The Journey of an Apprentice Beekeeper

How would you feel if you were surrounded by more than 60,000 bees? Scared? Nervous? Fighting off the urge to run away? Or, maybe, you?d already be running! A few weeks ago my answer might have been similar. But, today, my first day training as an apprentice beekeeper at Hamakua Apiaries, I feel excited, anxious, and curious to be interacting with more than 60,000 bees.

 I can hear the buzzing before Scott, my mentor, and I reach the hives. It is a low hum; I can feel it inside my chest like the rhythm of a drum beat. The hives are painted white, yellow, and green. There are about sixteen hives in this yard. As I am getting my bearings Scott fills and lights the bee smoker. Smoke masks bee?s sense of smell so they cannot detect alarm pheromones. Essentially, he explains, it calms the bees. Scott smokes the front entrance of the first hive. In that moment I wish the smoke would calm me too! I know there are bees inside the boxed hive but everything else feels like an unknown. I feel a wave of nervous energy before he takes the lid off of the first hive. I have read books and watched videos to prepare for this moment but it all seems inadequate now. I am suddenly overwhelmed by how little I know about what?s about to happen. He takes the first lid off. Underneath there is a second lid with a circular hole in the middle. The bees seem to be bubbling up from the hive like boiling water on a stove. He smokes the bees again from the top this time. It smells like earth and campfire. I have butterflies in my stomach.

Scott explains a few of the main things we will be looking for as we inspect the hives. Firstly, we are looking for the Queen Bee. He describes the hunt for the Queen like the page in the children?s book Where?s Waldo? When all the other characters are also wearing red and white stripes. Scott pulls a frame from the hive using a hive tool, which is a flat metal instrument designed as a all-in-one tool for beekeepers. One end has a hook used to pry up the frame from the hive. He rotates the frame so the sides are at the bottom and the top (this is to ensure the uncapped honey and nectar will not fall out) in order to examine the bees. I marvel at how many bees there are working and dancing over the comb. They are mesmerizing. Scott scans the frame and determines the Queen is not on it. He is remarkably fast. His eyes are practiced. He pulls another frame from closer to the center of the hive. He points out the brood present on this frame. Brood, he tells me, refers to the eggs, larvae and pupae the Queen has laid. The eggs look like grains of rice in the cells. Scott explains a new egg, about one day old will be upright in the cell. Once a few days have passed the egg will have fallen over and will be horizontal. This is an easy way to tell how old the eggs are, he says. The eggs then develop into larvae. They sit in a C-shape in the cells. Smaller larvae are younger. Lastly, there are pupae. These cells are covered with brown beeswax and resemble leather. In a healthy hive there should be several frames of brood during a Queen?s egg laying season.

And, so, a sort of routine develops. We pull a frame from the hive and inspect it for healthy brood, always keeping an eye out for the Queen. Scanning the bees and the hexagons of wax becomes hypnotic, almost relaxing for me. There is something about the buzzing and the pattern of stripes and the fresh air I find calming. Then, finally, Scott spots the Queen. He points her out to me. I had never seen a Queen Bee before! Her abdomen is longer than the workers and drones. I am surprised by how different she looks from the other bees despite this being the only significant physical distinction. I used to think it was a wonder beekeepers could find her among the other 60,000 bees in a hive. But now I can see her too! Scott returns the frames he has removed. We check the outer frames for honey. He collects the frames which are full of capped honey and replaces them with empty ones. Then we close the hive and move on to the next.

As we continue to go through the hives together I find I am no longer nervous. I get lost in the bees, searching through them slowly for the Queen. Watching them work I am not worried about anything. My mind is quiet. I am just here with the bees, in the present moment. And then I get stung. The pain is sharp and sudden. Scott tells me to sweep the stinger out of my skin and not to squeeze it because it will release more venom. The pain fills my mind for a moment and then I laugh. I was surprised to be stung. But looking around me there are literally thousands of bees that have been crawling over me all day!

I feel a sense of satisfaction when we finish inspecting the hives. We close the hives and start the drive home just before it starts raining.

I realize now I have acquired two new teachers by becoming a beekeeper. Scott and the bees. I was afraid at the start of the day I needed to know more about bees to be able to become a beekeeper. But I didn?t need to know everything. I just needed to be willing to learn. Today the bees taught me I can let go of some of my anxiety and just be in the moment. I have so much still to learn on my journey to being a beekeeper.

Stay tuned for another blog if you want to learn along with me. Thanks for reading.