Accidental Beekeeper – Serendipity Creates a Sustainable Hobby

The Accidental Beekeeper

Laurie Campbell is an accidental beekeeper. Life didn’t exactly hand her lemons but it did send her a swarm of bees that she hadn’t asked for. “I looked in the yellow pages for someone to come and get them and while the beekeeper was here I realized that, since the universe brought them to me, I should probably try to keep them,” she says.

By Angel McCullar

Six years later, she has a new hobby. She made them a home on her one-third of an acre suburban lot in Sacramento, California, only a stone’s throw away from a busy interstate freeway. Instead of removing the bees, the beekeeper who came to take them away helped Campbell, who was in her mid-fifties, learn how to set up a hive and take care of them. While he taught her how to get started, before long she was using her own instincts, limitations, and philosophy to guide her in taking care of her bees.

The Philosophy

While Campbell will freely admit that she is not an expert in getting the maximum yield of honey from her hives, she instead prides herself on keeping the bees healthy and happy. The beekeeper who got her started advised her to take all the honey from the hive and feed sugar water to the bees. This didn’t seem right so she didn’t do it. She didn’t like the idea of stealing everything from them that they worked so hard for. It takes the nectar of roughly two million flowers to make one pound of honey and each bee will make about one twelfth of a teaspoon in her lifetime, according to the www.beeeducation.com website. That is a lot of work! Campbell believes that allowing the bees plenty of honey helps them to have better nutrition and enables them to more readily fight diseases and pests on their own without the use of chemicals.

Other beekeeper advice advocated the use of chemicals to keep the hives thriving but she didn’t do that either. “I chose to go completely natural and let them build a natural resistance to the diseases and critters that are so deadly these days. It seems to be working.” She still has her original hive from six years ago and hasn’t lost any bees to disease or pests.

The Bees

Campbell doesn’t know where the bees swarmed from when she inherited them, but she watched as the beekeeper cut the branch from the tree and placed it in the hive box. That particular hive is what she calls her “free-form” hive. The bees started making the honeycomb on the bottom of the hive before she was able to put the frames into the hive. Campbell said that it seemed like a good idea at the time, but six years later she sees the error of her ways. Recently, she has discovered dry rot on the bottom of this hive and isn’t sure how she can fix it. If the hive had the normal frames, she could remove the frames into a new hive box. For this reason, she doesn’t recommend allowing the bees to “free-form” a comb.

Campbell calls herself a “winger,” meaning she is a beekeeper who improvises as she goes along and doesn’t necessarily follow a plan. Throughout her experience, she has modified along the way as needed. She started out with several hives but realized that was too much work for her to handle and much more honey than she needed. She now maintains only two hives that give her plenty of honey and wax as well as keeps it as a hobby that she can enjoy and manage in addition to her full-time job. Campbell told me that one hive is probably plenty for the average family who wants enough for themselves and a little extra to give away. She also uses the smaller sized “supers” (boxes of frames for the hive); they weigh less and she can handle them on her own.

In addition to reaping the benefits of harvesting the honey and wax, Campbell enjoys her bees. She has learned to read and understand them. She likes to sit by the hives, hear the hum, and watch their activity. The bees land on her, not to sting her but to investigate as well as scratch their legs and fluff their wings while she gets a bird’s eye view. However, she heeds their warnings of loud buzzing when they are not in a good mood because they are hungry or things are not going well in the hive. At these times, they can be very aggressive and she respects their desire for privacy. She has been stung by the bees and says that it’s not that she cares so much that she was stung but rather that once a bee stings it will die…and she hates to see them die.

“They have their own little kingdom in those boxes and they couldn’t care less what the human world is doing,” said Campbell. “It’s made me slow down and not get so worked up about things that don’t matter.” In cooler weather, the bees become almost catatonic with little movement and depend on the sun to warm them. “In wintertime I watch them take their poop flight as soon as the sun hits the hive,” said Campbell. They are extremely clean and will not defecate in the hive.

The Hives

The hive is one hundred percent sustainable and nothing goes to waste. However, there is gender discrimination. The hive is run as a monarchy; the queen is in charge and she has no counterpart, no king. The male bees come from sterile eggs and their only function in life is to mate with the queen in their short forty-five-day lifespan. They don’t work, but just lay around the hive waiting to be summoned by the queen. The queen and the worker bees are all female and come from the same eggs. Once in her life, the queen goes on a mating trip and picks out a number of males to mate with that have the genetic make-up that she is looking for. She then stores the sperm in her body for her two to five year lifespan.

The hives are made of wooden boxes and painted a light color to keep them cool in the summer. They are placed up off the ground and set where they get the morning sun so that the bees can warm up enough to fly. If they are too cold, they cannot fly. Within the wooden boxes are frames that have a plastic or wax structural element that holds the wax foundation or honeycomb that the bees make and fill with eggs, pollen, and honey. These frames are reusable and only need to be replaced when they break or get moldy. Generally though, the bees keep them clean.

Each hives holds some twelve thousand to fifty thousand bees or more. As the hives grow and thrive, the bees outgrow the hive and leave. Scout bees go out in search of a new home and come back for the older queen and half of the worker bees to swarm and start a new colony. A new queen will emerge in the old hive. Selected larvae are fed a special diet of royal jelly, which makes these bees larger than the others, and these become the queens. The first queen to emerge will kill the other queen larvae by stinging each one. The queen bees are the only bees that can sting and continue to live. The queen’s only job in the hive is to lays eggs. She can lay thousands a day, one egg in each cell. Then the cells are covered with wax. Three weeks later, the new bee chews its way through the wax to emerge.

