The Accidental Beekeeper
By Angel McCullar
Life didn’t exactly hand Laurie Campbell lemons
but it did send her a swarm of bees that she hadn’t asked for. “I looked in
the yellow pages for someone to come and get them and while the beekeeper
was here I realized that, since the universe brought them to me, I should
probably try to keep them,” she says.
Six years later, she had made them a home on her
one-third of an acre suburban lot in Sacramento, California, only a stone’s
throw away from a busy interstate freeway. Instead of removing the bees, the
beekeeper who came to take them away helped Campbell, who was in her
mid-fifties, learn how to set up a hive and take care of them. While he
taught her how to get started, before long she was using her own instincts,
limitations, and philosophy to guide her in taking care of her bees.
While Campbell will freely admit that she is
not an expert in getting the maximum yield of honey from her hives, she
instead prides herself on keeping the bees healthy and happy. The beekeeper
who got her started advised her to take all the honey from the hive and feed
sugar water to the bees. This didn’t seem right so she didn’t do it. She
didn’t like the idea of stealing everything from them that they worked so
hard for. It takes the nectar of roughly two million flowers to make one
pound of honey and each bee will make about one twelfth of a teaspoon in her
lifetime, according to the www.beeeducation.com website. That is a lot of
work! Campbell believes that allowing the bees plenty of honey helps them to
have better nutrition and enables them to more readily fight diseases and
pests on their own without the use of chemicals.
Other beekeeper advice advocated the use of
chemicals to keep the hives thriving but she didn’t do that either. “I chose
to go completely natural and let them build a natural resistance to the
diseases and critters that are so deadly these days. It seems to be
working.” She still has her original hive from six years ago and hasn’t lost
any bees to disease or pests.
Campbell doesn’t know where the bees swarmed
from when she inherited them, but she watched as the beekeeper cut the
branch from the tree and placed it in the hive box. That particular hive is
what she calls her “free-form” hive. The bees started making the honeycomb
on the bottom of the hive before she was able to put the frames into the
hive. Campbell said that it seemed like a good idea at the time, but six
years later she sees the error of her ways. Recently, she has discovered dry
rot on the bottom of this hive and isn’t sure how she can fix it. If the
hive had the normal frames, she could remove the frames into a new hive box.
For this reason, she doesn’t recommend allowing the bees to “free-form” a
Campbell calls herself a “winger,” meaning she
improvises as she goes along and doesn’t necessarily follow a plan.
Throughout her experience, she has modified along the way as needed. She
started out with several hives but realized that was too much work for her
to handle and much more honey than she needed. She now maintains only two
hives that give her plenty of honey and wax as well as keeps it as a hobby
that she can enjoy and manage in addition to her full-time job. Campbell
told me that one hive is probably plenty for the average family who wants
enough for themselves and a little extra to give away. She also uses the
smaller sized “supers” (boxes of frames for the hive); they weigh less and
she can handle them on her own.
In addition to reaping the benefits of
harvesting the honey and wax, Campbell enjoys her bees. She has learned to
read and understand them. She likes to sit by the hives, hear the hum, and
watch their activity. The bees land on her, not to sting her but to
investigate as well as scratch their legs and fluff their wings while she
gets a bird’s eye view. However, she heeds their warnings of loud buzzing
when they are not in a good mood because they are hungry or things are not
going well in the hive. At these times, they can be very aggressive and she
respects their desire for privacy. She has been stung by the bees and says
that it’s not that she cares so much that she was stung but rather that once
a bee stings it will die...and she hates to see them die.
“They have their own little kingdom in those
boxes and they couldn’t care less what the human world is doing,” said
Campbell. “It’s made me slow down and not get so worked up about things that
don’t matter.” In cooler weather, the bees become almost catatonic with
little movement and depend on the sun to warm them. “In wintertime I watch
them take their poop flight as soon as the sun hits the hive,” said
Campbell. They are extremely clean and will not defecate in the hive.
The hive is one hundred percent sustainable and
nothing goes to waste. However, there is gender discrimination. The hive is
run as a monarchy; the queen is in charge and she has no counterpart, no
king. The male bees come from sterile eggs and their only function in life
is to mate with the queen in their short forty-five-day lifespan. They don’t
work, but just lay around the hive waiting to be summoned by the queen. The
queen and the worker bees are all female and come from the same eggs. Once
in her life, the queen goes on a mating trip and picks out a number of males
to mate with that have the genetic make-up that she is looking for.
She then stores the sperm in her body for her two to five year lifespan.
The hives are made of wooden boxes and painted a light color to keep them
cool in the summer. They are placed up off the ground and set where they get
the morning sun so that the bees can warm up enough to fly. If they are too
cold, they cannot fly. Within the wooden boxes are frames that have a
plastic or wax structural element that holds the wax foundation or honeycomb
that the bees make and fill with eggs, pollen, and honey. These frames are
reusable and only need to be replaced when they break or get moldy.
Generally though, the bees keep them clean.
Each hives holds some twelve thousand to fifty thousand bees or more. As
the hives grow and thrive, the bees outgrow the hive and leave. Scout bees
go out in search of a new home and come back for the older queen and half of
the worker bees to swarm and start a new colony. A new queen will emerge in
the old hive. Selected larvae are fed a special diet of royal jelly, which
makes these bees larger than the others, and these become the queens. The
first queen to emerge will kill the other queen larvae by stinging each one.
The queen bees are the only bees that can sting and continue to live. The
queen’s only job in the hive is to lays eggs. She can lay thousands a day,
one egg in each cell. Then the cells are covered with wax. Three weeks
later, the new bee chews its way through the wax to emerge.
