Beekeeping is not for the faint of heart. It takes a certain percentage of insanity to provide a home at your home for thousands of bees — typical colony numbers can reach as many as 60,000 to 70,000 bees — so beekeepers are courageous and, in my opinion, unsung heroes.
This year, after completing the Tennessee Valley Beekeepers Association's nine-month mentorship program, I am honored to count myself among them. And now that it's fall, it is finally time to celebrate.
Why, you might ask? Because fall is one of only two times each year that we get to harvest honey. The first is in July, after spring flowers have slowed their nectar production, and the second is right before winter hits.
For many local beekeepers, last year was a tough one. Hives were lost in Tennessee in part due to the summer's and autumn's drought and wildfires. But the hope is that this year's honey supply will be well-stocked in the wake of the mild winter that followed, coupled with this year's considerable rainfall.
But beekeeping is not all sweet nectar and beeswax. It can sting. So why exactly are we willing to risk our thinly veil-covered faces for this insect? Because without her (yes, her), life as we know it would not be the same. Our fresh food supply would decrease and the cost of produce would soar.
For a number of years, there's been a buzz about the severe decline in our honey bee population, and I am here to say the buzz is real.
But do not fear. Thanks to groups like TVBA, local apiarists are on the rise, and hopefully, bee populations will soon be, too.
TVBA is a grassroots organization dedicated to promoting the study, science and craft of beekeeping, which includes mentoring a new generation of beekeepers each year through its class for beginners. Many apply, but only 15 are accepted into the stringent and detailed apprenticeship.
Our 2017 class began this past February. We all marched in with brand-new white jackets, the tightest woven veils money could buy and no clue what to expect. All we knew was that beekeeping was the hobby we wanted to bring back to our little homesteads.
Soon, we learned that for the life of your colony, you have to know a thing, or 50, about what could drive them away. As a beekeeper, you are in a constant state of problem solving. From varroa mites, to swarming, to robbing screens, to laying workers and queenless hives, the bee drama is plenty.
We met monthly at the University of Tennessee's local Agriculture Extension office off Bonny Oaks Drive, where we were provided with lectures from local beekeepers and other resources such as the Tennessee state apiarist. After the talks, we would drive to the nearby apiary, located about 100 yards away, to tend our hives.
All the students received their own colony of bees, which we funded ourselves for about $100, and which we were required to meticulously care for. We were hands-on from the beginning. Hands-on is the only way you will ever become a true beekeeper.
Our shipment of bees arrived in early April. We each were handed a wooden box covered on both sides with wire mesh and filled to the brim with 10,000 honey bees as well as a mated queen that had been fertilized by 15-20 drones.
The queen was also placed in the hive, but in a separate cage.
Three days later, we met again to release her, hoping that the worker and drone bees had had time to become familiar with her pheromones and therefore would accept her.
The queen's acceptance fortifies the honey-making business, but doesn't guarantee it.
This is where we risk our investment, time and effort. The initial startup cost for beekeeping is hundreds of dollars. In addition to the bees, you have to purchase the hive, the frames and prepare your own at-home apiary. Those costs can easily get into the thousands if you really gear up and purchase special tools such as honey extractors, which alone can cost upwards of $300. Feeding the hive a sugar mixture, adding more space as they grow, and ultimately harvesting honey all require special tools such as that honey extractor. Fortunately, TVBA members can rent that expensive extractor for free each harvest season.
We kept our hives at the extension office from April through mid-July, then we transferred them to our homes. My home apiary is simple. I bricked out a 3-by-5-foot place by my pond, making sure to keep it out of the flood zone. Then I laid landscaping fabric to kill the grass, covered it with pea gravel, and purchased a hive stand to keep the hive off the ground, allowing for much-needed air circulation.
I will never forget the first time I saw honey in my hive. After my queen was accepted, within two weeks my frames were filled with larvae, pollen stores and glistening honey.
Every three to four days I would refill their sugar water, adding a tray of the saccharine solution inside the hive. This mixture is not a must, but it is helpful in getting the hive going and keeping them sustained in their early days.