The bees feed on the nectar of the orange trees, raspberries, and lavender in Campbell’s yard and on various other flowers in the neighborhood. What they eat influences how the honey will taste. During a taste test between the spring and summer harvests of honey, she was able to discern the different flavors of flowers in the honey while novice taste buds could probably notice the differences in taste but not identify their diet.

The Harvest

Beekeeping is a busy life with a seasonal cycle, and every season has a job for Campbell. In spring, she adds a super to catch the orange and stone fruit blossom honey. Then she adds a super every three to four weeks to make sure there is enough room in the hive for the storage of more honey. If they feel crowded, the bees will swarm, which is Nature’s way, but then there will be fewer bees to bring the honey home. Late summer is harvest, and fall is when she needs to feed them and clean and store the boxes. “Winter is free time; I mostly just watch,” she says.

Harvesting is the most labor intensive part of beekeeping, with a usual twelve-hour day, but Campbell is able to do all non-bee aspects herself. Her operation is completely off the grid; the entire process does not depend on the use of any electricity except for the occasional need for some warmth when the honey is in danger of crystallizing.

Campbell usually harvests twice a year. She pulls a little bit of light golden honey in the spring that has the flavors of apricot and cherry or whatever else happens to be in bloom. And she harvests again in late summer, this time a deep amber honey with the flavors of stone fruit, orange, lemon, and whatever else the bees have foraged. In all, Campbell gets between two hundred and three hundred jars of honey per year. She is generous with the bees and leaves them an ample winter honey supply. “For me, the object is to provide them with as natural a hive as possible and still be able to get honey and wax for my use.”

Preparation begins by making sure the room and harvesting equipment are clean. Campbell then puts on her bee suit and hat and prepares the smoker. “When they smell smoke, they fill up on honey thinking that they have to move to a new home. This makes them less likely to sting and easier to move away from the frames that I’m pulling.” Distracted by the smoker, the bees are drawn away from the top of the hive where the honey is stored into the bottom brood box where the queen bee is. This allows the beekeeper to pull the supers that have the stored honey. Once all of the supers are pulled, she takes them inside and scrapes the wax off into a plastic tub. Once the wax is scraped from the frames, they are placed into a hand-cranked centrifugal extractor where the honey is extracted from the comb. “As I empty the frames, I put them back into the boxes and take them outside to let the bees clean them up. They come by the thousands and clean them spotless.”

Campbell likes the fact that nothing is wasted. After the extractor does its job with the help of her elbow grease, she filters the honey through a stainless steel strainer into five-gallon buckets with spigots that she uses to fill gallon, pint, and other-sized containers. She uses both glass and plastic containers. The glass containers can be cleaned and reused to pour honey. There are few worries when processing honey because it is one of the only foods that does not have a shelf life, meaning that it does not spoil.

The Day Her Bees Swarmed

One spring day a couple of years after she became a beekeeper, Campbell looked outside and saw all kinds of activity around the hives. She went outside to discover that they “marched out of the hive; it was sort of like a cartoon.” Thousands of bees were outside of the hive and all over the grass. Her best guess was that they were recovering honey on the ground. “All of a sudden they all took flight. I was just standing in the middle going, ‘Wow this is really cool!’” She watched as her bees swarmed into the neighbor’s lemon tree.
Once she realized what they were doing, she decided to claim what was hers. But how? She went inside and thought about how she was going to catch them. “I just typed into Google ‘how to catch a swarm of bees,’” she says. After watching a quick video on the Internet, she gathered her ladder, bee box, small table, and cutters and put on her bee suit and gloves. With no time to spare, she used the ladder to get into the neighbor’s yard and cut the branch the bees were on and, like the video showed, whipped the branch into the box. Luckily, the bees landed in the box exactly where she wanted them to be. Campbell then brought her swarm back home.

What is Rich Anyway?

Bees are necessary to pollinate flowers, crops, and orchards but they are disappearing. The numbers have drastically declined in recent years because of Colony Collapse Disorder. Campbell knows that she is not going to get rich keeping bees on a small scale but she is doing a small part to help a serious global problem by helping reverse the declining bee population. She believes that not everything needs to be done on a grand or commercial scale to make a difference. Smaller just might be better because it is easier to use sustainable practices, and to control and watch for problems in the hive.

Keeping bees also allows Campbell to be more self-reliant by providing an amazing food for herself and others in the community who value the local food that’s available in the Sacramento area. Campbell has sold her honey and beeswax candles at the occasional boutique and craft fair, but these days is able to sell most through her place of work and by word-of-mouth. She shops at the Sacramento Farmers Market for her own food and tries to purchase as much as she can locally. She is considering bartering her locally produced, chemical-free honey and candles for products such as meat, seafood, and produce at the Farmers Market.

“I am really rich in all these things that will never make me rich but they certainly enhance my life,” says Campbell, the accidental beekeeper.

Learn More

The Backyard Beekeeper – Revised and Updated: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden by Kim Flottum (Quarry Books, 2010)

Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture by Ross Conrad (Chelsea Green, 2007)

The Beekeeper’s Handbook by Alphonse Avitabile, Diana Sammataro (Cornell University Press, 2006)

The Backyard Beekeeper’s Honey Handbook by Kim Flottum (Quarry Books, 2009)

Angel McCullar is a journalism student at California State University at Sacramento. She is inspired by people making a difference and doing things sustainably, and she loves telling their stories. She says that feeling overwhelmed is easy, given the current state of affairs in the world, but doing what we can and sharing our stories and successes, and supporting one another, makes the difference. This article was first published in Natural Life Magazine.