It was my last official visit to Steve May’s bee yard.
The sun was out. The hives were humming, but all was not well. In the week or so since I’d last been out to his place, a couple of hives we’d worked on before had died out.
He pointed to a couple of other hives.
“Those strong hives robbed them,” he said.
He would have to start those hives over.
In the meantime, we needed to treat the remaining hives with formic acid, a treatment to prevent against tracheal mites, one of the myriad ailments that could take out a bee colony.
The medicine, which looked like something from a deli, came wrapped in what looked like wax paper and was packaged in foil packs. May wore latex gloves while cutting the packs in half and removing the gooey looking slabs.
The acid began eating through his gloves almost immediately.
I got the easy job. I just had to pick up boxes full of bees and move them around.
Everybody promised I’d get stung. My friend Autumn said I’d get stung. May, the Kanawha Valley Beekeeper Association president, said I’d get stung. Larry Morris, the beekeeper who lived over the hill from my house, said I’d get stung.
I never got stung.
Not once, even though I probably deserved it every time I picked up a hive super or (more importantly) when I put one back.
After the third time I set a heavy wooden box full of buzzing bees back on a stack of boxes crawling with buzzing bees, May told me, “Wait, you don’t want to just drop them on top.”
Taking over, and sliding the boxes gently onto the stack, he said, “You want to brush them out of the way or give them a chance to get out of the way.”
Setting them down, as I had been, crushed bees and while it was normal for a healthy hive to lose hundreds of worker bees each day, there was no reason to add to the carnage.
Besides, bees get mad.
“That’s all we need,” he said. “They get that pheromone out and that will rile up the rest of them. Then things are going to get tricky.”
Part of how honeybees communicate is through pheromones.
The inside of a beehive is often pitch black and noisy. To communicate in the dark over the droning of wings, they use different pheromones to assign tasks and signal alerts.
May told me I’d been lucky with the bee stings. What often happened was you’d make one honeybee mad and it would not only sting you, but it would mark you as a threat.
“Once you’ve got that pheromone on you, the other bees will eat you up,” he said.
Bees, honeybees at least, didn’t automatically assume everything that came near their hives was a threat.
May said he (and I) avoided getting stung by moving carefully. We didn’t make any sudden moves and we didn’t disrupt their work.
“When we first went up to a hive, did you see them come out?” he asked. “They wanted to take a good look at us. They were curious.”
We didn’t cause them any trouble, so it was live and let live.
Not all bees were like that, of course. Different breeds could be more aggressive.
May made no allowances for hornets, yellowjackets or wasps, which were feral and prone to attacking people just because.
He wondered if I was going to ask him about what it would take for me to start my own beekeeping sideline.
I’d thought about it some. The day before, I’d gone to the Charleston Coliseum and visited their small apiary overlooking the river.
Jim Smith, the assistant director of the Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center said, “When we saw the design for this space, we figured it was originally intended as a smoker’s stoop.”
The Coliseum is a no-smoking facility, so they turned the space into an herb garden for the culinary staff. About a year and a half ago, they added three hives of Carniolan honeybees.
“We just harvested our first three gallons of honey,” Smith said.
It was a pretty good haul for just a few hives.
The honey would be used by the culinary staff for different things, though some of it would be given away as gifts, he said.
The gentle bees were managed by David Tardy, who said he’d learned some of how to care for them on the job and a little through watching videos online.
Smith told me the Coliseum didn’t have plans to build up a huge colony. It was a nod to sustainability and a more environmentally friendly way of living.
“I’m thinking of getting some bees for my farm,” he said.
I’d toyed with the idea of getting bees off-and-on for a while. After spending the past few weeks learning about bees and beekeeping, I told May I wasn’t sure I was cut out for it.
“I look at my garden, which I’m already having trouble keeping up with,” I said. “I can’t keep it weeded or watered like I’m supposed to. I think that if I got bees, I’d be a disaster.”
I’m too distracted, too disorganized and prone to overextending myself, but I was still interested.
The appeal of having my apple and pear trees loaded with fruit for a change and my meager, backyard garden producing more than even the stupid deer could hop the fence and eat was very powerful.
May allowed that a lot of people got into beekeeping without thinking it through.
“They’ll get all excited and buy up a bunch of equipment,” he said. “It can run into some money.”
He said buy new, if you can.
“You never know what you’re getting with used equipment, what diseases are going to get passed along,” he said.
Some of these ailments could hide in a dormant hive for decades.
A basic setup of just a couple of hives, along with protective gear, would run several hundred dollars, but bees are livestock. A queen can cost as little as $40 or $50 or upwards of a thousand.
“But that’s not smart, not to start,” he told me. “You have no guarantee that your colony is going to make it.”
That first year for a beginner, he said, the odds could be only about 50-50.
“And then you’re out whatever you’ve put in those bees,” May said.
Most people go in without enough knowledge. They see one demonstration and then do some research via YouTube, May said. That was seldom enough.
“You’re better off going to every class, every meeting, every seminar you can,” he said. “If you want to get started, you need to join a group, like Kanawha Valley Beekeeper Association. Talk to people. If you run into a problem, you’ll get five different answers, but one of them will probably be the one you need.”
May encouraged me to stay in touch and maybe think it over. If I was interested, I could come back in the fall and we could see about getting me started in keeping bees.
If I brought a date, he said, he’d give her a quart of honey.
“Maybe a little less for the bees you mashed,” he said, laughing.