Sunday, September 29, 2013

Day 140 - Taking a Beekeeping Class

I have never taken a beekeeping class. Now, let me be forward in saying this “I have never...” event is something that came about as a result of happenstance and a healthy bit of curiosity. At no point before my “I have never...” journey has beekeeping been something I sought to do in my life, but when I stumbled upon a chance to take a beekeeping class during some recent “I have never...” planning, I figured I could give it a try. After all, I have always found the concept of beekeeping to be particularly intriguing. When I would encounter photos and videos of people in full body suits and veiled hoods working to collect honey among a swarm of bees I would always pause to think about what such an experience would feel like. That stated, the potential of bee stings was enough for me to write the event off as a crazy endeavor and leave it at that.

Photo Credit: Mad Urban Bees LLC

Of course, that was before I was aware of the option to take a beekeeping class. While I maintained plenty of reservations about the beekeeping process and the potential risks it carries with it, my desire for knowledge slowly shifted my perspective on giving the practice a try why I came across the class offering online some months ago. At first, I passed over the beekeeping class offering with little more than a second thought, but I found myself returning to the concept of taking the class on and off as time passed. Eventually, this periodic revisit of the idea started moving the concept from “crazy” to “potentially worth giving a try” in my mind, until I finally decided to act on taking the class. After recruiting my friend, Patrick, to accompany me during the session, I pulled the trigger and booked to seats in the September 29th class. Although I still had plenty of hesitation about taking a class that involved purposely messing with a hive of bees, I committed to obtaining the experience; even if it meant I walked away with a few welts on my body.

The hives
With the day of the class finally upon us, Patrick and I got together early this afternoon and drove to the beekeeping class location near the Ale Asylum on Madison’s north side. Upon arriving at the building, we were surprised to find it was actually the beekeeper and Mad Urban Bees business owner’s home. Although the location was a normal, unassuming home from the road, Patrick and I quickly discovered the property behind the house was tailored for beekeeping. On a small deck at the back of the house rows of chairs sat before a series of beekeeping displays, stacks of beekeeping tools and equipment occupied open spaces around the building, and stirring hives of bees sat in stacks of white boxes near the fence line at the back of the property. With some time left before the start of the class, Patrick and I walked the property discussing the containers, slats, boxes, and drums we came across. As we talked about the devices we encountered it was clear both of us were equally unaware of their independent purposes. In response, I felt my curiosity about the beekeeping process building as we walked back to the seating area and prepared for the class to begin.

Minutes later the owner of Mad Urban Bees, Nathan, appeared from a rear entrance of the house and walked over to greet the group of roughly 12 people sitting with us on the deck. After a brief introduction, Nathan proceeded to tell us his intention was to help us better understand bee behavior, the structure of a beehive, and the process of beekeeping by the end of the three-hour class. He was quick to emphasize how it was important to let go of stigmas associated with bees in order to complete the class successfully and become a successful beekeeper. Continuing, he stated doing so was the only way each of us could understand the nature of the animals and the critical role they play in our lives. To drive the point home, he openly stated he, as a beekeeper of six years, actually has a bee allergy, and that the bees have no intention to sting anything, including humans, given the vast majority of them will die after using their stinger. Understanding his effort was directed at dispelling fears associated with bees before delving into the specifics of beekeeping, the group acknowledged factual nature of his statements. Given my subtle underlying fear of getting stung during our beekeeping experience, I found the remarks reassuring to say the least. After all, if someone with a bee allergy can make a living beekeeping, I figured it was likely I could make it through my first experience relatively unscathed.

Pounds of bees?!?
Once Nathan was finished with his introduction, he dove into the core of the class with a 90-minute discussion of all things beekeeping. At first, he walked us through the basic tools and structure of the beehives he keeps, which are comprised of a series of stacked boxes containing slats upon which the bees build the hive known as a Langstroth beehive. He then provided an explanation of the process of preparing the boxes for the bees, and discussed the importance of the intricacies in the process, including slat spacing, hive cleanliness, hive airflow, queen bee placement, and timing for honey production. That discussion promptly led into an explanation of obtaining bees to start a hive, which requires ordering a group of bees by the pound and a queen bee to spur the group of bees to begin building a hive. The entire concept of ordering live bees by the pound seemed quirky to me, but Nathan’s explanation made it clear it was simply designed to make the process as easy as possible.

