The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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Cover Story

The Back of a Beekeeper

- June 1, 2015 - William Blomstedt - (excerpt)

Warren Taylor is one tough old bird. When I worked for him in Australia two years ago, he was still loading beehives by hand in his 60s. Often with him was his long-time friend Ralph. Ralph had officially retired, but would begrudgingly help drive (and load) during the hectic spring moving season. Watching them lift hives together always made me cringe – knees straight, bent over at the waist, hefting a plugged hive off the ground – it went against everything I have been taught about back health. But both of them had been doing this since long before I was born and I was impressed to see them still throwing hives onto the truck at retirement age.

“Ooomph.” Warren said lifting a hive. “I think we’ll put them on pallets next year.”

“We’re too old for this.” Ralph replied.

The hive clanked against the edge of the truck bed and I, standing atop, pulled it on. George the Peruvian pumped smoke into the hives ahead of them. On the truck I maneuvered the hives like pieces of a puzzle, shoving them together, pulling them apart. We had nearly finished the bottom layer of the first load and soon they would lift the hives over their heads. The yard was hazy with smoke and confused bees, but they weren’t stinging much. Everyone wore short-sleeves and neither Warren nor Ralph had gloves. It was 7 p.m. and the temperature had just dipped under 100°F.

“A young man like yourself Ralph should be able to do this all day.” Warren said.

“You’ve only got twelve months on me, mate.” Ralph grumbled, tipping the next hive to pick it up. “Watch out, this one’s heavy.”

Unlike most beekeepers, Warren didn’t keep his hives on pallets. Instead each hive had a strap to hold it together so it could be tipped at an angle – important for ease in moving the hives by hand. Though it required hard lifting, this system allowed flexibility in choosing which hives would go to a honey flow. This is important in Australia because some eucalyptus trees do not give good pollen. On these weak hives they would “fly their guts out,” meaning they may make honey, but when the flow ended there would be no young bees and the hive would be as good as dead. Warren would only bring the strongest hives to these flows, and send the weak ones to a different area for recovery. “Palletized” beekeepers have less flexibility because weak and strong beehives will be living on the same pallet. Though it’s possible for them to reshuffle hives before a move, often this chore is passed over at the end of a long day.

At first I was a bit incredulous about hand-loading, but I eventually came to like the work. There was something wonderful about an hour of lifting and strapping down a full load. The hard work releases endorphins into the body, which don’t come when operating a Bobcat or a Beeloader.

However the next day can be a different story. After a night of immobilization, when the endorphins have dispersed, the back may complain with its first movements of the day. As we all know, the back of a beekeeper is important.….

The next day, or the next year, I should say. I started …