What was the moment in my fledgling beekeeping journey when I fully acknowledged that I was stuck?
Was it March 1st when this New Orleans expat skipped the local Mardi Gras parade to attend the Bee School?
March 22, when, after spending $418.80 in one bee store, I spent $115 at another for even more necessities, including an exceptionally dashing veil?
April 9 when I made more simple syrup than a professional bartender or baker uses in a month, hoping it would last my hive for two days?
Or was it the morning of April 10, when I strapped 10,000 bees into the back seat of my hatchback? (Look, I know how I drive.)
How did I get here, you ask? l
blame credit Virginia teacher Angela DeHart. When I interviewed her for my book The Secret History of Home Economics, she said that if she ran the world, home economics “would live! We would have bees! We would know things!”
When I landed like a bee on a stamen in North Carolina in steamy August, her comment came back to me. I’m going to keep bees, I thought. I had made a decision unconsciously.
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Now I’m not very good at nature. I killed coin. But North Carolina is teeming with resources for the bumbling beekeeper. To misquote John Lennon, you could say I’m crazy, but I’m not alone.
North Carolina has an estimated 15,000 beekeepers, most of them backyard hobbyists, said NCSU aculturist David Tarpy. It is arguably the most in the country; it is certainly the most per capita. The state beekeepers association is the largest in the country, with more than 5,000 members and 87 provincial branches, he added. The pollination profit of the bees for agriculture, the state’s largest industry, runs into “hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars a year,” he said.
And more beekeepers are signing up. It’s the silver lining to the headlines about colony loss, Tarpy said, “But that obviously comes with additional challenges, because there’s a lot of need for beekeeping education.”
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I receive my education through the Durham County Beekeepers Association. When a bee poked me through my sweatpants in the education apiary (don’t inspect a beehive in sweatpants), members reassured me that it didn’t mean the bees hated me.
I enrolled in Bee School – with 61 other students! I downloaded beekeeping podcasts and painted my beehive, inhaling the aromas of beeswax and pine. As veteran DCBA members wrote about catching swarms, I stared jealously at the flowering trees — my bees could drink all that nectar and collect all that nose-tickling pollen, but I didn’t have them yet!
(Speaking of the sugar syrup, before you imagine a striped and soft bee, holding a Manhattan, the syrup is for building honeycomb. It takes nine pounds of honey to make one pound of wax, Tarpy said, and there are new ones. hives need an assist, which is why that rustic comb honey costs more than the plastic bear.)
Finally it was B Day.
At the supply depot that cold morning, I lifted the three-pound, plywood-and-screen box. With the temperature in the 1940s, the colony hung in a tornado-shaped cone, which gathered around the pierced can of syrup, protecting its queen. You would never guess there were 10,000 bees in it. Two lone bees clung to the outside. I tried not to think how exactly they got to the outside of the box I wanted to put in my car.
By the time I got home, the bees were starting to come loose. The tornado looked rough; it buzzed and buzzed. I put the package in the cellar, sprinkled it liberally with sugar syrup and went to meet friends. (Tarpy advised in a video to let the bees rest before hiving them.)
That afternoon, while donning my Indiana Jones-style veiled bee hat, I began the beehive process. Remove four frames from the hive – check. Pry plywood flap from beehive tool box, which looks like a minor crowbar with a yen for puncture wounds – check. Pop out can of syrup –
Those famous final words of the 2020s: It looked so simple on YouTube.
When a beekeeper assembles a package of bees, he inserts a pierced can of syrup into a hole in the box so that the bees have food along the way. This could now become my nemesis. I clamped my hive tool under the lip, shoved it up – smash! It fell in again. I lifted the can an inch and found it to be dented, an oval sitting in a round hole. Bees shot through the opening and swarmed around me, that marauder threatening their queen.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I stammered like an insecure teenage girl.
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One is supposed to remain calm, telling the bees that there is no threat. I was shaking. I took a breath. I grew a third arm, flipped open my pocket knife, and started sawing into the hole.
I got the look all the way up – and the bottom lip stuck. saw more. Nothing. I put one foot on the box and jerked. A drop of sweat rolled down my back. Absolute failure loomed – the bees were in the package forever. Nothing mattered in all the world but getting this can of syrup out of a stupid plywood box.
I turned the package on its side, stepped on the can – and it popped out.
From there it was really simple. I fished out the box with the queen. The small cork removed. With rubber tires on a frame. As those cover-up videos showed, I cleverly knocked the package on the floor, turned it upside down and shook the bees into the hive.
Then I went in to call my parents and humbly accept their praise for my bravery as I brewed another two liters of sugar syrup.
That was Sunday. Now I keep walking to my office window to watch the bees. They fly in arcs. They fizz around the hive like bubbles in champagne. They are not producing honey yet, but an amazing amount of joy.
Tarpy understands. “That’s the appeal of them — it’s just these fascinating creatures,” he said. He advised staying connected with the provincial beekeeping association: “It’s infinitely easier to learn from others who have tried and failed — like you’re about to do.”
My sugar syrup and I are ready to serve.
Danielle Dreilinger is a storyteller in North Carolina. Her book The Secret History of Home Economics, a 2021 NPR Favorite History Book, is out in paperback May 3. Want more episodes of her beekeeping adventures? Let her know at firstname.lastname@example.org.