hear when a swarm is spotted, because it is possible to capture them and, hey, free bees. But usually a new beehive requires mail-order bees, and a starter set is around $70. You buy bees by the pound, and a three-pound package contains about 10,000 bees. Inside the bees’ cage is a smaller cage, which houses a queen and a few attendants. These packages are put together right before shipping, and the queen is not previously known to the workers; there is a danger that her unfamiliar pheromones might trigger an attack. For that reason, the queen’s small cage is stoppered with a lump of sugar candy. As she and her court nibble from one side, and the rest of the package from the other, her scent becomes familiar, and by the time she is released the colony is agreeable to taking her as queen. (When buying bees you can shop for queens who have been bred for specific traits, like hardiness or docility. Some queens are advertised as “hygienic”—the workers who are her descendants will be conscientious housekeepers, which reduces the incidence of disease.)

What happens to the bees a swarm leaves behind? They make themselves a new queen. They do this by constructing a special, larger cell (queens are notably bigger than workers or drones). The departing queen lays an egg in it that would ordinarily result in a worker, but in this case the nurse bees feed it large quantities of “royal jelly,” a liquid they secrete. (Since this diet is the only difference between a worker and a queen, some humans imagine that eating royal jelly will likewise give them a greatly extended life span, or at least more energy. Medical science is not convinced.) The cell is then capped, and 16 days later a brand-new queen comes forth. “A piping sound comes out just before a new queen emerges,” Jerry told us. “It’s a pretty sound—sounds real nice.”

Workers usually make more than one queen at a time, though, in case of loss due to deformity or disease. The first queen to hatch will fight any other queens to the death, locating them by means of that piping sound and then stinging them repeatedly.  Worker bees lose their stingers and die after stinging, but queens don’t, and can sting repeatedly, though they don’t often have reason to do so. Drones have no stingers. An article in the monthly bee association newsletter came from a dad whose daughters attempted to keep a drone as a pet. The moral of the story was: if your bee gets sticky because you fed him some honey, and you wash him off with water, don’t dry him with a hair dryer.

Swarming bees usually don’t sting; that accounts for the photos you may have seen of somebody draped in a “beard of bees.” Honeybees prefer not to sting anyway, since it requires the supreme sacrifice. A beekeeper who works the hive calmly and gently can dispense with some, or all, protective gear. Jerry told us that he has never used a bee suit or gloves. My friend Gheorghe, on the other hand, has developed a severe allergy to beesting, and top-to-toe gear is a necessity.

One day Jerry took us out to the nature center’s hives and showed us how he works with them. He lit some dried leaves and sawdust in a smoker, a metal tin with a spout, and squeezed the bellows to puff smoke toward the hive’s entrance. “That’s knocking on the door,” he said. When bees smell smoke, they assume the hive is on fire, and begin stuffing themselves with honey in hopes of relocating their stores elsewhere. With their tummies full of honey, they can’t curve their bodies into the half-circle posture necessary to sting. I expect that, when colony and keeper know each other well, the whiffs of smoke are more along the lines of a formality—a knock on the door, as Jerry says.

He pulled a frame from the hive for us to see. (It takes some effort to extract a frame, because bees glue everything together with propolis; a crowbar-like “hive tool” is part of every beekeeper’s kit.)  Bees covered the surface of the comb, bustling, in ceaseless motion; no word for it but “busy.”

“If you need to get some bees out of the way to examine something,” Jerry said, “just move them out of the way.” He gently drew a line through the bees with a finger.

When it was my turn to examine the frame I determined to do the same, despite leaping fear, and the fact that I had no bee gear on, no veil or gloves. I placed my index finder on the surface of the comb and pushed forward, through a mass of bees, and they moved aside in a matter-of-fact way, taking no offense. I count it as one of the more extraordinary I-can’t-believe-my-eyes moments of my life.

The exception to this honeybee placidity is the so-called “killer bee,” or Africanized honeybee (the AHB). I assumed that there was some special poison in their sting, but no, their venom is no more toxic than that of the gentlest bee. What makes the AHB different is that they are relentless in defense. They brook no threat against the colony. Tap on the hive of most bees, and a handful of defenders will come out to see what’s going on. But tap on a hive of AHB, and hundreds will pursue you for hundreds of yards. The 20th century beekeeping monk, Brother Adam (breeder of the famed “Buckfast Bee”), circled the globe researching honeybees; Ellis tells us that, after he opened a hive in Tanzania, he took refuge in a house a quarter of a mile away, and a cloud of angry bees waited outside for him an hour and a half.

