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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Mentoring Sarah the Beekeeper


Sarah is suited up and ready to get into her own hive of bees for the first time. I'd helped her and her husband move the bees from one of my yards to their new farm last fall. Now it's a warm, late-winter day, and she is going to peek in long enough to see how they're doing, reverse the 2 deep boxes, and make sure they have enough honey left in the shallow top box to make it through the rest of the winter. I am there to talk her through it. Her excitement is palpable--and contagious. Watching her brings back memories of the first heart-pounding time that I opened a beehive, almost 10 years ago.

I was with my mentor, Steve. I had bartered a summer of my Saturdays to help him in his bee yards in exchange for learning the craft. I had just pried the top cover loose with my new hive tool, pulled it up, and set it aside. The bees roiled up out of the hive and flew in a cloud around us. I was excited but unafraid. Then as I went to remove the inner cover, I saw a teeny little spider and instinctively jumped back and screamed! Steve laughed so hard that it was hard for me to understand what he was saying, but it was something like, "You have thousands of bees flying all around your head, and you're afraid of a little spider?" I felt very foolish, but I lost my fear of spiders that day.

Sarah is a trooper. She gingerly pries the top cover loose, and when the bees come flying out, she stands her ground, asking me what to do with the cover she's holding. I tell her to set it on the ground upside down and that we'll use it to set the other hive parts on as we work.

I talk, she asks questions, and I talk some more. She removes the top shallow super and sets it aside. When I ask, she said yes the box feels heavy and that she thinks there is honey in it. Indeed when I look, three frames of capped honey remain in the shallow box.

When she removes this shallow box, we can see the top of the brood chamber, which is covered with bees. It's always a relief to see so many bees in a hive this time of year! The bees fly about us, but do not try to sting us through our suits. Sarah pries the brood chamber from the remaining deep box. It is heavy with bees and honey, and she sets it on top of the shallow box, which is on top of the overturned outer cover. As expected, the bottom box is empty. The bees have moved up over the winter.

Sarah removes this empty, bottom box from the bottom board and sets it on the stack, which now is beginning to look like an upside-down beehive. She then reassembles the hive, putting the full brood chamber on the bottom, the empty deep box on top of that, and then replaces the shallow box of honey in its original position. The hive looks good, strong, and I am confident it will make it through the last weeks of winter until the spring bloom.

The bees are happy, Sarah is happy, and I am happy! I am lucky! I get to be with her this first year to talk her through all the seasons of beekeeping. After that, I will be available for questions. I have had lots of people ask me about the bees, ask me to mentor them, and express interest in beekeeping. Few really follow through. I understand. Life is so busy for young people these days with so many things pulling on them.

I must admit though that I get kind of cranky and standoffish when people ask me to come help them. Mentoring used to mean that you went and worked for someone else. Gave real labor in exchange for learning. Few people have time for that now. Experience has taught me that what most people really want is for me to come and set everything up for them and then be on call to come fix their problems. I don't have the time for that. Although I'd like to, my own bee yards keep me very busy. So now I invite them to come watch me when I'm working and pick up what knowledge they can. If they can't find the time to do that much, they don't have time to learn.

But then, a Sarah comes along and restores my faith. She wants to learn, and she wants to do it herself! At one point, when I'd jumped in to pry the frames in the shallow super loose to check on the honey stores, she'd said, "Um, Betty, I feel like I should be doing that." That blew me away! And it told me all I needed to know about her desire to really learn.

So now this cranky old bee lady gets to see the whole process all over again through new eyes--through Sarah's eyes. I'm sure that I had as much if not more fun than she did that day. And you can be sure that I will do everything within my power this year to make sure that Sarah's beekeeping endeavor is successful!

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