The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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The Traveling Beekeeper

Forty Years

- September 1, 2015 - Larry Connor - (excerpt)

Yesterday I hosted a ‘master’ class for seven relatively new beekeepers. We were reviewing some familiar territory—lighting the smoker, finding the queen, picking up and marking the queen, using the hive tool efficiently, equalizing colonies and a lot more. It reminded me of something a colleague said to me the first week of August, 1972.

Forty years ago I was a new associate professor in entomology extension at The Ohio State University in Columbus. After the first week of work, I got a phone call from a colleague from another department who had met me at a new faculty event for extension staff.
“So, how did the week go?” he asked.

I explained that there were some major events that seemed out of the ordinary for extension work, like the accidental death of pest control operator who decided to kill a nest of yellow jackets in a sun-baked and uninsulated attic using cyanide gas without thinking about the risk to himself. It was big news throughout the state, and I had received a few calls for comment.
“And routine phone calls and tons of mail, right?” he asked.

I said yes, especially a lot of mail. Each letter required a written reply on University stationary, with a carbon copy filed and kept forever.

“Just so you don’t forget, you will be answering those same questions on the last day of your job years from now.”

So true, 40 years later, and a long time out of University life, I am still answering the same questions for new beekeepers (I got rid of the pest control responsibilities some time back), and they do follow a familiar trend. There are few items that come by mail, but lots of email requests about articles I write. And cell phone calls, which apparently relieve the caller of any responsibility of looking to see what time it is where they are calling.

That first week in August 1972 my daughter was just three months old, and now she works as an pediatric intensive care nurse in Anchorage while raising her 2-year-old. My son, born in 1975 in Columbus, is in his first year of beekeeping here in Michigan, something I never expected. But there he was yesterday, making his dad proud. Yesterday he helped with the master class as well as listened to me work with the students. I still instinctively ask to have the hive tool to show a simple way to use it for more effective colony management.

But most of the class was based on the students working a hive with smoker and hive tool, and I was there to help, as were the rest of the other students. If you have never seen your queen in a colony, every drone is a suspect. If you are not sure if a colony has eggs, time must be spent to help the students see the eggs, with their back to the sun and getting the light down into the cells.

As the instructor or teacher/trainer/mentor/coach, I know that beekeepers must work the hive themselves in order to gain confidence. If they have never had a small group field experience, it is pretty difficult for new beekeepers to work through all the different things they need to learn, by themselves, and even if they have read and will re-read my books and the words of others.
Things have changed, and they haven’t.

Beekeeping experienced a strong growth period during the 1972-1976 period, fed by the young and young-at-heart hippie movement and others concerned about the importance of bees. There were young people, women, and young families at the meetings at local clubs in Ohio. There were urban beekeepers. In fact, I was once asked to ‘comment’ on a small-lot beekeeper who had 40+ colonies in his tiny city lot—boxes packed so tight you had to squeeze past them. The beekeeper was not a young hippie, but an old immigrant from eastern Europe, and he was trying to duplicate his homeland activity on a much smaller real estate footprint.

As the “love generation” got jobs, married, and moved around the country, many were forced to give up their bees and beekeeping. Not all, of course, as I have visited ‘old hippie’ farms in different parts of the country, where agricultural diversity and living off the grid are standard practice.

Of the seven beekeepers in my class yesterday, four were women, one who keeps bees with her husband, also in attendance. Two of the men had kept bees in their teens or early adulthood and may have had colonies while I was at Ohio State. But college or whatever got into their way, and now they are back, keeping colonies again, trying to build and provide the proper husbandry for their bees that they grew fond of so many years ago.

The couple lives in Kalamazoo, and want to develop a sub-group of beekeepers keeping bees within the city limits, so this has been added to my ‘to do list’. There have always been urban beekeepers, quite often working out of sight of neighbors and ‘officials’. I do not know of any restrictions against beekeeping in Kalamazoo as long as safe practices are followed and water is offered to the bees during hot weather.

Mites were unheard of in 1972, and so was climate change. People complained if they lost more than 15% of their colonies during the Michigan winter.

In July I visited my daughter and family in Alaska and we went to the Portage Glacier south of Anchorage. We got on the boat and traveled for some time to reach the glacier which has receded dramatically over the past few  years. Back home my bees and fellow beekeepers were baking in 105+ degree heat for days in a row. Some argue that the summer of 2012 is the summer when people’s opinion about climate change and global warming have shifted to deep concern, yet some of those 1970’s hippies (and others) turned scientists have been documenting the shift in temperature patterns for decades.

Yesterday we discussed the impact of the early spring and summer in Michigan. The early March heat spell caused many plants to bloom early and the colonies built in number very quickly resulting in a record spring for swarms. The joke is “my swarm swarmed!” It makes it difficult for new beekeepers. Climate change means there will be a strong influence on plants that we reply upon for buildup and nectar.

We discussed the small hive beetles. I had them survive the winter in my hives, but they have not been very apparent during the hot weather. One could argue that the beetles do not like my apiary’s exposed and dry location. Or you argue that the early spring was followed by nearly complete elimination by frost of fruit tree bloom that may provide alternate food and sugary carbohydrates for the beetles. Yet one of the students had a beetle attack, so maybe all these theories are just that, theories.