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Communicator, Gardener, and … Apiarist?

By Andrea L. Ames | STC Fellow

Eight years ago, I moved back to my home state of Maine from California. In California, I was a hobby gardener, growing roses, hibiscus, iris, bird of paradise, bougainvillea, day lilies, brugmansia, and lots of other gorgeous flowers. I also grew some amazing trees, like avocado, ornamental cherry, and orange. In Redwood City, which is (mostly) in “hardiness zone” 9b—essentially gardening nirvana—you can grow just about anything (except plants that require a frost or a cold, dormant period).

When I returned to Maine, needless to say, growing flowers was a very different story. After a couple of years of reacclimating myself, I decided to take the Maine Master Gardener course and become a Master Gardener Volunteer. I wanted to gain more knowledge about the local flora and how to successfully cultivate ornamental plants, as well as to contribute to solving Maine’s serious food security issues.

I had no idea, however, that my desire to have a beautiful flower garden would lead to beekeeping!

The Master Gardener program offers not only 40 hours of basic training but also many in-depth and related courses for gardeners’ continuing education. One of those courses was in beekeeping. After a basic training lesson about native pollinators (which honeybees are not, by the way), I wanted to learn more about the role pollination by various means plays in a healthy garden ecosystem, so I took a basic beekeeping course.

If you’re a technical communicator deep in your bones, you are probably like me, and nearly any new “technology” is fascinating. If that’s the case, and you don’t have time for a new hobby, do not take a beekeeping course! I had no intention of keeping bees, but after only two class meetings, I had ordered two nucleus colonies1 of bees and was planning my shopping list for all of the equipment I would need to keep those two hives of little ladies happy and healthy!

I also dug into learning as much as possible, reading books, combing through product catalogs, and following the many websites2 that cater to the health and care of honeybees. Fast-forward to today, and I have:

  • Successfully nurtured colonies through multiple harsh, Maine winters
  • Harvested honey
  • Been stung a few times
  • Lost some colonies
  • Learned a lot about these amazing and fascinating creatures—from knowing how to check the health of a colony to why bearding and swarming happen to how to treat colonies for common pests and diseases
  • Discovered how much more there is to know—and that we have yet to discover—about the relationship of honeybees, people, ecology, and food

My fun with bees even got me featured in the local newspaper!

Since leaving my staff position last year and starting my own business, I’ve had less time to work with my bees, but I’m now learning more about what minimum care is required to keep them healthy. The little time that I have with them, now, however, is more than enough reward for me—I don’t even need the honey; I just enjoy watching them do their jobs and seeing them thrive!

From left to right: 1) In winter, bees form a cluster to stay warm. 2) This group occurred after a mass eviction of drones in the fall. 3) Colonies ramping up for the spring on a cool day. 4) A heat photo of hive clusters. 5) Hives are wrapped in black roofing paper in winter to help the hive survive. 6) Last year, I harvested 4-1/2 gallons of honey … from one hive!

Endnotes

  1. A nucleus colony (aka, nuke) is a very small, but complete, colony (hive) of bees. It includes 4-5 frames of adult bees, various stages of immature bees (eggs, larvae, pupae), honey, pollen, and of course, a queen! Contrast this with a package of bees, which is a mesh box of adult bees and a queen in a separate container. Other than purchasing a full-on colony, which is pretty rare, nukes and packages are the most common ways to start new colonies.
  2. If you’re interested, and super-geeky (no judgement!), check out ScientificBeekeeping.com!
Resources

“California Hardiness Zone Map.” Plant Maps. https://www.plantmaps.com/hardiness-zones-for-redwood-city-california.

“University of Maine Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Program.” University of Maine. https://extension.umaine.edu/gardening/master-gardeners/.

“Bees’ memory sends them back to certain plants.” The Ellsworth American. 10 May 2017. https://www.ellsworthamerican.com/living/arts-a-living/bees-memory-sends-back-certain-plants/.

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