Thursday, April 28, 2011

Know a Beekeeper, Know Your Bees

My first beekeeping experience last year was terrifying. Would I try it again? Absolutely. It was a long winter, and getting to know those pollinators up close and personal was a great way for me to dive headfirst into spring. After all, where would I be as a gardener without the assistance of thousands of tiny, striped workers? I will admit that I've been known to shirk them, even (occasionally) duck and take cover when I see them coming. I'm not proud of this impulse, and in fact, it's just plain rude of me to treat them this way when I hardly know them! For these reasons and more, I ended up at Jean Claude Bourrut Lacouture's beekeeping workshop last May.

Jean Claude maintains hives at The Natick Community Organic Farm and The Boston Nature Center, in addition to lending a helping hand whenever he can with swarms of bees nesting in undesirable locations. Just before I attended the spring workshop, he received his seasonal shipment of bees to introduce at The Boston Nature Center's hives. "May is the busiest month with hiving, swarming, staying ahead of an exploding hive population." he says.

Beekeeping enthusiasts observe one segment from a top-bar hive. The bees build honeycomb from a suspended bar of wood, then move on to the next bar and repeat the process.
With the package of bees humming on the table, he described some remarkable traits of this insect to the group. A brood of bees cannot exist without its queen to make progeny and broadcast those mysterious pheremones, so we discussed the best way to introduce her to the hive. If the drones come face to face with their queen before she is able to cast pheremones, she is at risk of being eaten. She must be placed into the hive first, in a special chamber with candy blocking the entries, so that the drones can eat their way in to her over time.

When I ask Jean Claude what fascinates him most about this insect, I get the feeling that he could spend a long time giving me the answer. "Their communication, the role of each caste, each individual, the queen, the hive products... " But despite a multitude of intricacies, his favorite part of maintaining hives is simply the zen feeling of being near the bees. "It brings me closer to Nature, natural cycles, the seasons... "

Bees move from the small box to their new home. Stacks of  hives here are painted white to reflect sun and keep cool.
 A number of people at the workshop were first-time beekeepers, nervously waiting for their own mail-order shipments of bees. Some had already acquired top-bar style hive boxes, and some intended to build their own. Jean Claude lead us out to see the hives with the parcel of new bees in hand. He gave out a few veils to share amongst the group, and then applied extra pheromones to the hive boxes. The queen's compartment was placed inside, and then. . .the new bees were released. They swarmed through the group of us in all directions, busily looking for their new home.  A few of them nuzzled into my hair, and I tried my best to calmly pluck them out. Some of us stood still and some of us moved well out of the way (I think I did a combination of the two) while we waited for them to circle closer and closer toward the hive.

Jean Claude has released his new brood of bees and waits for the last few to locate their new home.

From what I can recall, Jean Claude reached zen space as he observed the bees swarming. He didn't always have this calm demeanor around the hives, though. He recalls being very nervous when he encountered his first hive twenty years ago. It was one of his duties on the farm, and he knew very little about beekeeping at the time. "I learned by reading all and everything I could land my hands on (library was a great resource) and by mistakes." He eventually became comfortable enough to shed most of the beekeeping apparel when handling the bees, though he admits that those first mistakes were "Mistakes that the bees probably paid dearly for."

"There are many ways to start beekeeping and many ways to start wrong," he warns. "It is not a cheap hobby and it has become harder to maintain healthy hives with more and more new honeybee pests and diseases. It is also unfair to the bees who ultimately pay the price of poor management. We can avoid as much of that as possible by not having to reinvent the wheel I had to 'invent' (starting without much knowledge or mentor or classes.) I also use the internet and have read enough that I can recommend good books." But to all the newly-committed beekeepers, those who have been "stung by the bug", he reckons "You too will eventually develop your own approach."

The bees have been successfully introduced to the hive.
When the new bees found their nesting site and crawled in, I couldn't help but feel a little warm and fuzzy inside. This would be their home for the season. There and at the farm, they would pollinate trees, shrubs, fruits and vegetables for a whole season, making food and gardens possible. This year, Jean Claude is repeating the process with another set of workshops at Natick Community Organic Farm and The Boston Nature Center. He has been waiting for the queen bee to be shipped, and she will arrive by this weekend.


  1. Is it costly to rear bees? I heard my neighbor spent several hundred dollars to buy them. Other neighbors were unhappy as they were stung. I see that the bees are gone now but I don't know what happenned.

    When I was growing sunflowers, bees came daily. Now they are gone. Perhaps they will be back when I start growing a new batch. They look really cute with pollen sacs on their hind legs.

  2. Very helpful post! I suspect that someday I may keep bees, but for now it's just interesting to read about those who have done it, are doing it, or are hoping to start.

  3. How wonderful to be able to take a class. I'm a bit scared to even think of beekeeping! Great info.

  4. cdavisonwilliams@gmail.comApril 29, 2011 at 4:26 PM

    Viva la bees! What would we do without them? However, I think I will stick to supporting the beekeepers vs getting fully involved with hives myself - I still can't stop doing the "bee dance" when they come to close to me :-)

  5. I am allergic to bees, but really admire those that keep them. Learning would be so much fun too.

  6. What an informative account! I have often thought about keeping bees...maybe someday.

  7. Sounds like an interesting class. After spending months reading lots of books, and scientific bee research, attending beekeeper's meetings, and meeting with mentors, we took the leap into beekeeping this spring...starting with our first swarm capture. We've now hived two swarms...all before our first package bees have even arrived. I feel like I've spent all of spring building and painting bee hives ;) He's right, it's not a cheap hobby, but I can honestly say, for anyone considering it, learning as much as you can in advance is tremendously helpful...but there's still so much more to learn once the bees arrive. Every time I open the hive I see something new.


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