The bees feed
on the nectar of the orange trees, raspberries, and lavender in Campbell’s
yard and on various other flowers in the neighborhood. What they eat
influences how the honey will taste. During a taste test between the spring
and summer harvests of honey, she was able to discern the different flavors
of flowers in the honey while novice taste buds could probably notice the
differences in taste but not identify their diet.
Beekeeping is a busy life with a seasonal cycle, and every
season has a job for Campbell. In spring, she adds a super to catch the
orange and stone fruit blossom honey. Then she adds a super every three to
four weeks to make sure there is enough room in the hive for the storage of
more honey. If they feel crowded, the bees will swarm, which is Nature’s
way, but then there will be fewer bees to bring the honey home. Late summer
is harvest, and fall is when she needs to feed them and clean and store the
boxes. “Winter is free time; I mostly just watch,” she says.
is the most labor intensive part of beekeeping, with a usual twelve-hour
day, but Campbell is able to do all non-bee aspects herself. Her operation
is completely off the grid; the entire process does not depend on the use of
any electricity except for the occasional need for some warmth when the
honey is in danger of crystallizing.
Campbell usually harvests twice a
year. She pulls a little bit of light golden honey in the spring that has
the flavors of apricot and cherry or whatever else happens to be in bloom.
And she harvests again in late summer, this time a deep amber honey with the
flavors of stone fruit, orange, lemon, and whatever else the bees have
foraged. In all, Campbell gets between two hundred and three hundred jars of
honey per year. She is generous with the bees and leaves them an ample
winter honey supply. “For me, the object is to provide them with as natural
a hive as possible and still be able to get honey and wax for my use.”
Preparation begins by making sure the room and harvesting equipment are
clean. Campbell then puts on her bee suit and hat and prepares the smoker.
“When they smell smoke, they fill up on honey thinking that they have to
move to a new home. This makes them less likely to sting and easier to move
away from the frames that I’m pulling.” Distracted by the smoker, the bees
are drawn away from the top of the hive where the honey is stored into the
bottom brood box where the queen bee is. This allows Campbell to pull the
supers that have the stored honey. Once all of the supers are pulled, she
takes them inside and scrapes the wax off into a plastic tub. Once the wax
is scraped from the frames, they are placed into a hand-cranked centrifugal extractor where the honey is extracted from the comb. “As I empty the
frames, I put them back into the boxes and take them outside to let the bees
clean them up. They come by the thousands and clean them spotless.”
Campbell likes the fact that nothing is wasted. After the extractor does its
job with the help of her elbow grease, she filters the honey through a
stainless steel strainer into five-gallon buckets with spigots that she uses
to fill gallon, pint, and other-sized containers. She uses both glass and
plastic containers. The glass containers can be cleaned and reused to pour
honey. There are few worries when processing honey because it is one of the
only foods that does not have a shelf life, meaning that it does not spoil.
The Day Her Bees Swarmed
One spring day a couple of years after she
became a beekeeper, Campbell looked outside and saw all kinds of activity
around the hives. She went outside to discover that they “marched out of the
hive; it was sort of like a cartoon.” Thousands of bees were outside of the
hive and all over the grass. Her best guess was that they were recovering
honey on the ground. “All of a sudden they all took flight. I was just
standing in the middle going, ‘Wow this is really cool!’.” She watched as
her bees swarmed into the neighbor’s lemon tree.
Once she realized what
they were doing, she decided to claim what was hers. But how? She went
inside and thought about how she was going to catch them. “I just typed into
Google ‘how to catch a swarm of bees’,” she says. After watching a quick
video on the Internet, she gathered her ladder, bee box, small table, and
cutters and put on her bee suit and gloves. With no time to spare, she used
the ladder to get into the neighbor’s yard and cut the branch the bees were
on and, like the video showed, whipped the branch into the box. Luckily, the
bees landed in the box exactly where she wanted them to be. Campbell then
brought her swarm back home.
What is Rich Anyway?
Bees are necessary to pollinate flowers, crops, and orchards but they are
disappearing. The numbers have drastically declined in recent years because
of Colony Collapse Disorder. Campbell knows that she is not going to get
rich keeping bees on a small scale but she is doing a small part to help a
serious global problem by helping reverse the declining bee population. She
believes that not everything needs to be done on a grand or commercial scale
to make a difference. Smaller just might be better because it is easier to
use sustainable practices, and to control and watch for problems in the
Keeping bees also allows Campbell to be more self-reliant by providing an
amazing food for herself and others in the community who value the local
food that’s available in the Sacramento area. Campbell has sold her honey
and beeswax candles at the occasional boutique and craft fair, but these
days is able to sell most through her place of work and by word-of-mouth.
She shops at the Sacramento Farmers Market for her own food and tries to
purchase as much as she can locally. She is considering bartering her
locally produced, chemical-free honey and candles for products such as meat,
seafood and produce at the Farmers Market.
“I am really rich in all these things that will never make me rich but
they certainly enhance my life,” Campbell says.
The Backyard Beekeeper - Revised and Updated: An Absolute Beginner's
Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden by Kim Flottum (Quarry
Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture by
Ross Conrad (Chelsea Green, 2007)
The Beekeeper's Handbook by Alphonse Avitabile, Diana Sammataro
(Cornell University Press, 2006)
The Backyard Beekeeper's Honey Handbook by Kim Flottum (Quarry
Angel McCullar is a journalism student at California State
University at Sacramento. She is inspired by people making a difference and
doing things sustainably, and she loves telling their stories. She says that
feeling overwhelmed is easy, given the current state of affairs in the
world, but doing what we can and sharing our stories and successes, and
supporting one another, makes the difference.