Bees entering the hive

Bees entering the hive

Setting up a new hive

Me, setting up a new hive

Bees have always fascinated me. My father was a passionate gardener and I grew up with 11 siblings tending our family garden and our 32 apple, pear and cherry trees. There were bees everywhere — all kinds of bees. We tolerated the occasional bee stings because we knew that the bees were vital to the health of our garden and were directly responsible for the abundant fruit we harvested from our home orchard.

Now fast-forward 30 years: While family and friends were hanging out in our cabin on a cold Wisconsin evening, our kids brought up the impact of our carbon footprint. We have five children, ranging from 16 to 25 years old. What could we do as a family to become more environmentally conscious and live more sustainable lifestyles? Many ideas were discussed, including honeybees.

Newly arrived bees

Newly arrived bees

I was intrigued, so in the spring of 2012 I took a beekeeping class through the Dane County (Wisconsin) Beekeepers Association. It began in early April and was taught by two experienced beekeepers, who became our mentors. The class met on four Saturday afternoons and we learned about bees and assembled our beehives. On April 21 — Earth Day weekend — we received our “package bees.” These screened crates contained about 10,000 honeybees and a mated queen. I put my two crates (including a few bees clinging to the outside of the screening) into the car and — with my inquisitive husband — drove directly to our cabin to introduce the bees to their new home.

Package bees

My son Ryan, with several crates of bees.

Our cabin is an old A-frame structure surrounded by 100 acres of prairie and forest with a creek going through it. The property abuts a 2,000-acre state recreation area. We had set up the new beehives near our garden and fruit trees. There would be plenty of nectar, pollen and water — all three important for our new bees. My heart was pounding as I opened the crate of bees and reached in for the queen cage, just as I was taught in class. My husband watched while I set the queen cage between two frames in the hive, and then placed the jars of sugar syrup inside.

During the beekeeping class, we were advised to keep a journal so we could observe what was happening each week and learn more about our bees. I began looking forward to visiting them each week. I read books, kept notes, went to the Madison Bee Club monthly meetings and tried to keep up with the Dane County Beekeepers Association madbees.org group. It was all so energizing and exciting. My friends asked me about the bees as if they were my new children and I always had a story to tell. I learned so much so fast.

Bee swarm on apple tree

Our first swarm

In mid-July we went out of town on vacation, so the bees were left alone for two weeks. I started to worry that the bees might swarm — there were many entries on the MadBees forum about this. When we came back to the cabin after our vacation, the bees swarmed, almost in front of us! It was amazing! Half the bees from one hive flew into a small apple tree and hung on a branch.

Of course, we were not prepared with a new hive for the swarm. We called some neighbors down the road who had kept bees many years ago and had told us a swarm is super-fun to deal with. We knew we needed help and they came right away. We quickly put together a makeshift new hive and began making a plan for capturing the swarm.

Now we had three hives and the bees were very busy making honey. Our summer was hot and dry but they had the spring-fed creek and plenty of flowers in the fields around the property. I was stung a few times but learned to stay calm and try to be one with the bees. Friends and family came to see the bees and learn about them. We took a frame of honey home, learned how to strain it, and enjoyed the honey immensely. After harvesting a few more frames of honey during the summer, we noticed that the honey varied in color, depending on the types of flowers in bloom.

In our beekeeping class, I had learned about varroa mites and bee viruses, but I believed that our honeybees would survive because they were strong and we were in a naturally pesticide-free area. And, I wanted to avoid any non-natural agents.

I realized later that I was being a bit naive. It turns out that one of our hives — the one that didn’t swarm — had a bad mite infestation that had weakened it so much that it wasn’t likely to make it through the winter. We harvested some of the honey and hoped for the best, but the bees died some time before Christmas. Sadly, the other hives also died later that winter.

Jars of honey

Jars of honey

Undaunted and with lessons learned, we made the leap this spring and expanded our backyard apiary to five hives. Last year, we adopted a new term to describe people — whether or not they were “honey worthy;” that is, were they good enough friends to get our precious honey as a gift? We are hoping to have more honey this summer so we can be more generous our honey gifting!

Editor’s note: If you really want to go all-natural, consult with one or more beekeepers who have been doing it organically with success for years. It’s a gamble, and can be a costly and unfortunate way to start out for beginners. There are some less-toxic options now, too, that, though not “organic,” are better than not treating and losing hives.