Bee People and the Bugs They Love
A fascinating foray into the obsessions, friendships, scientific curiosity, misfortunes and rewards of suburban beekeeping—through the eyes of a Master Beekeeper . . .
Who wants to keep bees? And why? For the answers, Master Beekeeper Frank Mortimer invites readers on an eye-opening journey into the secret world of bees, and the singular world of his fellow bee-keepers. There’s the Badger, who introduces Frank to the world of bees; Rusty, a one-eyed septuagenarian bee sting therapist certain that honey will be the currency of the future after the governments fail; Scooby the “dude” who gets a meditative high off the awesome vibes of his psychedelia-painted hives; and the Berserker, a honeybee hitman who teaches Frank a rafter-raising lesson in staving off the harmful influences of an evil queen: “Squash her, mash her, kill, kill, kill!”
Frank also crosses paths with those he calls the Surgeons (precise and protected), the Cowboys (improvisational and unguarded) and the Poseurs, ex-corporate cogs, YouTube-informed and ill-prepared for the stinging reality of their new lives. In connecting with this club of disparate but kindred spirits, Frank discovers the centuries-old history of the trade; the practicality of maintaining it; what bees see, think, and feel (emotionless but sometimes a little defensive); how they talk to each other and socialize; and what can be done to combat their biggest threats, both human (anti-apiarist extremists) and mite (the Varroa Destructor).
With a swarm of offbeat characters and fascinating facts (did that bee just waggle or festoon?), Frank the Bee Man delivers an informative, funny, and galvanizing book about the symbiotic relationship between flower and bee, and bee and the beekeepers who are determined to protect the existence of one of the most beguiling and invaluable creatures on earth.
How I Started in Beekeeping
People often ask me how I got in to beekeeping, and while I wish there was some grand elaborate reason to why I wanted to be a beekeeper, the truth is that for as long as I can remember I have felt a connection to bees.
I was lucky, when I was a kid there were bees everywhere I looked. Beekeeping is divided into two time periods, Pre-V and Post-V. These abbreviations stand for Before Varroa and After Varroa, and in later chapters there will be more about Varroa destructor and how these non-native parasitic mites are destroying the world’s honeybee population. I grew up in Pre-V, which meant there were a lot more bees flying around than there are today, so growing up outside of St. Louis, I got to see a lot of bees. I would always pause to watch honeybees going from clover to clover in the grass. I was amazed at how much purpose they always seemed to have and how little they cared that I, or anyone, was close by watching them work. I also liked to walk around barefoot, which meant that occasionally I stepped on, and was thereby stung by these remarkable creatures at least a few times every summer. But the freedom of walking barefoot across the lawns and open fields outweighed the occasional little sting.
My fascination with bees persisted from my childhood summers through adulthood. Whenever I’d see a program about bees on TV, or read about bees or beekeeping, my desire to be a beekeeper was further fueled. For business, I would sometimes visit the University of Northern Iowa, and in their biology building’s lobby they had a working observation hive. The hive was made of Plexiglas, and you could watch the bees inside, busily at work. Whenever I was on campus, I always found a reason to visit the biology department and spend some time in the lobby, just watching the bees at work. Then, on my trip home, I would think about the bees and create elaborate plans to have my own hives. No matter how excited I was to start, however, there always seemed to be a reason to defer my dream. Either I was traveling too much for work, or I didn’t think I had the “right” backyard for bees, or the people in my life thought I was crazy and persuaded me to let someone else be the beekeeper.
During the bee-less years of my life, I always felt like something was missing, a void that I needed to fill. I dreamed of having a passion for something that would make me feel like my life was meaningful and could define who I was. At work, I’d see people getting pumped about digging into an Excel spreadsheet or jazzed over critiquing the latest round of reports, but for me, becoming the Inter-Office Memo Master of Manhattan was not how I wanted to be remembered. I’d see how full of life other people would be when they talked about their interests, hobbies, or the sports that they played, and yet none of those things appealed to me. I tried more traditional hobbies like wine tasting, golf, comic books, and art collecting, but I never felt comfortable or like I belonged in any of these worlds.
Years later, I saw an upcoming event in the calendar section of my local weekly free newspaper: Backyard Beekeeping. Someone would be talking about honeybees and beekeeping at the local library around the corner from my house. Bees were becoming a hot topic. There were a lot of stories in the news about the declining honeybee population and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This mystery disorder was devastating the world’s honeybee population. It was awful, but at least the media attention made people aware that bees were in trouble and called attention to the vital role they play in our environment.
When I arrived at the library for the bee talk, I was struck by how many people were also there for the lecture. Up until this moment, I had not encountered anyone who was interested in beekeeping, and now I was sitting in a room full of bee people. The speaker touched on all aspects of keeping bees, the issues of honeybee health, the different parts of a hive, but mostly he overwhelmed the room with his love and passion for beekeeping. The two life-changing pieces of information I took from his lecture were recommendations for a few good books on beginning beekeeping, and that there was a local beekeeping club in my area. Living in northeast New Jersey, the most densely populated part of the most densely populated state in the United States, I was a bit stunned to learn that there was a local club of actual beekeepers in my area, and that there were actually enough beekeepers in northeast New Jersey to create and populate a beekeeping club.
