Beekeeping wasn’t one of those things that interested me for a while, or a sideline hobby there for me when I have the time. Beekeeping instantly changed my life, the perspective from which I view myself and the goals I have for the near future and for my life as a whole.
Maybe it had something to do with the timing of when I was introduced to beekeeping; being that it was during a rebuilding period of my life, a time when I was redefining myself and my goals, my loves and my hopes. Maybe it had to do with how the enigmatic puzzle that is beekeeping kept my curious mind searching for information, and kept rewarding me with new information that led to new questions. Maybe it only had to do with the fact that I am a nature guy, a woods walker, mushroom picker, a gardener and a bird watcher. Maybe it was a mixture of all of those reasons and others more nebulous and less easy to put into words. Whatever the reason, that first day, with the bees buzzing, interacting, and mystifying, I became a beekeeper.
Ever since that first day I have thought of myself as a slave to the bees, jumping to satiate their wants before they are wanted, hoping to give them the most comfortable and natural living situation possible. I find myself falling asleep with bees in my head, I wake up and silently wish them a good day and a happy morning. That constant occupation of my mind has led me to seek the solutions to their problems, and that is one deep subject with some powerful enemies, and grave implications. The bees are suffering from a lack of forage, from pesticides meant to kill other insects and from small to near invisible parasites. Each potential problem is so complicated, so multilayered that two people with hives in their backyard cannot dream of doing more than giving their hives, the bees they have control over, the best chance they can.
So that first year, we learned to work the bees. Every Saturday we went out to our friend’s field and tried to suppress our nervous excitement while we slowly cracked the lid and were greeted by the buzzing warmth that is the inside of an active, healthy beehive. We learned to look for the queen, going frame to frame trying to sort out the bustling activity enough to find that one, integral bee. The thrill of finding her was immensely satisfying; we watched her walking across the frame, worker bees parting way as she headed to the next cluster of cells ready for an egg. After finding her the next obstacle is placing the frame gently back into the hive, tough when your hands are shaking from the visceral excitement rushing through your veins. Once the hive was closed back up, we took off our protective gear and stood to the side, watching the activity of the bees coming and going. Every so often a single bee would land on the pallet, so full of colorful pollen it was maladroit in its attempt to land at the entrance of the hive.
I sat there each Saturday pondering the roles of the individual bees, in awe of the real, organized hierarchy in those boxes. Some were nurse bees, their job was to care for the brood, feeding the young and maintaining the proper temperature. Some bees were forage bees, heading off to whichever patch of flowers they were interested in that day, making sure to come back and waggle their butts to tell the other foragers where the good stuff was. Some were drones, males produced for mating, their job was to exist, eating and waiting for that fated day when they would be eviscerated, lending their genes to the next generation by mating with a virgin queen. While I sat there wrapping my head around these amazing creatures I made a vow. I would do as much as I possibly could, dedicate as much of my life as possible, to raising bees as naturally and sustainably as possible. I would share my findings, theories and concerns with others in my area in hopes that we would collectively maintain a healthy, balanced and continuous population of bees here in West Michigan.
That year, those bees changed my life, they gave me identity, direction and passion unlike anything I had experienced before. Backyard beekeepers cannot singularly defeat the corporations that pay no heed to ecological concerns, broadcasting chemicals and destroying natural forage areas, but we can vow to make our slice of Earth a haven for those wonderfully enigmatic creatures. We can figure out how OUR bees can battle the adverse conditions and survive another year. Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in this world”, so that is what I will do. That is how beekeeping saved my life.