A tiny, amber and brown bee settled on my wrist as beekeeper Steve May told me he’d been stung hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. He said that if I chose to spend the next month learning about bees and beekeeping, I, too, would get stung. This was going to happen.
He said, “You’re not allergic, are you?”
I didn’t think so, though I hadn’t been stung by an actual bee in years, just a few wasps.
A couple of years back, wasps built a nest off a tree branch in my yard about 15 feet from the ground. I’d left them alone — live and let live; let the squirrels deal with them. That peaceful coexistence was only temporary.
While cutting grass one weekend, half a dozen of the hateful things rained down on me and tried to drill holes in my skull.
I stopped the mower, drove directly to my nearest grocery store, bought an ugly, black can of Raid and a six-pack of beer. Standing on a step ladder, I sprayed that nest and drank a beer to ease the pain in my head.
To be on the safe side, I got another can the next day and sprayed again.
“You’re not afraid of bees?” May asked.
“Not at all,” I said.
I was legitimately interested.
I’ve had a backyard garden for years, but with mixed results. Some years, I get almost enough tomatoes and peppers to make it worthwhile. Other years, I wind up with just enough to make one good jar of spaghetti sauce.
I also have a couple of fruit trees — apples, pears and an old peach tree the neighborhood deer love. Again, some years, I get some apples and pears, but often I don’t get much of anything.
My friend Autumn Hopkins told me that if I wanted to really boost production, I needed to get bees. Then the branches of my fruit trees would sag from all the fruit and I’d have all the zucchini I’d ever want.
While I wasn’t allergic to bees or afraid of bees, I also didn’t know beans about them.
Learning about beekeeping had been on my list for topics to take on for “One Month at a Time” for a while. Originally, 2020 was supposed to be more of an outdoorsy kind of year. Learning about bees and beekeeping had been near the top of the list, along with training for an absurdly long race, kayaking for days at a time and crawling through caves. Then things didn’t go as planned.
They seldom do, even in the best of times, but just as I got all set to attend a beekeeping conference, the COVID-19 pandemic shut the world down.
Instead of learning about bees (and maybe sampling honey-flavored booze), I spent a month puttering around my yard, collecting unemployment and applying for weird jobs sent to me by deranged job-hunting websites.
While my time with the Kanawha Kordsmen has made me a modestly better singer, I didn’t feel like it qualified me to direct a Methodist Church choir or work as a dental hygienist.
After the newspaper asked me back, I had to reevaluate what might and might not be possible because of social distancing and safety concerns. While COVID infections are going down now, we might see a whole new outbreak in the fall.
But I could still hang out with the bees, right? It felt like I even needed to.
Bees have been under assault for years, and while humanity has COVID-19 to keep us up at night, the bees have the diabolical, extra-poisonous “murder hornets,” which tear the heads off honey bees for fun and have a sting that’s been compared to having liquid-hot metal shot through your veins.
To get started, I contacted Hopkins, who sent me a 700-word text message peppered with emojis about what to do, what not to do, what to buy and what not to buy.
I texted back that my budget was approximately zero. The country was stumbling toward the poor house and I work for a newspaper, which may only be slightly more lucrative than selling used plasticware by the side of the road.
I couldn’t afford to buy bees or equipment. I just hoped to learn something.
If things worked out some day, if I won the lottery or something, maybe I would buy bees and a full-on beekeeper costume with all the bells and whistles. That would be on the list, along with cable television, a working umbrella and brand-name diet soda.
Hopkins gave me the contact info for May, the president of the Kanawha Valley Beekeepers Association, along with a few others. She also told me to stock up on Benadryl.
“I can’t stress this enough,” her text read. “Keep Benadryl with you, liquid if possible. You will get stung and you don’t know how bad a reaction you will have.”
She told me she kept an EpiPen because her reactions to bee stings had grown worse over the years. I shrugged. How bad could it be?
I called May. He seemed friendly and fantastically knowledgeable, but hesitant to take me on as a “One Month” apprentice. This was late in the season and I seemed to know less than he thought I ought to know about something I was interested in learning about.
He told me he’d think about it and I could call him back in a few days.
When I did, he threw a battery of questions about bees at me; none of which I could answer.
What were the three castes of bees? What kind of bees did I think I’d want to raise?
I had no idea.
Sounding a little surprised at how unprepared I was, he asked, “Did you look at our website?”
“Yes,” I said, but just barely, only technically.
I’d clicked on the page and stared at it for a whole minute before calling May.
“Shouldn’t you do a little homework before you take on something like this?” he asked.
“Uh, sure,” I said.
He told me to call him back in a couple of days, and we’d schedule something. Meanwhile, he asked me to do just a little of the required reading.
When I finally made it out to his farm, I wasn’t anything like an expert, but I knew that the three castes for bees were queens, workers and drones.
There was one queen to each hive and workers do most of the work.
I read that queens lay up to 3,000 eggs in a day, though most lay between 1,000 and 1,500 in their prime.
I knew that all the worker bees were female, the drones were male — and disposable boytoys for the queen.
I also knew that there were something like 2,000 varieties of wild bees, though May told me that we weren’t going to concern ourselves with those bees. There were plenty of domestic kinds to think about.
Domestic bees are livestock and, like other livestock, they’re raised for different applications.
“Some kinds are better at producing honey,” he told me. “Others make more wax. Some are just better pollinators.”
Some bees are calmer and easier to raise, but some of the more stingy kinds are better honey producers, he said.
Many of the kinds of bees used today are related to strains of bees brought over during the European colonization of America, he said.
The farmland here was very rich, but without active pollinators to carry pollen between flowers, crop yields would have remained small.
“In today’s terms, imagine having a strawberry field,” he said. “You do everything right, but don’t have any bees. You end up with a pickup truckload of strawberries.”
With the bees, that truckload turned into an 18-wheeler.
As we talked by May’s dozen or so hives, he went over safety and said I needed to make sure to protect my eyes.
“If you get stung on your hand, it hurts,” he said. “If you get stung on your face, you get a knot that swells up like a golf ball, but if you get stung in the eye, you’ll lose your sight.”
Along with the Benadryl, I should get a hat with a veil.