Once finished with his explanation of seeding a hive with bees, Nathan then moved to an explanation of hive expansion and the eventual addition of narrower boxes meant solely for honey production called supers. As the portion of the process I found most interesting, I listened carefully as Nathan guided us through the internal workings of the hive and strategies for encouraging honey production. Nathan informed us successful timing of Langstroth frame placement can cause a hive to grow from 5,000 bees to over 40,000 in one season. He stated his efforts this season alone produced more than 115 pounds of honey from the two hives in his backyard alone. I was staggered by the figures as we listened on. The fact that a group of such small animals could grow to such size and be so productive in a stack of boxes no more than six feet tall was almost unbelievable. For the first time in my life my stigmas about bees faded away and I felt a sort of respect for the insects and everything they do. It was strange, but it was enlightening.

A honey extractor
 After a few more tips, some information on the lifecycle of the bees, and a little more instruction, Nathan advised the group it was time to put on our beekeeping suits and take a look at the hive. In turn, Patrick and I excitedly located prepared for our first hands on experience with a beehive. We carefully donned our bright white suits, making sure each zipper was closed tight and that the position of the suit left no areas of open skin on our bodies. Eventually, our efforts paid off, and with all members of the group ready, Nathan walked us over to the beehives and prepared a smoker to guide the bees from the hive. As we approached the hives, I took note of the bee activity around each, which reflected the habits and behaviors Nathan had discussed earlier in the day. The bees were happily flying to and from the hive, defending the hive’s entrance, and greeting one another as they met. Although we were only feet away from the entrance to their home, they showed no interest in our presence. We weren’t interfering with them, and they didn’t want to interfere with us.

Of course, that changed when Nathan started opening up the hive to walk us through the process of checking hive health and collecting honey. As he cracked open the sticky lid on the top box of the hive, the bees initially remained rather still, but eventually took flight to investigate the parties responsible for disturbing their home. Much to my surprise, the bees didn’t swarm or fly into an aggressive flurry. Rather, some of them stayed put on the exposed slats of hive while others flew around the hive in wide sweeping paths. Those in flight periodically paused to assess the threat we posed and some landed calmly on our suits with no intention to sting.

This continued even as Nathan moved deeper into the hive, removing slats covered with hive and honey for display as he worked. In turn, the gathering of bees in the air continued to increase around us. Although there were literally thousands of bees creating a continuous buzz in the air around us, at no time did I feel uncomfortable in their presence. Despite the fact we were literally tearing the roof off of their home, the bees determined we weren’t worth exhausting their efforts on an all out defense. It turn, we casually looked at the features of their hive, checked honey production, and examined the stages of life in the hive. I was amazed as Nathan pointed out the features of the hive. The bright yellow, orange, and umber tones of the hive were beautiful, and the perfectly uniform structure of the hive was amazing. Needless to say, I could feel my knowledge of the animals growing with the experience. The bees were simply there to live and serve their queen, and they had absolutely no intentions of attacking unprovoked. The entire experience was incredible, and it made me realize how amazing and important bees truly are in our lives.

Lighting the smoker

The hive interior

A slat from the hive

Once we finished our assessment of the hive, Nathan stacked the Langstroth frames back in a vertical column before guiding us back toward the house. While the bees were still very active in the air around the hive, there actions as we moved away were astounding. Although each member of our group had dozens of bees resting on their suits when we were close to the hive, with each step we took toward the house the bees began peeling off of our bodies en masse, taking flight to maintain close proximity to their hive. By the time we were little more than 20 feet from the hive Nathan only had to brush a few bees from our suits before we removed them. To my surprise, no one in our group had been stung during our experience with the hive. Despite the fact we were piecing apart the hive for the better part of 30 minutes, every person in our group was unharmed. Sure, we had suits to prevent the stings, but I truly believe the bees could have found a place to sting us if they really wanted to do so. In our case, they didn’t. We were fine, and I had gained a new perspective on the honeybee.

A closeup of the bees

The beekeeping class!

With our beekeeping class winding down, Nathan invited us to taste some of the honey from the last two seasons before we left. Happy to oblige, the group gathered to taste some honey gathered throughout the spring and summer seasons, which offered a series of uniquely flavored honeys that reflected the time at which the bees produced it. The differences in the honey provided one last amazing insight from the day’s event, which provided the perfect way to cap off my first experience with beekeeping. With the knowledge and experience Nathan provided us today, I can honestly say keeping a beehive is something I would like to try someday. The insects are simply amazing, and the care and patience that goes into the art of beekeeping is something I think I would find to be a relaxing pastime. Of course, I’m not going to run out and order a few pounds of bees tomorrow, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself revisiting this experience at some point in the future.

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