Me? A Beekeeper?
   bee photo Smoker lit, going in for early spring inspection.
left bee I got my start in beekeeping when one of my regular customers at a store I managed, Gary DeKoning, brought me a jar of his honey back in the summer of '89. He was a good customer giving thanks for my help with his software purchases and computer help. The honey was delicious!

When Gary came back into the store a week or so later and asked how I liked his honey, I told him that it was the best tasting honey I'd had in a long time! We started talking about honey and bees when I mentioned I had not had any comb honey since I was about 10 years old. Gary offered to bring me some comb honey, which I obliged thankfully.

A few days later Gary brought me the comb honey. The packaging was not like I remembered, for sure. Instead of the 4" square wooden box, this comb was a full frame out of what I learned was called a "shallow super" and weighed a good five pounds at least!

Kathy (my wife) and I finished off that frame of comb honey that week (it was so good), and I took the cleaned frame to work to give back to Gary the next time he came in. When he did, I asked him if he had any books on bees. "Not that I'm interested in keeping bees, mind you. I'm just curious about them." I said. I knew how bees made their honey, but I had no idea where or how they got the wax to build the combs with.

Gary brought me a couple of old books he had, Starting Right With Bees and The Hive and The Honey Bee. Those books not only answered my questions (bees secrete flakes of wax from glands on their belly), but I kept noting a common theme... bees are actually very gentle creatures. They only sting in defense of their hive or themselves.

Beekeepers use a can filled with smoldering material with a bellows attached, called a smoker, to quiet the bees before going into their hive. The bees, sensing the smoke start to gorge themselves with the honey in case they have to leave, just as you would do with your valuables if a fire was headed your way! And, unless you're close to a bee's hive, that bee that's flying around your head isn't trying to sting you, it's just curious. Don't swat at it and you won't get stung!

I learned a lot from those books, and they spawned my curiosity even more. Gary offered to allow me to squeeze into his wife's bee suit the next time he worked his bees so I could peek into his hives. I accepted his offer and anxiously waited for the time to arrive. When it did I found the experience far more exciting than I ever believed it would be! The energized buzz from the hive when the entrance is smoked, to the shear number of bees that are flying all around the hives was exhilarating. I saw honey, pollen, capped brood ("bee babies" as my wife calls them) and bees, bees, bees galore!

My first colony of bees, of the gentle Buckfast strain.
bee photo

left bee That was all it took and I caught "bee fever" as they say. I thought and talked about bees when I was awake, and dreamed of bees at night. I sent away for a stack of beekeeping supply catalogs and wore them out looking at all the equipment there is for beekeepers. Since Kathy and I lived in an apartment, I talked her mom, Peggy, into letting me keep a hive of bees in her back yard. She's a wonderful mother-in-law and was happy to let me put it there.

I figured I would start with one hive and ordered the parts to put one together. I also ordered my own bee suit with veil so I wouldn't have to borrow Gary's and ordered a 3 lb. package of bees to arrive the second week of April. Until then I read every book in the local library on bees to learn everything I could about them, they fascinated me so. I got my supplies and went to work putting the wooden supers and their frames together, installing the foundation and getting everything set for April. I painted the hives white the first warm day that came along in February.

In reading all those books, I had also learned that it's best to start not with one hive, but two or more as it's easier to compare the health of one hive against another. And, it's also easier to help out one of those hives if something does go wrong if you've got another healthy hive to fall back on. I looked through our local yellow pages and found a beekeeper, J.C. Brittingham, that would sell me a hive.

The second week of March I drove over to his house where we talked bees and honey for a while, then loaded up my bee suit in his truck and drove out to one of his outyards where he kept a couple dozen hives. When we got there, bees were flying everywhere! I donned my suit and we walked around and looked at the entrances of several hives. They all had good flows of bees going in and out, laden with pollen, and I was ready to take whichever one he was willing to sell.

He suggested that we open a few up and look inside. That's when I remembered that I had left my helmet and veil back at my apartment, and J.C. found that he had also left his smoker behind. J.C. was a long-time beekeeper and sometimes didn't use a smoker unless he was pulling honey off the hive, and was accustomed to stings. He asked if we wanted to go back and get them, but as the bees weren't bothering me I told him that he could go ahead and open up a couple if he wanted to, I would just stand back out of the way.

He opened one, pulled a few frames of brood out and said it was O.K., but he would find me a better one. On about the third hive he opened he said something I couldn't understand. He shouted louder "There's bees flying around your head, get in the truck!" No sooner had I heard him I felt the stings. I'm sure I was a sight running for his truck swatting at my head with both hands! Inside the truck I pulled bees and stingers out of my scalp.