The TVBA apprenticeship does not come with the promise of a strong hive nor that there will be honey to harvest. Nature is in control, and all we can do is give the honey bees the best possible place to live and help them in any way that we can to survive.
Among the 15 in-training beekeepers from this year's class, we lost only one hive, for unknown reasons, which is actually a fairly common problem.
The term "colony collapse disorder" was coined in 2006, and used to describe the unexplained phenomenon where entire colonies seemingly vanished into thin air, often leaving behind food stores. We wish we could put our finger on one reason why so many colonies are collapsing, but there seem to be many factors at play.
One is the increasing use of pesticides and insecticides on our crops. According to a study done by Harvard University in 2014, these chemicals impair a bee's neurological functions, affecting its memory. If foraging honey bees can't make it back to the hive with nectar and pollen, the colony will starve.
As a beekeeper, you can take measures to protect your colony. For instance, one of the most important things you can do is register your hive(s) with your local beekeeper association. In turn, the association registers the hive(s) with the Department of Agriculture in Tennessee.
Through TVBA, we learned that in Tennessee, not only is registering your hives the law, but it also provides the beginner beekeeper with essential information. For instance, those registered are notified of disease outbreaks and are provided free colony inspection if they want to sell or move their bees, or if they worry their bees are sick. Moreover, TVBA can help protect your colony from errant spraying of insecticides.
In farming communities where there are widespread aerial insecticide sprays, associations like TVBA do the work of knowing where these areas are and when seasonal spraying will occur. Then, they communicate that with registered beekeepers. Before you even get started keeping bees, the TVBA can let you if your location is one safe for honey bees.
Some research has shown that since the 1940s, the U.S. has lost over 4 million honey bee colonies. With a species that reproduces at such a rapid speed — the queen lays up to 2,000 eggs a day — this downsizing is alarming.
According to a report issued by the U.S. Agriculture Department, the number of hives lost to colony collapse disorder was down 27 percent during 2017's first quarter, but CCD is not only threat to these pollinators. Other reasons for the honey bee's decline are the introduction of diseases and pests such as the varroa mite; poor nutrition, often the result of eliminating weeds which eliminates diverse sources of pollen; and habitat loss.
The hierarchy of the hive is imperative to our agricultural success. Without pollination, orchards will not fruit and crops will not yield vegetables.
But beekeeping is about more than the end result. It is an art, and a fascinating world.
The honey bee colony is made up of three types of bees. Of course, there is the queen, whose persona precedes her. But the other members of the colony deserve attention, too.
The female bees, also known as the worker bees, do every single job in the hive. They clean, protect and forage for food.
Unlike the females, who do it all, the drones have just one job: leave the hive, join a drone congregation and attempt to mate with a queen from another colony. (Drone bees do not mate with the queen from their own colony. This ensures genetic diversity.) Yet, most drones will never mate with a queen bee, and those that do mate only once and then they die.
Moreover, when winter hits, most of those males will be driven out and not allowed back in. The colony's goal is to survive, and numbers must decrease before it gets cold.
The honey bee world is one of hard work, for both the bee and the beekeeper. It is also one of mystery and magic and, if you're lucky, sweet rewards.
Even as we move toward honey harvest time, my class will not plunder our hives' hard work. Instead, we will cheer them on in hopes they survive the coming winter. And then, next fall maybe, we will finally reap the rewards. But for now, we prepare to defend survival of a species that must exist long after we hang up our veils.
You may think you’re not cut out for this whole beekeeping thing, but the program is not just for the homesteading junky. Our class was a mix of young and old, homesteaders and urban-dwellers alike. The program offers one-on-one mentorship from experienced beekeepers as well as the past year’s graduates.
Not only do we have teachers, but we have each other and, due to the intensity of placing yourself in a bee yard each week filled with over 100,000 bees, you bond quickly with each other. It’s truly a community of people with helpful hands and generous hearts, hoping to pass this trade along to the next generation of wild souls wanting to lengthen the life of the globe while potentially suffering a sting or two in the process.
To find out more about TVBA visit tvbachatt.org.