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A Tale of Two Beekeepers

By Tom Lowrey, Education Assistant

HoneyAfter working thirty years as a chemical engineer at Dow Corning, Joan Donatelli retired and was mulling over what to do next. One day, her husband came up to her and said, “I signed you up for a class. You’re going to go to Saginaw, and you need to take a hammer.” So she went to Saginaw, and she built a hive.“They’re pretty easy to build,” says Joan. “Typically you just buy a kit. You get the nails, hammer it together and paint it.”

There are all sorts of ways you can get started in beekeeping. Joan says, “You can go down to MSU, where they have ‘bee college.’ I also went to Kalamazoo for a day and learned about queen rearing and how to treat my hives for various diseases. There are classes in Ohio, and all over the place. It’s just fun…a nice group of people.”

The flavor of a hive’s honey depends on where the hive is placed. Joan’s hives are located in the woods, where the bees have access to a lot of tree pollen. “Most people think that bees get all their pollen at ground level,” says Joan, “but you have about six times as much pollen in the trees because you have all that much more surface area. The biggest problem is that my hives are damp and don’t get quite as much sun, so the bees don’t come out as early, but there’s plenty of food for them.” Joan sells some of her honey to a local chef, and he can tell by tasting what kind of trees the bees are visiting.

How much time does Joan spend working with her hives? “In the spring, once it’s warm enough, you want to go in weekly until you’re sure they’re doing well. Once the honey flow starts, in beginning-to-middle June, you let them go. Then you check on them every couple of weeks to make sure they have enough room, because if it’s a good year and they’re making a lot of honey, you have to keep putting on more ‘supers’ or boxes so they can put the honey up there. And then in the fall, you’ll be taking the honey and treating the hive again to prevent disease.”

Lately there have been more challenges for bees and beekeepers. “Queens used to live about five years, but nowadays you’re lucky to get three years out of them.” Why? “I think it’s disease, plus inbreeding. I don’t think there are enough people breeding queens.” There are also predators, like the varroa mite, that threaten the bee population.

At the end of the season, Joan harvests her honey and wax. The wax is actually more valuable, and she takes it to a place in Albion and uses it to barter for more equipment! She keeps the honey for herself, sells some of it to some regular customers, and gives some out as gifts. “I’m not in it to make money,” she says. “It’s just a way of ‘giving back’.”

Billie Ritter, the Health Education Coordinator at Senior Services, has always been interested in bees and beekeeping. A few years ago she took a class and attended the Beekeepers Association to learn more about it. They’re very supportive, and willing to share information and answer questions. “They have a lot of great classes for every level of beekeeper—from somebody who’s just thinking about it to someone who is quite seasoned.”

Billie keeps her hives in a field, and her bees visit the surrounding fields. She has even planted five acres of wildflowers near her hives. “Once honeybees start feeding on a particular type of flower, they will search for that flower until it’s done blooming. If a bee finds a particular apple tree, it will come back and recruit other bees by sharing nectar with them, and by doing a little dance that tells them where to go, and how far. Then those bees will fly several miles to find the tree and will continue to harvest until those flowers are gone.”

Billie shares her honey with friends and family, cooks with it, and uses both the wax and the honey to make cosmetic products. Billie’s favorite thing about beekeeping? “I just love watching them. They’re so interesting… they’re such a hard working community…and you get the benefit of the products from the hive. And, of course, there are the added benefits to the environment.”

Both Billie and Joan are busiest at the beginning of the season, when they clean out their hives, check the health of the hives, and sometimes split hives if there are a lot of bees. While professional beekeepers may gather honey twice a year, hobbyists like Joan and Billie harvest just once, in late summer or early fall. And they always make sure there is enough honey left in the hive so that the bees will survive the winter.