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Reflections on a Ridiculous Idea

“Know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em.

Know when to walk away; know when to run.” –The Gambler

A fortnight and seven years ago, I ordered my first bee boxes. Seven years ago to the day, my entire herd looked like this:

That’s one assembled hive with no paint, no frames, and no bees—and a happy rubber pirate ducky on top to keep vigil. The first inhabitants would not appear for another two months. More than once along the way, I wondered what I was getting myself into. Does anybody really willfully and voluntarily procure a box of stinging bugs? Was this a ridiculous money pit and a waste of time? I came to learn that the answers were yes and no, respectively.

The learning curve on beekeeping is fairly steep. My first bee meeting was allegedly conducted in English, but it might as well have been in Swahili. As talk of acids and some sort of destructor mite and undefined bee diseases swirled around the room, it occurred to me that I was the only one who seemed perplexed by what I took to be a secret language unintended for general consumption. My second bee meeting wasn’t much better—only this time there was a key takeaway: there was one guy who sat in the corner who seemed like the smartest one in the room. He had an answer for everything, and he delivered it in a way that made sense even to me. I knew that any hope I had of understanding this weird new game was going to come through Roy. I met him in the parking lot after the meeting, and he told me to come to his place, and he’d “show me some bees.” If he had to do it all over, he might have chosen to be busy that day, because I have been bugging him ever since. Without him I would probably have failed spectacularly at beekeeping and returned to stamp collecting, a hobby I haven’t been bored enough to revisit since fifth grade.

But there is a big difference between seeing someone else’s bees and keeping your own. Two months later, my new charges arrived; and immediately upon opening the box, one popped me right on the eyebrow. Welcome to beekeeping! The adventure begins…

Finally, the boxes had local residents. As the summer went on, I watched them with wonder, filling box after box, and finally starting to make some honey. Just after the Fourth of July, I harvested my first crop—nearly two full five-gallon buckets (c. 110 lbs.)—a volume that seemed completely ludicrous to me. What on earth was I going to do with over 100 lbs. of honey? It was obviously a lifetime supply. Or three.

Fortunately, my friends were more than willing to take it off my hands. I got a few jars, made my own label, and spread the sweet, sweet love.

Back at the ranch, the bees, for some strange reason, didn’t die. And when bees live, they tend to expand exponentially. Their remarkably fascinating ways can also lead to a beekeeping addiction. Imagine going into the bag to eat a single Dorito and then stopping. You know how that never actually works according to plan? Beekeeping is a lot like that. A couple of hives are fun. But, the new beekeeper reasons, even more hives would be even more fun. And that’s how they get you.

My single, empty hive in February 2016 turned into three fully-living, thriving hives by June 2016; and by November 2016, there was the promise of more to come.

I remember looking at that stack of boxes—just nine months into my beekeeping diversion—and shaking my head. What was I getting into? What was the exit strategy? A year later, in preparation for Year 3, I looked back at this picture as one of moderation—of simpler times before things went fully off the rails.

Of course, when you have that many boxes, you need ten times as many frames and something more substantial than a Honda Civic to carry them. Sigh. It’s only money.

As time went on, the bees kept not dying. When they don’t die for a really long time, one has to get a bit more clever about negotiating the fallout. Two buckets of honey became seven. As seven became twenty, I realized there was no way out. Like it or not, I was a beekeeper. Fortunately, I did like it—and continue to like it a whole lot.

I frequently say that everyone should have bees—real or metaphorical. For me, they represent a necessary escape from whatever needs escaping. A day in the bee yard is an opportunity to commune with nature and to marvel at the work of this sacred little bug. Everyone should have this sort of happy place. Even when an army of cranky bees gets up on the wrong side of the hive, I feel lucky to share their space—well, maybe less lucky than if they were in a good mood, but still luckier than if I were trapped in any meeting at the non-bee job.

As I prepare for Bee Season No. 8, I count myself among the lucky ones who have chosen this peculiar path. The dizzying jargon that stymied me at that first bee meeting seems less mysterious now. Roy still teaches me new things all the time, and now, inexplicably, some people even call me with questions. I have much left to learn and much to figure out, but as I approach the fateful anniversary of the arrival of my first bee colonies, I realize that this crazy hobby has given me more peace and adventure than ever I could have imagined when I first peered into that empty box. And to all the gentle readers who don’t have bees: get them. Engage in something that sparks the awesome wonder that is missing while we are distracted by other things. Your bees may not even be bees at all, but their rewards will be no less sweet. (Of course, if they aren’t actual bees, then you won’t have this to look forward to. 😊 )

So, tell me….what are your bees?

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