beginning beekeeping, with joe lamp’l
IT’S A DREAM many gardeners and farmers entertain: To become a beekeeper, adding honeybee hives to the landscape both for the pollination work that bees can do and for the delicious by-product we can harvest a share of, thanks to them.
I’ve thought about it myself, but never dared–so I was fascinated to watch the progress of my friend and fellow garden journalist Joe Lamp’l, the host of “Growing a Greener World” public TV program, as he progressed intrepidly along his own beekeeping adventure the last year and a bit.
I know I had so many questions–not the least of which is: Is it scary, opening a hive the first time to manage it?
I invited Joe, who is now proud father to five thriving hives and 16 months into beekeeping at his Atlanta garden-farm, to join me on my public-radio show and podcast to talk about how it’s going, what it took to get there, and help some of us answer that question: Is beekeeping in my future? Read along, or listen in using the player below–or at this link. It’s the August 24, 2015 show.
my q&a on beekeeping, with joe lamp’l
Q. So how are the bees, Joe?
A. The bees are thriving. They’re hot, like the rest of us here in the South this summer. Boy, it’s been hot and it’s been dry up until a few days ago, and I think they’re spending more time on the outside of the hive than on the inside. The funny thing is, as I have kind of matured in my beekeeping a little bit, I know that’s OK; that’s where they want to be.
In the early days, that was weird to me; I had no frame of reference. Not that I would panic, because I didn’t know what I could do about it, but I have come to know that’s not unusual: They’re hot.
Q. The bees know best where to go in response to a weather stimulus.
A. So true. And in the broader sense, the bees know best in so many ways, where we try to circumvent and intervene. I think more often than not, I think we make mistakes in trying to be too proactive with bees. There is a good level of compromise there, but I think sometimes we overdo it—just like in gardening. I think there are a lot of analogies between beekeeping and gardening.
Q. [Laughter.] In your “Growing a Greener World” show on the first year of beekeeping, you are very honest. You don’t make it seem like no work or instant success, and like you say in the accompanying story on the website: “This is not a set it and forget it hobby.” This is a commitment; these are live animals.
Why did you want honeybees?
A. I’ve always been fascinated with them, and over the years in being around beehives and other beekeepers when we would film television shows, and through horticulture and farming, I just thought it was so cool that people could keep bees on their property.
I knew how much the bees were doing for the crops and the flowers, there and beyond. I just thought, “Oh, someday, someday I want them.” When we moved to the farm, this was my opportunity. We already had different types of animals, and a big garden, so it was just a natural thing to want to have more pollinators.
The fact is they are around, whether I keep them on my property or not; they’ll potentially find me from as much as 5 miles away. But I just wanted that experience, to have my hands involved in that. It fascinated me, and just like gardening, you want to get better at it. The only way to get better at it is to do it. I had to keep bees.
Q. How far ahead does the adventure begin? You don’t just go to the “bee store” and buy some bees and take them home…
A. You shouldn’t.
Q. You have to do some homework. Where do we begin—and is this something where if we’re going to do it, we’d get our bees in the spring, so do we back up from there to do our research?
A. I did. As a frame of reference, I got my first hives in the third week of April in 2014. Once I thought I wanted to have bees, but I hadn’t made the commitment yet, I started reading everything I could, and doing online courses.
Then I took an in-person, all-day course in Atlanta, with the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association. They put on an all-day conference to teach beginning beekeepers the A, B, C’s of how to do it. I’m sure that’s the way it is with many cities.
It was fascinating, and yet the funny thing was, it was almost overwhelming. I hadn’t kept bees yet, so I didn’t understand when they would make reference to something. I just couldn’t wrap my arms and head around it because I hadn’t experienced it yet.
But I felt a little more confident than the morning I got there, by the end of the day. And I met people who were in my boat, and also people who were potential mentors, who could really help me. That was the key so that I could really go forward.
Q. A couple of the online courses that you recommend on the website: North Carolina State has one; Penn State has a very comprehensive one; Ohio State has a free course. People should research courses like those, and through their Cooperative Extension or Master Gardeners, or through a beekeeping association in their area.
A. There are clubs galore in every city; there are passionate people who want to hang out with people who are passionate about the same thing. With beekeeping that’s certainly the case.
But I have to say, the biggest help for me was hooking up with a mentor.
To have that person by your side—and I don’t know if there are enough mentors to go around, so that everyone gets a mentor—but I do feel fortunate that I had that. Without the mentor’s help, I would not be as far along as I am now. It can be overwhelming. I’m the kind of guy who wants to understand it all, not just go with it. I need to know why this and why that, and without someone there to really tell me what’s going on, it wouldn’t have happened.
Q. Is that Linda?
A. Yes, Linda Tillman. We all know Master Gardeners, but Master Beekeepers are few and far between. It’s a really tough thing to get that kind of certification. I was very lucky to have Linda as my mentor.
Q. So in the show segment, she appears, and I remember I sort of started to freak out in your behalf while watching [laughter]. The show was all shot in realtime, and speaking of bees being outside the box—they were all outside the box at one point and you were like, “Linda, Linda!” [Laughter.] They were going to swarm, right? It must have been scary the first time you saw that.