When J.C. got in the truck he suggested that I go home and get my veil before we look any more. I told him I would be back in about an hour and a half. I really don't think he expected me to return as I was a "newbee" and had just been stung eleven times on the top of my head! As I drove home my scalp grew numb and I could feel the bumps swell.

When I got home Kathy asked how it went and I told her I had to go back as I forgot my veil. "Did you get stung?" she asked, and I told her about my "initiation" into the world of bees. I learned a very good lesson... don't forget your veil and until you become a long-time beekeeper like J.C., always use your smoker, too!

Returning later that afternoon to J.C.'s house, I honestly believe he was surprised to see me again. I think it pleased him to know that if I could take a whack like that and come back, his bees would be in good hands. Although tending hundreds of hives in several outyards (and president of the local Permian Basin Beekeeper's Association at the time--which we later joined), J.C. truly cares for his bees.

I bought that hive, and it was my first (I couldn't wait for the package bees to arrive). The bees were of the Buckfast strain. This strain originated in England through the efforts of Br. Adam at Buckfast Abbey. There's only two apiaries in the U.S. that are licensed to breed them here and that is the Weaver Apiaries* in Navasota, TX. They are gentle (as long as you remember the smoker) and a pleasure to work with.

*In 1994, the Weaver family relatives that operated Howard Weaver & Sons apiaries split their operation and formed The R. Weaver Apiaries and B. Weaver Apiaries. Both companies are authorized to breed and sell queens and bees of the Buckfast line.

bee photo
A colony hived from a package of Starline hybrid Italians that spring.

left bee A month later I got a call at 6:45 AM in the morning from the post office. "There's a package here for you! Bees! And they sure are buzzin'! We'd appreciate it if you would come and pick them up! We usually don't open until eight, but if you'll knock on the side door we'll open it so you can get them out of here!"

I couldn't help but chuckle on my way to the post office. Yes they do send bees through the mail, in a screened cage, and you can usually count on expedited service, too! I brought the bees home, misted them down with a little sugar water and placed the cage in my cool, dark bathroom until later that day.

I waited until late afternoon, just before sundown, before I hived that package of bees. It's best to wait until then as this gives them that night to settle into their new home, and lessens the chance of them flying away. I brought the package of Starline Italian hybrid bees over to my mother-in-law's house and got the new hive ready.

With the hive ready, I opened the screened crate and pulled out the queen cage. The queen was in good shape, and so were the several attendant bees in the queen cage with her. After removing the cork over the candy hole that plugs one end of the cage and placing it between two frames, I dumped a couple cupfuls of bees over the cage and poured the rest down between the remaining frames. In a few minutes the bees had all dispersed down between them and I closed the hive up on my second colony of bees!

For more information on hiving a package of bees, refer to my web page Starting a Hive.

I wound up with three hives that first year. The third colony was the result of a swarm given to me by another beekeeper and member of the PBBA. Kathy and I like to set out by the hives and watch the bees going in and out of their hives in the afternoons, and there's nothing like seeing bees work the blossoms on one of your fruit trees in the spring!

A colony hived from a swarm given to me by another beekeeper.
bee photo

left bee At the end of the season I was able to pull shallow supers of honey off the hives and, using an extractor borrowed from another beekeeper, collected my first harvest of honey. I gave several jars of honey to Peggy, a jar to the beekeeper whose extractor I borrowed, jars to my family and friends and whoever else liked honey, practically.

You would be amazed at how much honey you can get from your bees some years. My first year with bees, even though I had three hives only two were the suppliers of surplus and I pulled 6 1/4 gallons of honey from them that year!

The following year my hives grew to four in number when I captured a swarm that issued from one of my colonies. Between the three original hives I harvested over 18 gallons of honey that season. That amounted to approximately 75 lbs. per hive. Not all years are as prosperous, and some years even more so. Depending on your area, and the quantity/quality of forage crop, up to 200 lbs. or more per hive is not unheard of.

There are good years, and there are lean years. But for me personally, beekeeping is one hobby that has its sweet rewards in a literal way!

left bee
middle bee
right bee

Some people are allergic to bee venom and can incur serious medical problems if stung. You should always consult a doctor prior to keeping bees. I assume no responsibility or liability for accidents, injuries or damage caused by the use, or misuse of the information provided. It is intended for educational purposes only!

Copyright © 1999-2001 David D. Scribner , webmaster. All Rights Reserved.
Last Updated: January 25, 2001