The art of raising bees is a chance to reminisce, to find peace, or to use your hands, and, in the best cases, to make some money.
Like humans, bees have communities, rituals, roles and routines — ones that endear them to those who own them.
“I don’t think you could ever really stop learning about them,” Senior and newbeehive owner Jack Shelley said.
Shelley said the hive makes natural signs, such as noise and pitch, that signal the bees’ mood. This means a beekeeper has to know the right times of day and kinds of days to interrupt the bees’ work. If a beekeeper chooses the wrong time or day, the hive’s buzz will change pitch and tone.
“You see people on social media video themselves going into a beehive without protection, which is cool and all, but there are some days where if you went without protection, you would die,” Shelley said.
In order to learn about the subtle mood of bees and the inner workings of their hive, Shelley decided to attend a beekeeper’s association meeting.
“I showed up to a meeting on Tuesday night in the middle of the semester,” Shelley said. “It was just me and four of the oldest people I’ve ever met in my life.”
The meeting turned out to be fruitful. Shelley exchanged information with Karen and Bruce Timberman, who own an apiary called TimberRidge Farms. Shelley eventually visited their apiary, received some advice and tips, and then bought two hives from the couple.
Shelley said he is interested in sustainability but ultimately decided to buy bees because they carry a nostalgic value for him.
“My grandfather used to take care of bees in England. I helped whenever we would go back to visit,” he said. “The idea of a homestead, where you have things that make you self-sufficient, is also really cool.”
Shelley harvested only two frames of honey this August, but that was primarily to allow the bees to store enough honey to survive the winter. From the two frames Shelley harvested about 8 oz of honey.
“It was as good as expected,” Shelley said. “It’s pretty crazy how different honey can be from hive to hive. One of my frames tasted super minty. I think some people target that kind of stuff. They’ll put their hives by a lavender field to get lavender flavored honey.”
Shelley also said that taking care of the bees does not require constant attention, so he’s been able to keep them back home while at school.
“In general, they’re pretty low maintenance which surprised me,” he said. “I only go home once a month to take a look at things. For some people that approach is better. You want to be disturbing them as little as possible.”
Wintering bees in Michigan can be quite the challenge. Preparation for the winter can sometimes begin as early as July. The primary objective is to keep the bees warm. Preparations can include creating insulation chambers or wrapping the hive in roofing paper. The bees are usually fed sugar water if their honey reserves are not enough to sustain the hive.
“Take care of them and they’ll take care of you,” Karen Timberman said.
Hillsdale County resident Darcie Miller also bought bees in May, and after a surprisingly good harvest, has begun to sell honey over Facebook. She has sold about 13 jars of honey so far.
“There are so many parts to a beehive that produce beneficial properties to humans,” Miller said. “People love natural honey right from the hive. It just tastes better.”
Store bought honey is typically heated before being bottled, which many say degrades the honey by affecting the taste, color, aroma and chemical content of the honey.
Miller said she’s considered buying bees for five or six years. This year she decided to do it, so she attended a beekeeping class in February. Since then, her hives have done well.
“I was only expecting to maybe get a jar for myself and my mom,” she said. “But my bees have thrived and I can’t believe how fast they’ve bloomed.”
Miller said she’s always been “fascinated with how much honey bees provide.”
“They are amazing creatures,” she said. “Their whole existence is based on routine and schedules. Me invading their hive screws up their whole entire day. It’s like an entirely other world that provides so much to us and the earth. They pollinate 80 percent of the food that we eat.”
Both Miller and Shelley expressed a love for working with their hands. Working with the bees provides a certain kind of calm from the noise of daily life.
“The ones that get into the beekeeping business love the peace that they found out in the bee yards,” Karen Timberman said.
Miller said she is surprised by her success, but when it comes to bees, she, like many others, is learning as she goes.
“Bees are amazing. They’re almost like little people. When you watch them, they are just spectacular. Their whole entire process. They value life just as much as we do,” Miller said. “They take care of each other. They protect one another. They value their lives and their colony. It’s really amazing to see what they will do.”