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The Partial Observer by Steve Davis

Beekeeping Is a Hobby?

A recent survey by ModestFish identified beekeeping as the number one favorite alternative hobby in New York State. At first I was really thrilled to see that so many people wanted to participate in apiculture. Then that uneasy cloud cast its shadow over me. “Hobby?” Beekeepers take up the activity for various reasons. Most want their own sustainably-sourced honey. Some expect to make money from it. Many want to get closer to nature or appease their environmental guilts by supporting these little pollinators. And many beekeepers are just masochists, wondering what they can do to impose their YouTube techniques on one of nature’s most perfectly refined creatures.

Let’s start with a few fun facts. Honeybees provide pollination for about one third of the food we eat. Eighty-five percent of the flowering plants rely on honeybee pollination. These plants provide food for other animals, convert carbon dioxide to oxygen and add nutrients to the soil. The soil is held in place by the roots from the plants that the bees pollinate. This is the short version of just a piece of the fabulous miracle of our food chain. So, it troubles me that “hobby” doesn’t quite reflect the level of recognition these little creatures deserve. They are essential to our world and they are worthy of greater admiration and respect.

Serving up a few more facts: Apples, carrots, squashes, almonds, broccoli…all need bee pollinators. If you are not a fan of fruits and vegetables, let’s talk about meat. Cows eat alfalfa and other grasses. No bees, no meat, no milk, butter or ice cream. (New Zealand serves honey ice cream! It’s worth the trip.)

That’s a taste of the obvious stuff. Bees play an essential role in simply allowing us to live. But keeping bees is an educational adventure, too. We’ve heard the “circle of life” stories relating to so many natural cycles. Beekeeping provides the vehicle to understanding the connectivity of so many of nature’s systems. I often refer to the timing of these interrelated systems as “seasonality.” The queen bee lays eggs in late winter. As the larvae develop, the maple blossoms pop out and dandelions grow. These plants which provide nutrition for the developing larvae are reacting to the seasonal longer days and the warming weather. A major antagonist in beekeeping is the varroa mite, which transmits diseases. The mite population begins to increase perfectly coinciding to the new larval growth. As days shorten, there is actually a physiological change in honeybees. While normally a worker bee will live about 4-6 weeks, these winter bees need to live several months. So winter bees actually store extra fat in their bodies so the bees themselves become an energy source for the colony as they generate heat by shivering through the cold months. So our hobby bees are a thread that ties together seasons, plants, weather and even dependencies with other challenging insects.

Beekeeping can also trigger philosophical thoughts if you want to venture beyond a casual hobby activity. As a beekeeper, you can delight in looking for the one queen in a mass of 50,000 constantly moving, miniscule, nearly identical insects. If you don’t find her, is she really missing? There is an ancient philosophical question, “Is absence of evidence, evidence of absence?” Just because you can’t find her, does it mean she is not there? Carl Sagan asked this question, trying to comprehend the existence of extraterrestrial life. Cultures have pondered this question for ages, seeking to know if God exists. If this hobby can lead us to wondering about the existence of God, where else could it lead us?

So I struggle with calling beekeeping a mere hobby. I began beekeeping in hopes that I could learn to be a better human. The organization and cooperation in the hive is a miraculous example of how a complex society can function. There are so many lessons to learn.

Are you looking for a thought-provoking hobby? You don’t need a bee veil or an Epipen®. You can join this natural connectivity at any part of the circle. Let more of your lawn grow native plants. Reduce your mowing, especially in May when those larvae need pollen the most. Stop inappropriate use of pesticides. Consider participating in the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Pollinator Partnership program. And, of course, come talk honeybees with us at the Leatherstocking Beekeepers’ Association meetings. We meet on the fourth Thursday of nearly every month at 7 p.m. at The Farmers’ Museum. Check out our Facebook page or website. Or you may join us on February 24 for an “Introduction to Beekeeping” class. Registration information is on our sites.

But wait. I can’t leave you without one “the birds and the bees” story. The term “honeymoon” originates from an ancient Norse term for “honey month.” Traditionally, newlyweds would enjoy a period of seclusion, with an ample supply of mead, a fermented honey wine. Mead originated for medicinal purposes but was soon recognized for its aphrodisiac qualities. Cheers!

Steve Davis is a beekeeper and mentoring coordinator for the Leatherstocking Beekeepers’ Association.


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