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My Great Bee Adventure

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What gardener has not dreamed of keeping her own bees? Who among us has not wandered through our gardens lauding the lone bee as she goes about the business of pollinating, making sure our zucchinis are well formed and that our cherry blossoms burst into scarlet fruits? We see them go about their work, buzzing from flower to flower, praying that every single bud will become something good and delicious. And we wonder—what can we do to help? No doubt, it is the desire of every gardener to be able to own and manage at least one hive of bees. For most of us, though, it is only a dream, something we think we will never be able to accomplish, but on our bucket list, nonetheless.

This dream actually came true for me this past year. I had been thinking about setting up my own hive but had no idea where to begin. I asked around my farmer friends, but none seemed to know how or want to help with such a small endeavor. They were used to dealing with hundreds of hives on thousands of acres of orchards, which were mostly sourced from outside the valley. They had no idea how to help me set up a single beehive in my backyard, and naturally, at that point, I had no clue what to do either. 

But then last July, I was blessed with a divine opportunity that would make me the apprehensive heiress of a wild hive. I was also blessed with a friend who already knew something about bees from his former life in Missouri. Not only had he kept several hives in his home state, but he possessed a child-like curiosity and fearlessness toward nature, which would make him the perfect accomplice when the call came. A wild hive had attached itself to the eaves of my mother’s church and was causing havoc with the parishioners. A quick visit to Amazon for the needed gear and we were ready to go the next day, all in Prime time. With nothing more than dual bee hoods, smoker, sharp knife, large garbage bag, wine box, flashlight and a 30-foot extension ladder in the back of my old pickup, we were off on an adventure that would foster within me a desire to learn all about these amazing creatures. And thankfully no stings, at least for me. My companion was only stung a few times, but even so, he just brushed them off like so many flies on a hot day. 

A year later, I have learned more about bees and beekeeping than I ever thought possible. With the help of two excellent beekeeping clubs and other curious beekeepers in our area, as well as several bee festivals and workshops in Northern California, I have learned that the more I learn about bees, the more I don’t know. A friend in one of the clubs is fond of saying, “You can ask ten different people the same question and you’ll get ten different answers.” I have found that backyard beekeeping is a very personal thing, like keeping pets. Or chickens. We learn about their needs and we take care of them accordingly. 

The most important thing I have learned is that beekeeping is easier than one might think. Regardless of the fear-of-being-stung factor, they can be very docile creatures. Allegedly, they only sting when they feel their queen is threatened or if you step on one as she gathers pollen from the dandelions in your lawn. As gardeners, we have worked side by side with them, never having to give way to territory, just going about our own individual business. I have since watched several bee friends open hives and work inside, replacing frames, checking for mites and performing general maintenance without even suiting up or using a smoker. 

Setting up your hive can be a daunting task, unless, like me, you have a friend who can help. There are lots of YouTube videos to show you how, or you can take advantage of the bee clubs in the area. I now belong to the Big Valley Beekeepers Guild, which meets every second Thursday at The Village Restaurant, on Victor Road, Lodi. They are an invaluable source as they host guest speakers from the likes of U.C. Davis Research Center and Scientific Beekeeping, as well as various beekeeping supply houses to help you get started. On the third Wednesday, the Mid-Valley Beekeepers Club meets at the Richmaid Restaurant in Lodi for serious bee talk, sharing of experiences, lively camaraderie and good food. 

Some say that setting up the hive is the hardest task and you should probably be prepared to spend a little cash. Unless, like me, your hive is divinely acquired and you capture it in a wine box (courtesy of Durst Family Winery) and subsequently house it in a stack of repurposed kitchen drawers (compliments of the remodeled HERLIFE office), and add the frames later. All in all, my hive is doing very well, thank you, and not only do I feel confident that my flowers will fruit but I look forward to my first honey harvest this fall. Until then, I dream of all the delicious, healthy honey for my morning cup of tea as I meander around my gardens observing those busy little beings at work. That will naturally be another honey of a story.

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