My Brother, the Beekeeper

Andy's bees

This is my brother Andy, inspecting his beehive. This is his first year as a beekeeper and so far, the bees are doing very well!

Andy got his bees this spring over Memorial Day weekend. He found a guy on Craig’s list who, for about $100, set him up with a 5 frame NUC and a swarm of honeybees. He started out with an 8 frame super (a super is the box that holds the frames). There are many styles of bee hives, and Andy’s is called a langstroth. The idea is that once the bottom deep super is full of honey, you stack more boxes and frames on top for the bees to expand into. At the end of the season, the beekeeper harvests the honey at the top of the hive, leaving enough honey for the bees to sustain themselves over the winter. If you harvest too much honey, you starve your bees and you lose the hive.

These bees are a family project. Andy’s Father-in-Law was able to reverse-engineer the hive and build a new one, for when it comes time to divide the hive.  Andy’s master plan is to keep two hives here in Chicago, and as it comes time to divide the hives again, he will take the new hives up to his blueberry farm in Michigan to help pollinate the blueberry bushes. Honey and blueberries….yummy!

These are bees from Andy's hive

This is what a frame from the hive looks like with bees all over it.

Andy inspects his hive about every 2 weeks and when he opens the hive, my Sister-in-law Dorothy takes pictures, so they have records of how the hive is faring and how the honey is progressing. Taking good care of the hive is important to prevent them from swarming prematurely…the last thing a beekeeper wants is to lose his bees! So a beekeeper is always making sure the bees have optimum conditions so they have no reason to swarm. These bees aren’t aggressive, and as the picture shows, Andy is comfortable handling them without the full head-to-toe bee suit. I don’t think he uses the smoke very often either.

Andy is participating in an important undertaking for more than just the benefits he will get from harvesting honey. Honeybees provide a huge service to our agricultural ecology and the work of the honeybees has direct economic effects as well. Consider this quote, taken from the University of Illinois “Beespotting” website:

It is estimated that in North America around 30% of the food humans consume is produced from bee pollinated plant life. The value of pollination by bees is estimated around $16 billion in the US alone. We would be unable to enjoy most of our favorite fruits, vegetables, or nuts without these pollinators. Bees also pollinate crops such as clover and alfalfa that cattle feed on, making bees important to our production and consumption of meat and dairy. Honey production from around 135 thousand American beekeepers caring for approximately 2.44 million colonies totaled almost 148.5 million pounds in 2007. This production was worth over $150 million with a per pound cost of all honey at 103 cents (National Agricultural Statistics Service).

Pretty impressive for a little flying insect, no?

Before I go back outside to try to take more pictures of bees, I’ll leave you with this book recommendation. It is called Beeing: Life, Motherhood, and 180,000 Honeybees. It is the story of a divorced Mom who takes up beekeeping as she transitions into her new life with her daughter. It is full of keen observations about bees, nature, and the human spirit. You will also come away with a good idea of what it is like to be a beekeeper. Also, another book that is kind of fun is Coppice (Bee Wars) by Chris Mottershead. It is a fictional tale told from the bees’ point of view, and it puts an interesting spin on bee behavior.

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