Becoming a Beekeeper
My journey to becoming a beekeeper really began when I was a little kid. Near my childhood house in St. Petersburg, Florida was a creek that ran through the city and eventually drained into the bay. Along the creek’s edge was a small strip of trees that the neighborhood kids affectionately called, The Pine Forest. These few trees were the closest thing us city kids had to a forest. Every moment out of school was spent at The Pine Forest exploring and looking for adventure. One day as I was exploring alone, I noticed a hole in the ground from which a steady stream of insects was flying in and out of. “Wow!” I thought to myself, “I found a beehive!”
I imagined that beneath the entrance was honeycomb dripping with sweet, gooey goodness. I had to get some of it! My ten-year-old brain hatched a brilliant plan. First, I would carefully sneak up to the nest with a big stick. Next, I would shove it into the hole, spearing a chunk of honeycomb. Lastly, I would run away with my prize before the bees knew what hit them. I thought I had executed my plan to perfection as I ran away with a big sharp stick (it amazes me that I survived childhood with both eyes intact). My feeling of achievement in pulling off the great honey heist was soon interrupted by the terrifying buzz and sharp stings of a swarm of angry insects. Seven stings to the face later I reached my house and went crying to my mom. I was surprised that her reaction to my pain was to take one look at me and start laughing. It wasn’t until I looked in the mirror that I understood where one could possibly find humor in this situation. My bottom lip was swollen to cartoon-like proportion. Even worse than my mom laughing at my pain was the fact that there wasn’t even any honey on the stick. My first lesson in beekeeping was learning the difference between honeybees and yellowjackets.
About 17 years later I would have another experience with bees that changed my life. I was at work when we got a report that there was a swarm of bees clustered on a small tree in our parking lot, creating a public safety hazard. I went out to the parking lot with two of my co-workers, Bri and Carlos, to assess the bee situation. As we stared at the cluster of bees from a safe distance and conversed about which exterminator we should call, my childhood sense of adventure returned to me. “I’m going to catch those bees, bring them home and learn how to become a beekeeper!” I declared with confidence. We went to the shop and fashioned together a bee suit of sorts with some screen, old clothing, and lots of duct tape. Armed with a bucket, some screen, and a roll of duct tape, I approached the cluster of bees. Shaking the branch, I knocked most of the bees into the bucket and quickly duct taped the screen over the top. I hadn’t even been stung in the process (Carlos wasn’t so lucky as he took a sting to the forehead).
I had a bucket full of bees! All I had to do now what figure out what to do with them. I called the only person I knew to be a beekeeper and he informed me that in order to keep bees I would have to register them with the State. After searching online, I called the State Agricultural Dept. and got connected with the head apiary inspector. I was kindly informed that because I was in an area known to have Africanized Honeybees, it was highly recommended that I requeen them. I was even given the number of a local queen breeder. Calling the queen breeder, I set up a date to pick up a new queen. I was instructed to go into the colony and kill the old queen the day before I introduced the new queen. It all sounded easy enough. When I arrived home with my bucket of bees I went to my garage, cut up some scrap wood, and assembled a bee box that I thought looked similar enough to ones I had seen online. I had no idea that there were standard sizes for bee boxes. Setting the box up in my back yard, I dumped the bees from the bucket into the box and closed the lid. Now I just had to wait for the new queen to be ready. The day before I was to pick up the new queen, I put on my makeshift bee suit and opened the lid to try to figure out how to find and kill a queen bee. My nervousness about opening the hive quickly turned to disappointment as I discovered an empty box. The bees had absconded. I called the queen breeder to inform him that I would no longer be needing a queen. As I explained to him that the bees had left the box, he began to ask me questions like, “Did you have foundation in your frames?” My response, “Foundation? Frames?” I had no idea what these references meant. “Look” he said, “If you really want to start beekeeping, I’ll sell you a colony of bees ready to go.” I was in! The next day I met him at a gas station and we made the exchange. $140 for a hive of bees complete with what I would later learn was a bottom board, a deep hive body, a medium super, 20 frames of bees with a queen, and a lid. Those prices sure don’t exist anymore! Some screen shoved into the entrance was all that was locking in what sounded like a million angry bees. A ratchet strap and a little duct tape held the super and lid in place. I loaded the whole thing into the back of my Toyota 4Runner and prayed to God that I didn’t get into an accident on the drive home. After setting the hive up in my backyard, I pulled the screen from the entrance and quickly got away. The bees began pouring out and flying in circles around the hive in order to re-orientate to their new location. I was officially a bee haver, but I had a lot to learn before I would be a beekeeper.
I went to my local library, checked out the two books they had on beekeeping, and began to learn about bees and beekeeping. After learning about some of the tools and equipment required to keep bees I went online and ordered a real bee suit, a smoker, a hive tool, and a bee brush from one of the beekeeping supply stores. As I began learning how to inspect the colony, that’s when the adventure began of exploring a whole different world that exists within every bee colony. The buzz of tens of thousands of bees went from a sound that made me nervous to a sound that had a calming effect on me. As I began learning more about beekeeping, I wanted to try doing everything I read about! Making splits, raising queens, catching swarms, harvesting honey. From making splits, catching swarms and doing cutouts, having one colony of bees quickly turned into having two, then four, then twelve. I really enjoyed becoming a beekeeper! The bees began to make honey and I bought a little two frame honey extractor. I began giving some of our extra honey to family and friends. Then the word got out! It seemed that everyone in the area had been looking for local raw honey. I began selling honey for a hobby income. I thought I had beekeeping figured out pretty well until the day came when I found piles of dead bees outside of every hive in my backyard. I called the state inspector and she came out to investigate. My neighbors had tented their house for termites and left rain barrels underneath the tent. When the tent was removed my bees went to the tainted rain barrels to water. The inspector also found a high mite count on the bees that were still alive. After a couple weeks, my colonies were completely decimated. I was faced with a decision: Do I give up or start over?
I started over. I bought four more colonies and began building up from there once again. This time I decided not to keep all my colonies in one location. Recruiting yard space from relatives and friends I began keeping bees throughout the city. I started a sideline honey business and then a few years later decided to leave my full-time job to pursue opportunities in urban beekeeping. Today I manage hundreds of bee colonies in backyards and on business properties throughout Tampa Bay, Florida. I run a company that focuses on hyper-local raw honey, beekeeping education, and live bee removal services. Beekeeping, while full of challenges and disappointments, is also very rewarding. I believe that persevering through the challenges and learning from them is what makes the successes in beekeeping so rewarding.