“Maybe we should just quit keeping bees,” my husband said late last fall. “I’m not having fun anymore.”
Walking away from beekeeping would be a huge step. I write a blog called “Married with Bees.” What would I call my blog now? Middle Aged Married Couple? Married and Asleep by 10pm? Nobody wants to read that. Also, quitting beekeeping would mean walking away from all the money we have invested in equipment. The “free” honey the bees provide isn’t free. That’s just a beekeeper rationalization we use to make ourselves feel better about the money we just spent on more equipment.
How did we get to this point? Like many other people during the pandemic, we decided to start a side hustle and made Married with Bees an LLC. The plan was to sell bees and honey. Doug’s career was upended during the pandemic, and we thought that bees would be a way to transition into a business just in case the pandemic and the US economy continued to spiral downward. Our wildflower meadow was complete, so we now had a location capable of supporting a large amount of hives. (Click here to learn more about our wildflower project.)
The spring of 2021 was unlike any that local beekeepers can remember. The weather conditions were perfect for bees, and that almost never happens in Northern Kentucky. The bee population exploded. The bees produced honey at staggering rates. That’s a good thing if you can check your hives every few days and make the necessary adjustments. Beekeepers must make sure the bees have plenty of space to keep working. Beekeepers must take out the frames that are full of honey and keep giving the bees empty frames so they have space in the hive to work. If you don’t do this, the bees become honey bound. A honey bound hive is a hive where all the available honeycomb is full of honey. The queen has no place to lay eggs in a honey bound hive. Queens only do two things. They lay eggs, and they boss around the other bees in the hive. If the queen can’t lay eggs, she tells the other bees in the hive, “We’re out of space here! Go on Zillow and find us a new location for a hive.” The queen and about half of the bees in the hive will then swarm and go start a new colony in a new location. (I made up that part about the bees looking on Zillow. Everybody knows that bees don’t have access to the internet. Everything else is true, though.)
When the bees swarm, the old hive is suddenly without a queen. Colonies without queens need to get a queen fast or they will die. How does a colony get a new queen? A beekeeper can buy a mated queen from a local supplier and introduce her into the hive. We have tried this numerous times and don’t have very good luck with this. We prefer to let the colony make its own queen. If the hive still has eggs in it, the bees can make a new queen by feeding the designated larva a diet of royal jelly. The new queen emerges from her brood chamber and then goes on a mating flight. All the drones, which are the male bees, hang out together away from the hive in a place called the drone congregation area. The new queen goes there and mates with the drones. It is all very primal and X-rated, so I’m not going to say anymore about that because this is a family friendly blog. After the queen is mated, she must get back to the hive without getting eaten by a bird. If everything goes right, the hive has a new queen that will continue to lay eggs. This whole process takes several weeks, and the colony is getting weaker that entire time because there are no new bees replacing worker bees as they die.
In the spring of 2021, Doug got a new job that was quite demanding and required that he be gone from home for large periods of time. Convinced that the apocalypse was upon us, I was laser focused on our garden because honey is nice to have, but a garden will keep you alive in a SHTF situation. Thus, neither one of us had the time to inspect the hives every few days like we should have. We had several swarms that set us back in the spring. Despite this, Doug worked diligently to build up the bees, and we had 10 hives by mid-summer. Things were looking good, and we were even able to sell some bees to a local beekeeper.
The dearth arrived in late summer. The dearth is the period when nothing is blooming. The bees eat their stored honey until fall when more flowers bloom. The dearth coincides with the hottest and driest weather of the year. The bees are cranky and mean during the dearth. You can’t blame the bees for this. Imagine if in the hottest part of summer, you had no air conditioning and you had to eat Chef Boyardee ravioli straight from the can for every meal. You might also be cranky. The bees chased us to the truck during hive inspections. The bees started stinging Doug through his suit. Every hive inspection resulted in multiple stings for Doug. I am not much help during the dearth because the extreme heat aggravates my eczema. When I work the bees in July and August, I feel like my skin is going to peel off. Doug was frustrated. “It’s not much fun to have a hobby where you are stung constantly,” he lamented.
The fall honey flow was not as good as we had hoped for, and our bees were not as strong as we wanted going into fall. We combined some of the weaker hives to make larger colonies. We had six hives going into winter. We know that three didn’t survive winter. We will start 2022 with three hives of bees.
Should we quit keeping bees if it isn’t fun anymore? Why isn’t it fun anymore? The bee stings are a symptom of the problem, but not the root cause. My belief is that we approached raising bees this year like a business. We wanted to maximize the number of hives. Our goal wasn’t to have fun. Our goal became getting a business established so we could generate revenue. Side hustles are popular now. Platforms such as YouTube and Etsy give people easy ways to monetize their hobbies and start businesses. That’s great for some people. However, I don’t think every aspect of our lives is meant to be monetized. Sometimes hobbies need to stay hobbies and not become revenue streams. Sometimes things need to be done for love and not for money. I maintain a huge vegetable and flower garden. People frequently tell me I should sell my flowers and vegetables, but this is something I will never do. I want to live in a world where people give away sacks of tomatoes and leave bouquets of flowers on people’s back porch for no reason. I want to live in a world where a Christmas gift is a bottle of honey from your bees and not some junk made from China that will sit on a shelf and collect dust. When we decided to give our honey away this year to family and friends and not to sell it, I felt liberated.
We will continue raising bees, but we will do it with a different mindset. We won’t have goals for our bees or revenue targets. We will just let the bees “be” and take the year as it comes. We will raise bees because we love bees, and that’s reason enough.