At work the next morning, I was still thinking about the lecture from the night before, so I hopped on Google to find out more about this local beekeeping club. As it turned out, the president of the club lived just a few towns over from me. Somewhat impulsively, I sent him an email, asking for more information about the club and beekeeping in general. I had never known anyone who kept bees, and even though I liked the idea of keeping bees, I had never actually been around a working hive, so a little part of me was still unsure if it was the right venture for me. I just wanted to gather some information, no big deal, and I figured I would get a form response or possibly a recommendation for other resources. Instead, I had an immediate reply along with the offer for me to come over to his house and see his hives. Wow! This was perfect; I could go over to his house, spend time around his hives, and get a feeling for what it would be like to have bees in my own backyard. Within a half hour of sending my first email, we had exchanged half a dozen messages and he invited me to stop by his place around lunchtime to check out his bees. I explained that I worked in Manhattan so we’d have to find another time, but he was determined, and now apparently on a mission to introduce me to his bees. He suggested—almost demanded—that I come by tonight, after work. He would meet me at the train station, take us back to his place, and then he’d drive me home after we had looked at his bees. All I could say was, yes.
The workday couldn’t end soon enough, and all I could think about was what it was going to be like to finally be around bees. As the train finally pulled into my station, my heart began to beat a little faster, as I thought, “This is it.” I wasn’t sure what to expect when I stepped off the train, until a seemingly normal middle-aged, heavyset, balding man standing next to an older model SUV asked, “Are you Frank?” And before I could do more than nod, he blurted out, “My name is Charlie Badgero, but everyone calls me the Badger. I’m not mean or nothing, but I do L-O-V-E honey! Guess I’m a Honey Badger. No, really, I got the name back when I was a kid, and it stuck. I guess a nickname is like honey, once it’s on you, it sticks!”
I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but the Badger sure was a character. He enjoyed hearing himself talk, and with a hint of a nervous smile, he put on a show with stories and well-rehearsed one-liners. I jumped into his SUV and we drove back to his house. We stopped on a busy street in front of an average-size house partially hidden by overgrown trees and bushes. We waded through tall grass into what I assume was his front yard and he pointed and said, “There are my hives.” I was amazed that his hives were right there, and while they were out of view thanks to all the trees and bushes, they were still only twenty-five feet away from a heavily traveled sidewalk! When I turned my gaze toward his three hives, I could see a lot of little dots filling the air. I realized they were his bees zooming into and out of their hives.
As I stood about ten feet away from my first real beehive, I expected the Badger to start telling me what to expect as he brought out bee suits and other bee gadgets for our journey into the hives. Instead, all he said to me was, “Let’s go.”
The longer I am around beekeepers, the more I see that beekeeping attracts all sorts of personalities, all of whom approach beekeeping and their hives differently. There are the Surgeons, who don full head-to-toe bee suits and approach their hives the same way a surgeon walks into the operating room—fully protected and prepared to operate with precision. On the other extreme, there is the Cowboy. The cowboy is someone who doesn’t wear any type of veil, usually has forgotten to bring his smoker, and just jumps in without any real plan and improvises along the way. The Badger was definitely a cowboy. He was wearing a button-up, short-sleeved shirt, cargo pants, and a baseball cap with the local volunteer fire department’s insignia on it. Unprotected and empty-handed, he walked over to the hives, and so I followed. Sitting on top of one of the hives was a mini crowbar, or as I would come to learn, a hive tool. He grabbed the hive tool and used it to pop open the top cover. You could hear a slight snap, or pop, as he unsealed the cover from the rest of the hive. After the roof—or in beekeeping terms, the outer cover—was removed, he repeated the process again with the inner cover that was now exposed.
Once the inner cover was removed, I was face-to-face with the inside of a real beehive. Not knowing what to expect, I took my cue from the Badger who remained calm and leaned in for a closer look. I was taken aback that the bees weren’t concerned that the top of their house was now missing. Instead, the bees kept moving around like they had more important things to do than worry about where their roof went. As I peered down into the hive, I could see there were ten wooden slats, each evenly spaced about three-eighths of an inch apart. And peering out of all the spaces on either side of those slats were thousands and thousands of bee eyes all looking at me. All I could do was stare back. I was amazed at the orderliness of it all. Row after row filled with bee heads, all looking up to see what was going on. I was also in awe of the calm around me and the gentleness of the bees. Let’s face it, for most of us, our collective knowledge of bees has come from old Bugs Bunny cartoons and bad 1970s beexploitation movies. Part of me expected the bees to start buzzing into a cloud and form into a big fist to sock me on the chin. Instead, the bees calmly stood in formation looking to see why their roof was suddenly missing.
The Badger turned his cap around and put his face toward the hive. He looked at me, and by the slight smile on his face I could tell he was showing off, the same way a cowboy might jump on a wild horse without a saddle, and testing me to see if I would “jump on” and follow along. Not knowing any better and eager to learn, I leaned over the hive to get a better look. The Badger used his hive tool as a pointer and was talking to me about the different parts of the hive. But I was so focused on the bees that most of what he said was drowned out by the gentle buzzing. After about five minutes, he closed up the hive. No stings, no giant bee fists forming in the air, just bees going about their normal bee business.
I felt good about my first baby step toward becoming a real beekeeper. In my mind, I still needed to spend more time around hives. I thought I’d ask the Badger if any beekeepers wanted an assistant, or at least if any of them would mind if I helped out, or just stood around and watched as they worked their hives. I figured that I’d spend the summer being around other people’s bees and then maybe next summer, I would be ready for my own hives. I soon found out that the Badger had other ideas.
We walked to his front porch and he handed me a bee supply catalog. I had no idea that bee supply catalogs existed. I guess I should have known; I have never seen a bee supply store at the mall or anywhere else, so it made sense that there are specialty companies that make and supply you with everything you require for your beekeeping needs. Then the Badger handed me a pen, and he started pointing to what I should order. He said, “Everything you’ll need—except for the bees—are in this one catalog.”
After I finished circling about a dozen different things, I heard the Badger say, “And expedite the shipping. I’ll have some bees I can give you in about two weeks, sometime around Memorial Day weekend.”
Those words changed my life, and I am still thankful the Badger said them, because it was at that moment I realized I was either jumping in or running away.
I was about to become a beekeeper.