Photography by Lauren Lyon
April 29 2015
David Stover caught his first swarm in the middle of a busy street. On a quiet spring morning, as he and his wife were on their way home from the farmer’s market, their car drove through a slow moving cloud of buzzing insects, a honey bee colony on the move. David, still a novice beekeper, recognized the opportunity and immediately collected his supplies: a beekeeping suit and veil, a swarm box, a step ladder, and pruning shears.
When they returned to the intersection, they found the bees congregating around a tree branch on the median. Traffic on either side of the road slowed to catch a glimpse of the bee action, as David, clad in his otherworldly white suit, climbed to the top of the stepladder and cut the branch. “Bees emit pheromones,” he explains, “that they use to determine different aspects of what’s going on in the hive. If you capture the queen, you can just sit there and watch this army of bees just rain in after her.” David gently shook the branch into the swarm box, waiting to capture the queen.
Beekeeping forces you to move deliberately, to keep in mind your every action. One wrong move could potentially turn the usually calm, docile honeybee hive into an agitated swarm. “It is a very humbling experience,” David says, “I tend to be a hyper kind of person, maybe I drink too much coffee. It just slows you down. It makes you act very methodically, very deliberately when you go to inspect a hive.”
In the summertime, David sits in his backyard to eat lunch and watch the bees come and go. He says, “It’s a real calming kind of thing. You see them bring pollen. You see the undertaker bees, which are older nurse bees taking out the dead.” He watches the operations of the hive, the self-regulated comings and goings, the group mind, operating as a unified whole, as one. It took David two years of beekeeping to become familiar with the hive’s patterns and the ways in which the bees work together.
The queen mothers all of the bees in the hive, producing workers, drones, and eventually, new queens. The drones, males born of unfertilized eggs, live only to mate with a queen. The workers, all female, carry out the daily operations of the hive: nursing, feeding, defending, heating, and cooling. They leave the hive to forage for pollen and nectar, the building blocks of the colony.
The health of a hive is a delicate thing. It exists in a naturally fragile state, and it is not uncommon for beekeepers to lose one or several hives every season. “It’s a very emotional thing when a hive dies,” David says, “It’s a very sad moment. You get attached to these little creatures.” Throughout the US, honeybees have a mix of forces working against their health and longevity. Aside from the already fragile natural hive state, the perfect storm of outside factors are threatening the health of the honeybee. Insecticides, pesticides, invasive varroa mite infestations, and the increasing proliferation of bee-unfriendly crops, such as genetically modified corn and soy, all threaten the honeybee’s way of life.
Although an individual bee will only produce 1/12 of an ounce of honey during its lifetime, each bee’s role in the hive changes with the passing of time. Their chemical makeup adjusts with their age and the changing seasons. In this way, the only constant in the life of the honey bee is work. Honeybees are responsible for pollinating more than $15 billion in U.S. crops annually, including apples, oranges, almonds, blueberries, and onions, among others. “Bees literally work themselves to death,” David muses, “they just keep doing what they’re doing until they die. You’ll see them crawling across the ground with big stacks of pollen on their back legs. They’re making it back to the hive to deliver that load of pollen. They don’t make it, but they keep going until they die. I would love to die like that, doing some task like carrying pollen, instead of being stuck in a home somewhere.”
From its beginnings in his backyard, David’s beekeeping has spread across the city. He tends to multiple hives around Richmond in friends’ backyards and in urban gardens for his new side business, Urban Apiaries. As he becomes more invested in the practice, he has begun to notice a change in his perspectives. He now sees the world around him in a new light. Instead of looking down at the crooked Richmond sidewalks, he scans for budding red maples, an early blooming pollen source for the bees. And David is not alone. The number of backyard beekeepers around the world is steadily growing. Some do it for the honey, some do it simply as a hobby, but all do it with the understanding that bees are good for the world, and that in turn they are good for us.
Bee Brush A simple brush used to gently brush bees off of any surface the beekeeper needs to access. Serrated Knife Used in a Kenyan top-bar hive to cut the comb attachments the bees make from the edge of comb to the sloped sides of the hive. Queen Catcher A spring loaded clip that enables the beekeeper to capture the queen without injuring her. The openings in the sides are big enough for worker bees to get out of but too small for queens. Beetle Vacuum A keyboard vacuum used to remove small hive beetles that breed in honey combs whose larvae destroy the hive with their excrement. Hive Tool A handheld tool used to pry open hive lids and frames that the bees have sealed together with propolis. Electric Uncapping Knife An electrically heated knife used in the process of extracting honey. When pulled across the face of a frame, it melts away the wax cappings exposing the honey for harvesting.
Langstroth hive The Langstroth hive is the standard for beekeepers around the world. Its rectangular shape contains several wooden frames within which bees build comb. The key design element in the use of frames is intended to prevent bees from attaching comb to the walls or to adjacent frames. With the advent of the Langstroth hive, beekeepers were able to easily pry each frame out of the hive to inspect for signs of disease or to glean honey. Kenyan top-bar hive The Kenyan top-bar hive is trapezoidal in shape with a row of bars upon which bees build comb downwards. Bees naturally don’t build comb on the floor, most often they build upon the ceilings and walls of structures. Since the walls of the hive are at a downward slope, the bees do not attach comb to them, making the bars easier to remove and inspect. Generally, the hive is built at such a height to make it more accessible to the beekeeper, however, in many African countries the height of the hive is also determined by the height of the animal it needs to be protected from.
Smoke masks alarm pheromones that are released by guard bees or bees that are injured during a beekeeper’s inspection. The smoke creates an opportunity for the beekeeper to open the beehive and work while the colony’s defensive response is interrupted. Additionally, smoke initiates a feeding response in anticipation of possible hive abandonment due to fire. When a bee consumes honey, its abdomen distends, making it difficult to make the necessary flexes to sting.