African bees came to this side of the globe in 1957, when a Brazilian biologist imported 26 Tanzanian queens for cross-breeding purposes. He was hoping to develop a bee better adapted to tropical climates, and intended never to release these specimens, but a lab worker wasn’t able to read the language of the “Do Not Release” sign on their cage.  These bees have now spread throughout the American South, but they dislike cold weather, and that will inhibit northward expansion.

I was hoping that, as the AHB interbreeds with our European bees, their temperament would improve, but apparently the reverse is the case, and Africanized bees are even more ornery than the original African bee. They are prolific breeders, casting out seven swarms a year (during which time our European bees typically swarm once). So the AHB, unfortunately, is replacing the other honeybees in most of the southern United States. Beekeepers who live there are learning how to work with them, but the breed’s anti-social characteristics will probably mean the end of keeping a friendly beehive in the back yard.

When I say “beehive” you picture a dome of coiled straw. (I hope you do. When I told my son “I got my first beehive!,” he thought I meant a hairdo.) These straw hives are called “skeps,” and are one of the forms progress took as people looked for ways to keep the honey-makers near at hand, rather than up in a hollow tree. Bees would fill the dome of a skep with honeycomb, but that honey could not be harvested without destroying the comb (and perhaps even killing the bees). In Maryland it is now illegal to keep bees in a skep, or any domicile without removable combs, yet the skep remains one of beekeeping’s favorite icons.

Today’s beehives start with a box of wood, about 20” by 16,” open top and bottom. Two rails run along the sides of the top, and frames are slid in to rest on those rails, about 10 frames per hive body. Picture a box full of picture frames, but instead of glass there is a thin sheet of beeswax embossed with a honeycomb pattern. Stack two of these hive bodies, and, with a rainproof lid on top and a bottom board that offers room for takeoffs and landings, you’re ready for bees. (Hives are usually painted white, because dark colors strike bees as more threatening.) Once shaken into the hive, a starter package of 10,000 bees and a queen will catch on quickly, and the workers will start “drawing” the comb, building up cells on both sides of the wax foundation.

As the queen lays eggs in those cells, a typical colony quickly grows to 60,000 to 80,000 bees, and the two hive bodies are gradually filled with pollen, honey, and growing bees. But the test will come in the winter, when many colonies succumb to cold, starvation, disease, or parasites. (The rate of loss is shockingly high: in Maryland, 40% of colonies die in a typical year.)

A new colony is started in the spring, and honey is harvested in the summer, but a beekeeper doesn’t harvest honey the first year. The immature colony will need plenty of resources throughout the coming winter. If the colony makes it through till spring, nectar flow is in sight and the bees have a good chance of storing up more than enough honey for the following year. At this point, the beekeeper can make preparations for a harvest.

On top of the hive bodies a third—and possibly fourth, fifth, or sixth—hive body is placed, but these are much shallower than the original deep ones, on the bottom. Between the “deeps” and the “shallows” is where the queen excluder goes. This is a screen with openings that worker bees can pass through, but not the queen-sized queen. Restricted to the bottom part of the hive, she lays all her eggs in the two deeps; in the shallows above the queen excluder it’s all honey, and this is the beekeeper’s portion. (The shallows are shallow because honey is heavy. A shallow only 5 11/16” high weighs 40 pounds when full.)

These square-tower hives were the invention of the Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth, a 19th century student of bees and Congregational clergyman. Beekeepers had sought a way to harvest honey without destroying the comb, and a few inventors had tinkered with the idea of frames, but no matter what mechanism was provided, bees glued it all together with propolis. Langstroth’s revolutionary insight is known as “bee space.” There is a certain amount of space—3/8”, to be exact—that bees will leave empty, because it is exactly the room two bees need to pass each other. Langstroth constructed a box-hive with hanging frames, everything tight together except for that 3/8” intervening between every surface. For the first time, frames could be removed and examined, and honey could be harvested, without destroying the whole operation. The Langstroth hive has been the industry standard for 150 years.

I liked Hattie Ellis’ history book a great deal. Here’s an example of the excellence of her writing, as she describes a photo of Langstroth. The clergyman suffered recurring bouts of mental illness and severe depression, made all the worse when his idea was appropriated by unscrupulous competitors.  Ellis writes:

A photograph of Langstroth, aged eighty, shows a kindly face that radiates goodness: at first glance, he has the air of a jolly cleric looking benevolently over his glasses; then you notice a clean innocence to his brow. But the longer you look, the more you perceive a set to his mouth and jaw that is the mark of the survivor, and see light in his eyes that carries both sorrow and hope. With an unshowy intensity, it is a mesmerizing face; in the photograph, he still appears to be thinking.

