I had no intention of becoming a beekeeper when I signed up for the class at the San Juan Capistrano Ecology Center. (theecologycenter.org). For one, I had a sneaky suspicion I was more than a little allergic to bees. The last three stings I’d had had been progressively worse, but I have never had the appropriate fear I should probably hold for wild things, and shrugged this off entirely. (I once saw two baby mountain lions with their mom and was so excited, I rode toward them.) "Beekeeping 101” sounded like a whimsical thing to learn, and the Ecology Center is nothing short of stepping into Sunset magazine – a gorgeous California-style bungalow with drought tolerant yard and courses on everything from canning to bread baking and herbs as medicine. And it’s all situated next to a farmer’s market, on a strawberry grove. I’ve always been a gardener, and honey bees seemed to fit with that love.
I’m sort of a nerdy librarian type, so to prepare for the upcoming fun of the course I watched a documentary on colony collapse. By morning I was so excited to save the bees I went from thinking I’d just learn a bit about them, to naively hoping I’d be handed a full hive to drive home. Like bugs in a jar. No biggie, right?
The course instructor, Eric, was a backyard gardener, rainwater collector, and general whiz plus author of how-to in all things sustainable. Our class of 15 ranged in age from 20-something to 50+, and looked exactly like you’d expect: a bunch of crunchy types. We sat at picnic tables outside and huddled around the shaded areas in the heavy perfume of an orange tree bursting with blossoms just behind the teacher. Our instructor announced what we were all delighted to hear: “There's really no keeping in beekeeping" – it's more like “having," because they "keep themselves.” (I was soon to learn this is not true.)
Eric was consistently laissez faire in both his approach to beekeeping and the course. He covered the anatomy of the hive, the different styles of hives, and their benefits. He shared that the bees don’t prefer top-bar hives, but anyone with a bad back might since they don’t require bending over, but he failed to mention bees inevitably, always swarm in a top-bar hive – something anyone with neighbors might’ve wanted to know. That said, he was very thorough in other teachings – bringing his suit and allowing us to try it on and letting us molest his bee hive frames, honeycomb etc., like kindergartners in show-and-tell. We had arrived knowing little if anything about bees, and definitely left bee-smarter, learning that honey is actually regurgitated bee spit, rich in enzymes with medicinal properties. Also, when bees need a new queen, they just make one by feeding larvae Royal Jelly. Perhaps most impressively, we learned how to catch a swarm and re-hive it, which was hands-down the most exciting part of all for me. I felt as close to bad ass as I’ll ever get, imagining I would tell my friends I not only knew how to catch a swarm, I had caught the bees in my own hive.
I loved the teacher’s easy demeanor and his “local”, more sustainable, weather-enduring, heartier bee approach. I’m a Venice Beach and San Francisco-raised hippie after all, with an eco-obsessed, up-cycling, gardener mom. I was so repulsed by the concept of artificially inseminated queen bees being produced for crop farmer pollination and nodded in agreement as Eric ranted on about how unnatural that was, and how some beekeeper societies were perpetuating this awful practice with new members. Nor did I want the undesirable, imported bees that were $100 and often died upon arrival that those “other” clubs endorsed. I was going with the wild, feral, drought-resistant, Africanized bees.
“Killer bees?” Sure people called them that too, but that was a silly myth perpetuated by those who supported unnatural beekeeping. What could be more natural than finding my bees in their own habitat (even if that was someone's garage wall)?
By the end of the three-hour course I was so excited, the thought of waiting an entire month for the second course on how to build my hive was out of the question. The idea of building my own hive sounded highly romantic, however, and would make my hive even more righteously authentic. Unfortunately my current workload of 60-hours of freelance killed that notion quickly, so I headed off into what felt like an entirely different planet: beekeeping supply websites. Eric had referred them to us:
There are only a handful of these sites, but each is offered by a company who has been in the beekeeping business for 100 or so years. Each has pages and pages and pages of hive boxes, various types of frames that go in each box, and endless amounts of other strange things I’d ever seen. I had no clue what I was looking at, and was overwhelmed by various types of mites and things I’d yet to learn about...
After hours of feeling that I may as well have been ordering a silo, I got smart and did what yuppie posers do: I went to Williams-Sonoma.com. Beekeeping is apparently now so fashionable, the gourmet shop has "Apiary" (a collection of bee houses or place where bees are) supplies. These were apiary supplies I could understand: three types of hives, a package set of the tools and getup you need to wear, and a honey extractor. Because I was focused on what was really important, I was immediately drawn to the tasteful design of the copper-roofed hive. It wasn’t just a box like every other hive I’d seen. If Frank Gehry had been a bee, this would be his early edition, reflective-roofed house.
Reading that these hives were all custom-built and supplied by Mann Lake sealed the deal for me. Mann Lake has been making these same hives (but unfinished, and with lower-quality wood), for over 100 years. And Mann Lake had been one of the sites that originally bamboozled me.
Typical box-style beehives hold 10 frames in each box. After learning they can weigh up to 70 pounds — more once filled with honey, bees, and comb – the copper-roofed, 8-frame beehive was a no-brainer. At $350 plus shipping, it was a huge splurge, and these weren’t even pets. And I still needed to buy my suit, hat, hive tool, gloves, brush, and the coolest thing any beekeeper has – the smoker that looks like something the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz would carry. Still overwhelmed by the sources “real” beekeepers turned to, I found the rest of what I needed on Amazon. My designer bees would be stylin’ and I was ready.
I just needed to find them.