BEEKEEPING IN THE NORTHEAST - An account of my beekeeping, not a treatise of expertise, but for friends & family who wish to keep bees vicariously through me, and for the occasional apiarist passer-by.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What Is A Beekeeper?

True confessions: I was so nervous and intimated by all the talent at EAS in Kentucky, all my studying flew right out of my head. I practically memorized Dewy Carron's Honey Bee Biology and he was the test administrator! I squeaked by on the written exam, so passed but despite the fact I'd taught adult ed classes for years, I completely froze on the oral presentation.

Enter Toastmasters! Here is my second talk. I'll give it tonight. I can recite it in my sleep... but we'll see.

What is a Beekeeper?
The romance and mystique surrounding the role of a beekeeper are very similar to that of a lion tamer. Unlike domesticated beasts, honey bees are wild animals that have worked side by side with man at their own pace and pleasure for centuries on every continent. 

Before realizing their value as pollinators, men robbed honey bee bounty by carving their comb out of the hollows of trees. Fortunately, humans swiftly discovered innovative ways to build maneuverable houses for honey bees called “hives” allowing men to take instead only a surplus of honey and wax. These were the first beekeepers. 

Beekeepers have existed since the earliest recorded history of the human race. Today, they are individuals who have learned to manage the natural life cycle of honey bee colonies in order to promote pollination of crops, harvesting of honey, procurement of wax and propolis, as well as breed more bees from any surplus of the honey bee super-organism or colony.

While mankind swarmed over the earth with nature intrusive technologies Honey bee colonies swiftly discovered beekeepers to be a great boon to their survival as a species. The study of the self-sustaining honey bee continues to provide many lessons for man and success for the bee.

There are three types of beekeepers: A hobbyist - managing a couple of hives for personal enjoyment; A Side-liner – selling products from several hives while maintaining a second income; and Commercial Beekeepers - who manage thousands of hives full time for profit.

All three are Farmers in the sense that bees are often classified as livestock – A beekeeper’s bee farm or bee yard is called an Apiary. If hive registration is required by law they fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture, but the farming of bees is called “Apiculture” and a beekeeper an “Apiculturist” or “Apiarist”.

Whether they want to keep hives for fun, sell a little honey at the farmer’s market, or work full time commercially, every beekeeper soon learns there are a variety of skills required in order to become successful. A beekeeper strives to be an expert carpenter, an astute environmentalist, a skilled educator and communicator, and most importantly, a focused biologist.

As carpenters beekeepers build and repair the hives they hope a honey bee colony chooses to embrace as home. They know what wood to use and the woods to steer clear of, what colors and patterns to paint on the hive and which to avoid. As carpenters beekeepers must gain the skill to build the right size and kind of space for the climate in which they house their bees. This requires a keen sensitivity to the surrounding environment.

As Environmentalists beekeepers must be familiar with factors that will impact their bees within a three mile foraging radius.  Beekeepers act on these challenges with foreknowledge, not react in surprise. They seek to prepare for problems such as rain during apple blossom season, plan hive locations to maximize the sunshine or avoid excessive moisture. They anticipate the mowing of fields their bees depend on during the peak nectar flows. Having to put counter measures in place means most beekeepers become skilled educators. 

As educators Beekeepers share their knowledge with the community. This helps to promote good gardening and farming practices building an awareness of those that may be harmful not just to honey bees but other essential pollinators. Beekeepers are often approached by members of their community with questions and concerns. Reading the latest Apiary Journals and books as well as attending local beekeeping club meetings and classes keeps them fit for the task. This knowledge contributes to the beekeeper developing the most important skill of all for success.

As biologists beekeepers know how well the honey bee colony is responding to its man-made hive environment. They must know how to tell if a queen bee has stopped laying because she is infertile or smartly conserving energy. They need to appreciate when bees that fall from the hive during inspection are crawling in the grass because they are sick or just young and blinded by the sun. As biologist beekeepers can discern if a bee moving erratically on the front of the hive is suffering pesticide poisoning or just performing a dance directing other bees to where the good nectar is.

The Beekeepers of our world and our community, hobbyist, side-liner and commercial apiarist alike, fast acquire many varied skills to be successful. In the quest to perpetuate the survival of our own species, Beekeepers are valuable players in implementing lessons learned from the adaptive, self-sustaining honey bee. We find beekeepers a fascinating occupation with good reason. As man has spread throughout the globe thanks goes to the Beekeepers who have learned to harness a super-organism of beneficial wild insects that have adapted to these practices in service as pollinators with an excess of hive products to share.