If only all our friends could read our faces this clearly, this compassionately. Langstroth died at 77, in the pulpit of a Presbyterian church in Dayton, Ohio, as he was beginning a sermon on the love of God.

I grasped the genius of the moveable-frame hive, but just couldn’t picture how you get the honey out of the comb. Centrifugal force, it turns out. The filled frames are slotted, three at a time, into something resembling the basket of a washing machine. Turn the crank on top and honey goes flying out, hitting the walls of the surrounding drum and collecting on the bottom, to be drained out through a tap. The now-empty combs are placed back in the hive, where bees begin their patient process of re-filling it, and repairing any place you left a ding. Making comb is much more time- and energy-consuming for the bees than making honey. One pound of wax represents, to them, the labor of making 35,000 cells. Giving them back the comb to reuse makes the honey yield that much greater.

If you’re a member of the bee association you can rent a honey extractor for $10. You’ll want a couple of friends to hold it down while you turn the crank; it tends to walk all over the room. The other thing about processing honey—and perhaps you’ve been thinking about this—is that it is very sticky. You are bound to leave patches of it on every surface in the room. “You’re going to touch stuff and stick to it a week from now,” an old-timer told us. For this reason, you might want to use the kitchen; for the same reason, the household cook might want you not to use the kitchen. His solution: “Give the missus a $100 bill and tell her to go shopping for the day. Then use the kitchen.”

Honey is harvested once a year, and in Maryland it’s around the Fourth of July. A single hive could yield 40 pounds of honey. The most hands-off beekeeper might open up his hives at harvest-time and only three or four other times a year, believing that the more bees are disturbed, the worse they fare. Other beekeepers insist that you must open the hive on a regular basis if you are going to catch and prevent problems. Should you feed sugar water through the winter? Or never feed sugar water? Should you use Apistan strips to control mites? Or never use such strips? Screen bottom board, or solid? Langstroth hive, or the newfangled “top bar” kind? Dozens of such questions elicit strong convictions. If you are running short of opinions, a beekeepers’ meeting is a good place to find them.

Why would you want a screened bottom board? Sounds chilly, to me. But those infernal tracheal mites are dealt with by placing lump menthol in the hive. It makes the bees cough. (Take a moment and imagine what it sounds like when a bee coughs. It’ll be worth it.) The mites, expelled, fall to the bottom and, if it is screened, plummet all the way to the ground. Problem solved.

What about making beeswax candles? Where does the wax come from, if we’re going to let the bees keep most of the comb? Recall that bees cap the filled cells of honey with wax. These “cappings” must be cut away (a bread knife does the trick) so that the honey can be flung out, and the water-rinsed caps can be used to make candles, lip gloss, or other beeswax projects. Just don’t plan on making anything any time soon. For each ten pounds of honey, you gain only one pound of wax. I gather that many small-scale beekeepers who sell beeswax products buy their wax online.

Before the invention of the movable frame and honey extractor, honey was usually consumed along with its comb. Jerry invited us to imagine an earlier time, when a chunk of honey would be set out in a saucer and taken as a spoonful, wax and all. Swallow the honey and chew the wax, like gum, he said, for as long as the flavor lasts, then—to our surprise—swallow it. “What’s wax good for?” he said, and we guessed: Candles? Polishing furniture? “It is a lubricant,” he said. “Take one spoonful a day, and you’ll be regular as the sun.”

Someone asked, What about organic honey? Jerry snorted contemptuously. “If you want to use the label ‘organic,’ that’s between you and your lawyer,” he said. All honey is natural, he explained; “even though we have learned exactly what’s in honey, humans cannot reproduce it in any form.” There’s no such thing as artificial honey. But the ingredients a bee puts into her honey come from a flying range of three to five miles, and there would be no way to certify that every bit came from organic, pesticide-free sources.

You can make a distinction between honeys that are highly or minimally processed, though. Typical grocery-store honey has been heated in order to delay crystallization. (All honeys crystallize naturally, with no effect on taste or nutrition, but it worries shoppers.) Eight hours at 138 degrees delays crystallization for 6 months. (Honey is not heated above 138 degrees, because it gets a burned flavor.) “At 105 degrees, vitamin A leaves; at 115 degrees, vitamin C; at 120 degrees, all the B vitamins. Above that, every mineral and vitamin known to man.” Such honey still functions as a sweetener, but all its nutritional value is gone.

