Notes From a Beekeeper's Daughter
Lessons learned from the hive.
It's kind of embarrassing to be a third generation beekeeper and at the same time a novice, but with a hive that's not yet two years old, I'm very new to this ancient practice.
When my father dusted off his grandfather's equipment to begin the first hive of his own, I wasn't interested in taking the risk of stings for honey returns. My 14 year-old self was engrossed in maintaining my ill-suited Jennifer Aniston haircut. Wearing a veiled helmet in the heat of summer was out of the question.
Behind the blade of a lawnmower, once a week, the bees and I began our slow and unlikely courtship. They were the most docile variety, my father would say, “they're Italian!”
He would have me believe they were the Switzerland of bees; they would never show any aggression. In time, he would branch out to other varieties, like Buckfast, whose touchy temperament he tolerates for higher honey yields. But I'll only ever trust the Italians.
The mystery contained inside those small pine boxes was what intrigued and frightened me as a teenager. When my father was under his screened veil, gloved to the elbows and fogging the frames with smoke, he appeared to be performing a religious rite.
The smoke was not what calmed them, he said. It’s the belly full of honey that makes them docile. He explained that the bees assume that where there's smoke, there's fire and so they begin gorging on honey before flames engulf their home.
15 years later, my father is still beekeeping. Slow moving, and shallow breathing, he effortlessly incites panic from his smoker to ensure that his bees are too honey drunk to sting. The smoke also serves as distraction from our own breath’s unavoidable output of carbon dioxide, which bees might associate with a hungry bear.
For most, the intrigue of beekeeping is in that liquid gold. When the promise of honey is gone, most keepers quit. Over the years, my father's first hives failed for a variety of reasons: swarms, mites, starvation, and most often, the unknown. Colony Collapse Disorder may have been at fault for some of those failed hives, the mystery surrounding CCD is part of what makes keeping hives more inviting; as it provides a unique opportunity to become a part of the solution.
Luckily, beekeeping isn’t his lifeblood; as a mechanical engineer and master carpenter, he has a well of patience for problem solving that seems bottomless. Each spring he forges on to try again with new hives. The bees arrive neatly packed in small wood and screen boxes, the arrival heralded by a call from the Post Office asking him to come pick this box of wings and stings ASAP.
When the hives do thrive, we harvest. After drawing out the fullest frames, leaving enough for the girls to eat through winter, my father slices away the thinnest layer of wax caps, exposing cells overflowing with honey. When the honey-heavy frames are lowered into the extractor we take turns spinning the crank and watching the honey threads fling out to the stainless steel walls, coating the shiny interior before sliding down to the spout.
Beekeeping can be a solitary pursuit, but when I was in college, my father would discreetly hold off, waiting for weekends when I returned home to ‘help’. Years later, when my brother in-law shows interest, or a coworker asks to bring their kids, he’s happy to have them circle around the extractor. It’s not that we do much to assist, but he enjoys indulging his audience in an all-sensory experience — the fragrant air, sticky skin, and honey covered cap cuttings — our farmer food.
As he works, he discards full sheets of tiny wax hexagons which have been neatly shaved from their combs onto a baking sheet where they are suspended in an inch-deep pool of the ancient amber honey. The piles of sweet debris beg to be tasted, never mind how much wax accumulates in one’s teeth.
Without trying, my father has taught me to watch the weather, consider what's blooming, and compare yields hive-to-hive and season-to-season. The locust bloom, with its series of feather light, fragrant blossoms, pendulous from their branches, is a favorite of honeybees and unfortunately fleeting. If met with wind or rain, the bees won't venture out to forage, the fragile blooms won't last and the honey yield will be much darker and less floral in flavor. Because honey doesn't spoil, we're able to analyze the color and flavor from one year to the next. The difference is often dramatic.
When the time came for my husband and I to buy a home of our own, my father brought over pine boxes with crisp finger joints and fresh white paint.
Of course, my 14-year old self would have shuddered, with some mix of disinterest and fear, at the idea of fostering a fledgling box, a colony of my own. But even before the last moving box was unpacked, the first flush of bees had arrived. The white pine towers teeming with the steady buzz of life.