A. It was. Once you keep bees you come to know that is to be expected, but until you experience that you’re not sure what’s going on. So that day I just happened to be driving by the hives, and there was this little cloud of bees all outside—and it was the first time I had seen that.
You probably sense that’s what it is, but you don’t know why it’s happening, or is that OK or normal. So you get on the phone and get some help.
She explained that they were looking to expand their hive and take the queen with them, and seek another place to spread out.
You feel a little slighted—like, “What’s wrong with what I just spent hundreds of dollars to set up for you guys?” you know? [Laughter.] But it’s just what they do. You can’t avoid it. You can try to circumvent it, but bees are going to do what bees are going to do.
Q. And she nailed it: She said the hive next to it—you had two hives at that point—is going to do the same thing tomorrow morning at, like 11 AM or something, yes?
A. Between 10 and 2 the next day, she said, and absolutely they did. And thank goodness she told me because I had the camera crew come over here, to be ready if it happened. Literally right at 10 o’clock it started happening, and we got it.
Q. It was amazing; I was fascinated.
You just mentioned, “Hey, bees, why don’t you like the hundreds of dollars of stuff I just set up for you?” What is a beginner budget for, say, two hives?
A. There are a couple of ways you can buy your bees: nucs, or packages. In either case you get a complete setup with a queen, and some bees to go with it. That is about $200.
Q. You just said “nucs,” and I want people to know it’s not n-u-k-e-s, but nucs, like the nucleus of a colony, right?
A. Yes, it’s a mini-hive. That’s the easiest way to start out, and gets you able to hit the ground running, because you have a complete system where the queen has already been introduced to the other bees, and they’re all happy.
Q. Happy bees! [Laughter.]
A. That’s $400, because that’s two nucs at $200 each, and then the equipment to go with it. A long story short: I drove out of my pickup day with all my equipment, and my suit, and the smoker, and the bees and all of that for right at $900 or high $800s. I spent a little extra, because I wanted the copper roof and the painted boxes, so I did treat myself a little bit. It doesn’t have to be that much.
I think a fair price for a full setup with the smoker and so forth is around $300.
Q. The queen was marked—that surprised me. You see inside the hive, and everyone is moving around, and there is this one larger bee, and she has a little red dot on her. Do the [the suppliers] do that so you can find her easily?
A. They do; it’s just for us. Once you’re experienced you can pick the queen out faster, but not always. Sometimes you’re just not going to see her. But for us newbies it really helps.
Q. So we get our nucs, our boxes, and our gear—and speaking of the gear: I noticed in the beginning of the show, the first time Linda came and met you to help set up the hives, you had every bit of gear on.
A. [Laughter.] Pretty much a suit of armor.
Q. And those white gloves—you had them on. But later in the show—and again, it’s a series of realtime sequences shot along the first year of doing this—I’m seeing you don’t have your gloves on, and you’re opening the hives without them on. What happened? Did you just become not afraid of getting stung?
A. Yes, and I only got stung four times the first year. And you really don’t even notice it after the first few times. You just flick off the stinger, and you move on. It comes with a comfort level, and with understanding your bees—with understanding they’re not out to harm you. They don’t want sting you, because they’re going to die if they do. If you’re respectful of them, and gentle with them—and really some of these mentors aren’t even that gentle—they don’t really bother you.
Having seen that enough with my mentors, and doing it myself with hive inspections when nobody was around…you’re very apprehensive to shed the gloves the first time, but you do it, and you find out you didn’t get stung. They crawl on your hands, and you feel them all on your arms, and you just have to trust that everything is going to be OK, and not panic. You could easily go either way—it takes a lot of mental discipline that first time or two. But then everything is fine.
It’s personal preference, but after that first time or two and you don’t fear the bees, because you respect them and they respect you, I don’t feel it’s necessary [wearing the gloves].
Q. Have you harvested honey yet? Your bees went through one winter, and now we’re two-thirds through a second growing season. What’s happening now?
A. We are about to harvest honey, and we are full of honey. It’s been a good year for that. Last year we tried to harvest honey, I think in October, and Linda came to inspect the hives on harvest day. She wasn’t comfortable with the lack of honey in the hives, that we could take any. That’s their sole food source in the winter, and if we take that they’re going to die probably.
Q. You only take part of the harvest if there is ample; if they have their provisions, you can take the extra?
A. That’s right. Or, if you do it early enough in the season, if you determine that the honey supers—the boxes above the brood boxes—have enough honey early on that you can harvest with time for the bees to restore the honey you’re going to take. But it’s always good to share; not take it all.
Q. So you’re about to harvest.
A. Yes, and one modest hive can produce 20-something pounds. I have one friend who harvested her one hive about a month ago, and got over 20 pounds of honey, and there was more. I’m excited.