Commercial honey is also filtered. Any kind of honey has been, we hope, strained, so that stray bee parts don’t end up in the tea. But filtering is another matter. The material of the commercial-honey filter is woven so tightly that water couldn’t flow through it. Honey is forced through this filter under immense pressure, removing all traces of pollen. The home beekeeper will use a five-gallon plastic bucket and a paint strainer.

One day in August Gheorghe went with me after church to look into the hive and see how the bees were doing. He pulled a frame, and I was awed and impressed to see it full of honey on both sides—running with honey across the surface, from uncapped cells at the corners. It was beautiful. To my surprise, he took an empty frame and put it in the place of this full one; we were going to have an early sample of my bees’ honey. They could spare a single frame, and I would compensate them with patties made of Crisco and powdered sugar. (This seems woefully inadequate. Maybe some Flintstones’ vitamins too?)

In my kitchen I began cutting the filled comb from the wooden frame. I distributed a few chunks to friends and family, and then contemplated the cookie-sheet-sized portion that remained. Now what? I went to the store and bought some extra-large white pantyhose, then put chunks of honeycomb down the legs of the hose and squeezed out the honey. The yield was about 4 cups, and I had enough wax to make a votive candle.

The other day I went down the hill to visit my bees, when the sun popped out for the first time after a week of rain. Bees won’t fly in the rain—imagine how big a raindrop is, to them—and if they must spend many days cooped up in the hive they become querulous. A contributing factor is that they refrain from relieving themselves at home, and wait till they can take a “cleansing flight;” waiting thus for days is as provoking to them as it would be for us.

But when I came in sight of the hive I was worried, because things were too quiet. Instead of constant take-offs and landings from the hive’s entrance, I saw only an aged, hobbling worker, struggling to make her way in. I put my ear to the side of the hive, but could hear nothing. Had something terrible happened to them? Had they left en masse?

Even though I’d forgotten my gloves, I removed the lid and pried up the inner cover. What a relief: bees were simply everywhere. They just weren’t taking any chances on the weather yet. And though I’d just ripped the ceiling off their house, exposing their enclosed darkness to light and air, they showed no alarm. Nobody tried to sting me; nobody even got up and flew away. Is it possible they’re getting used to me?

I thought about what Gheorghe had said, that bees know how to recognize this kind of person, the kind who cares about them. Maybe my bees are coming to take me for granted, adopting me as an exceptionally large and intermittently competent fellow-worker. Maybe I am becoming a part of their wondrous organism. My bees and I are already part of the vast, ageless organism of the earth, and what I do in that role without thinking about it—breathing, hearing, replacing skin cells—I do pretty well. It’s what I think hard about, thinking self-consciously, self-advancingly, that more often goes wrong.

I wish I could be as guileless and yielded, as cooperative and productive, as these murmuring bees. I feel like making them a pledge: I will watch and learn how you do it. I will try to do my best. 

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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  1. Much as how your well-written works turned me onto Orthodoxy, which I had never before considered because it had never seemed interesting or important, I find that I now have a hankering to try my hand at raising bees. It's certainly not something my small apartment would support (to say nothing of my ever-patient wife), nevertheless I cannot believe how fascinating you made it seem. You are an excellent writer, and now I've got to research bee horticulture possibilities for the future! Peace,

    – Dustin

    FMG: Thank you, Dustin! You made me smile. BTW I think a beehive would fit nicely under your bed, and your wife would never know. Give it a try! 😉

  2. I am a decade-long appreciator of your writing (since college). The ideas of a post-feminist woman ("Even if all you do is keep hair neat and clean, you will still be allowed to vote and own property" and "Secondhand clothing is a pockethand veto (to consumerism," stick with me, among other things) engaged in thoughtful love for God, came at an ideal time.

    My nephew has just taken up beekeeping, and I read an unexpectedly interesting Wikipedia article on beekeeping this past week. Totally unconnectedly, I moseyed on over to your site today to see if you had anything new up, and was delighted to find this essay. My delight grew as I read. So amusing and informative! And, "My bees and I are already part of the vast, ageless organism of the earth, and what I do in that role without thinking about it—breathing, hearing, replacing skin cells—I do pretty well." I had to reread multiple times because I don't know if I've ever read that oft-felt, unnamed sentiment expressed in words before. Thank you for that and so much more. I wish we lived in the same town because I'd love to stop by to admire your bees and have a conversation or two.

    FMG: Thank you, Rebekkah! It's so nice when I hear of people savoring a particular sentence here and there. They come to me like gifts, I feel, rather than being things I "made up" by myself. God bless you, and I hope you enjoy your nephew's beekeeping vicariously–maybe more actively one day!

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