To bee, or not to bee, that was my question.
Should I join the growing ranks of beekeepers, doing my part to help our dwindling honeybee population and, in return, turn my time into honey?
But not so fast! said my neighbor, Larry Brainard, in May, when beekeepers around the Sound were gearing up for the sweet season — and I was contemplating planting a hive in my garden.
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Brainard, a beekeeping enthusiast and educator who tends 50 hives in neighborhoods north of Seattle, gave a vigorous nod to my intentions, but not before assessing my backyard beekeeping potential — and sharing the story of his own beginner’s luck.
It was five years ago. A hot July day. Brainard was in his garden when “Suddenly, I did a face-plant in my blooming lavender and discovered honey bees.” They discovered him, too, buzzing about his face by the hundreds. “I stopped breathing and closed my eyes, waiting to be stung.” Then? Nothing, honey.
He stood up, transfixed. Emotionally, “I couldn’t let it go. It totally destroyed my concept that bees are dangerous.”
Yes, he gets stung, but not as often as you’d think. “I call it apitherapy, it’s a hazard of the sport.” When a honey bee stings, it dies. Besides, he said, “they’re vegetarians.”
A retiree who calls his calling a “hobby-gone-amuck,” Brainard directs would-be beekeepers like me to get smart before you start:
Find a mentor who can answer your questions and respond to calls for help. If you don’t have a kind neighbor who fits that bill, seek out the folks at Puget Sound Beekeepers Association in Seattle (www.pugetsoundbees.org), the Snohomish-based Northwest District Beekeepers Association, (www.nwdba.org) or the Washington State Beekeepers Association (www.wasba.org). Take a beginners class and arm yourself with “Beekeeping for Dummies,” he says of his bible.
“Beekeeping requires more understanding, education, work and attention, in many respects, than having a cat or a dog,” Brainard insists.
Eyeing my backyard, he explained that a hive should be built on level ground, slightly elevated but not exposed to high winds, and in a southeast-facing spot where its entrance is exposed to the early-morning sun. (Found one.) My fenced yard — away from the road and pedestrian traffic — was a plus. “You need to protect the hive from vandalism, theft and curious children.”
Accessibility to a honey-processing area is important, too. A hive full of honey can weigh as much as 100 pounds, and “you’ll need to get those boxes from point A to point B.” My potting shed, adjacent to the garage, fit that bill. Proximity to your neighbors’ home is another story. No need to ask their permission, though it’s wise to let them know what you’re up to.
Beekeeping is no cheap date, I learned.
Besides setting up a hive (boxes, frames and covers); populating it with a queen and her colony (purchased from a reputable supplier); dressing for success with a protective suit (go for the full rather than the headgear-only version); and buying the right tools (at a minimum, a crowbar-like hive tool, leather gloves and a smoker), expect to shell out hundreds of dollars.
What’s more, newbies should start with two hives, Brainard says, to provide “a side-by-side comparison of their progress and their needs.”
My head abuzz, I grew excited about becoming a beekeeper yet opted to wait, and study up, before taking to the task.
For now, when I need some local honey, I know whom to turn to. In exchange, I’ll bake my beeman an Apricot Honey Cake.
Nancy Leson is a freelance food writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.