Q. Wow, what are you going to bake? [Laughter.]
A. I don’t know; it’s like gardening. I love to grow it, and then I harvest it and I’m not quite sure what to do with it. [Laughter.] Well, I am, but…
Q. You need to get a booth at the farmers’ market.
A. I know, I think it’s going to be like all the tomatoes I have this year. I’m excited though. And my little daughter, she’s like, “Dad, when are we getting the honey?” She cannot wait. She’s my future beekeeper; she’s right there by my side.
Q. She’s not afraid?
A. Not in the least. I almost want to push her away a little bit and say, “Honey, you can’t be right there,” but I’m excited that she’s comfortable, too.
Q. She learned that from her dad: the inquisitiveness about nature, the pleasure in nature; the stimulation.
Our friend Dan Long from Brushwood Nursery—gardenvines dot com—sent me some honey from his hives to try, and it was so different from any that I had tasted. His bees are also in the South—Athens, Georgia—and he labeled the jar and it was from different plants than where I garden. So different and so delicious. What do you think yours will be like?
A. I think there is going to be some tulip poplar in there, whatever that tastes like. Gosh, that’s a good question, because there are so many things around.
Q. You know on labels how it says “clover blossom honey,” the sort of basic thing, or “wildflower honey,” but I have had honey from areas where there are more—I don’t know, maybe I’d call them resinous plants, plants with stronger flavors.
A. And different colors; it’s amazing the different tones. I’m excited about that.
Q. If we want to get started, what would be Joe’s tips—besides backing up and studying, hopefully finding a mentor, but at least taking courses. What else?
A. One of my biggest “aha’s:” not starting off too aggressively. It’s just like gardening. You decide you want to get into gardening, and you create this big space, and you plant away…and next thing you know it’s taken over your life. Sometimes that can be a bad thing.
With beekeeping, as we’ve discussed, bees don’t really need us. But if we’re going to keep bees, we do have a responsibility to insure that we’re providing them a clean and safe habitat. That requires periodic hive inspections.
If you are going to keep bees rather than have bees—there’s a big difference, and having bees is just setting up the hives and forgetting about them. Keeping bees is being more responsible with them, and that’s what I wanted to do. I began to feel overwhelmed with five hives, because after the two I somehow decided I wanted more.
I found myself spending a good bit of my Saturdays, with everything else I had to do, feeling the need to periodically inspect my hives. That happens about every other Saturday, or maybe every 10 days. When you’re new, there’s a huge learning curve to that, and I spent a lot of time looking at each frame of each hive of each box. That was like half a day.
I think people should start off with one or two hives, and decide whether or not it’s for them. If it is, then they can add to it. The pressure’s there if you start off too aggressively, and then what do you do?
Q. I confess I’ve thought about this, especially in the years since I moved upstate from the city, to my rural former weekend home. A lot of my farmer neighbors—it’s an agricultural area, as you know—have hives. But: the bear thing. The black bear like to climb the fence and come into the garden. Around me a lot of people use electric fencing for predator control around tempting things like chicken coops and beehives. Any issues there in Atlanta?
A. To my knowledge, we haven’t had any bear. We have coyotes and foxes and things like that, but they haven’t seemed to bother the hives in the least. I haven’t heard of anything like that near here.
Q. It’s just one more thing people should research; know what predators might visit, and make an allowance for it, plan for it.
A. Which is again why it’s so important to align with local people who are into it, who can really share their local wisdom and experience. That’s really when you can bring it home.
Having a water source on your property is hugely important. I didn’t realize how important it was for the bees until I one day looked at my birdbath, and it was completely surrounded by the bees that frequent it from sunrise to sunset. They have come to depend on that for their water source.
They apparently need it for three things:
One, for drinking themselves. Two, for cooling down the hive—they take it back and from my understanding they mist the hive to cool it off with the water they take back. And three, they use it to thin the honey a little bit, and make it do whatever they need it to do.
So when I’m out of town I kind of stress about it. I’m always calling my family to ask if anyone has put water in the bee bath—I don’t even call it a birdbath anymore. Any time of day I walk there I can count on it being surrounded by bees. It’s such fun to watch them flying back and forth all day, because it’s right in front of my office. So it’s like a little superhighway all day long of bees on a flight path back and forth.
Q. I love it.
A. So whether you keep bees or not, the bees will find your water source if you have it there.
Q. So we’re all putting in a bee bath whether we keep bees or not, thanks to you, Joe.
more from ‘growing a greener world’
- Watch Joe’s show on getting started with beekeeping, using the video player up top of this page, or at this link
- Read Joe’s article on beekeeping, from the GGWTV blog
- Joe’s Master Beekeeper mentor, Linda Tillman, has a beekeeping blog of her own, and Joe bought his first bees and gear at Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, with an extensive online catalog, too
- Find your local PBS station that carries “Growing a Greener World”
- Joe’s visit to my place to film a show about gardening for the birds
- Joe’s visit to my place to film a show about my garden in general
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its sixth year in March 2015. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the August 24, 2015 show right here, and also use the buttons below to subscribe to future shows, free.
(Photos from Joe Lamp’l and “Growing a Greener World” television program. Used by permission.)