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This article is part of the A New Beekeeper's Journal column, which documents the story of Keith Stiles as he builds a keen interest in beekeeping - and sets out to become a beekeeper.
My name is Keith Stiles.
I live in the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina, near the city of Asheville. For those that know a little about our area, it is rich with natural flora and fauna, rich in diversity. Of course, I love it because it is home but I especially love it for all the natural beauty that surrounds me.
A few years ago, I purchased my first home in the Lake Junaluska area of western North Carolina. The house had a beautiful front yard with a river birch in front of it and a large backyard with a neighbor’s pond which may be viewed from the back deck.
In all of this property there was no landscaping other than a dilapidated shrub infested with bugs and hostas planted in full sun. So began my quest to give my new home some “curb appeal”. In so doing, I discovered a natural love of gardening (no not vegetable gardening but flowers and hostas, oh so many hostas, and other varieties).
The bee's life is like a magic well: the more you draw from it, the more it fills with water
Karl Von Frisch
Bees: Their Vision, Chemical Senses and Language
Since I work as a software consultant, the garden became my place to escape the computer (and my clients!) and indulge in digging in the dirt and creating my own “plant canvas.”
As part of my awakening to things “outdoors,” I also began to awaken to threatened species due to human behavior and choices. So, to assist the monarch butterflies, I planted milkweed (I started with one variety and now I have three and am on the lookout for more).
Honeybees were a natural visit to our yard which I loved because I found their coloration beautiful and their industriousness incredible to say the least.
As a youngster I became fascinated by ants and honeybees especially and read lots of books about both. Never did I think I would end up keeping bees. Of course, I never thought I would become an outdoorsy gardener either.
So how did I arrive at the interest in beekeeping?
It was really quite a lark in many respects. I was in a Barnes and Noble in Bristol, Rhode Island, after a day of consulting with clients. I was browsing the bookstore in the gardening section and came across a book on bees and beekeeping.
My natural curiosity and interest in social insects caused me to go sit down and start perusing the book on beekeeping. The more I looked, the more enthralled I became and started to think, “Hey, I could do this! It would be a great addition to my backyard and contribute positively to the environment.”
So as soon as I got back home, I started talking to our local extension officer who happens to be both a church friend and a beekeeper as well. I decided after a few conversations that I really wanted to take this route and said “I’ll just do my research this year and then get bees next year.”
So, one thing you will learn faithful readers is that when this guy gets engaged in something he jumps in completely. Before I knew it, I had joined the local beekeepers club, joined the North Carolina Beekeepers Association, and subscribed to the American Bee Journal. I missed the local beekeepers school for new beekeepers and lucked up on PerfectBee’s quite exceptional online class.
Subsequently, I found a class that was being taught at a local beekeepers shop in Weaverville, North Carolina and attended it as well. The teacher of the class and owner of the shop turned out to be an expert beekeeper with tons of experience and an enchanting storyteller.
However, that particular part of the story didn't turn out so well - see below for that sad end.
What I am finding as I meet more local beekeepers in western North Carolina is that a good number are excellent story tellers and storytelling is an old mountain tradition that is certainly in my own blood as a native mountain boy. Between interactions with Mark at PerfectBee. the course I attended and the local club’s President, I was hooked! In each case, I found people willing to share their interest, and I would say passion, for beekeeping.
After completing the online course (I suggest you take it if you haven’t because it is a great way to get started) and my in-person course, I was excited by the prospect of getting started. In fact, it was at class surrounded by supplies that I decided to not only do one hive but go for a second and not wait a year to start.
I had the proverbial bee in my bonnet, or maybe I was stung by the thought of having to wait a whole year to get started!
The result: I bought supplies which I’ll outline in future posts as well as my philosophy and thoughts about why I chose which supplies. Of course, I also experienced the natural sticker shock of any new beekeeper as I tallied the cost of what I was putting together. I’m naturally frugal as are most Americans that aren’t independently wealthy! But the purchases have been worth it.
My two nucleus hives were supposed to arrive last week but the weather in western North Carolina was terribly rainy and unsettled. And the word came yesterday, that my two nucs will be ready for pickup on Saturday (April 29). My bee yard is ready, my hives are in place, all I need is the happy buzzing of 20,000 worker bees as they go about their business.
Even my nearby neighbors are excited by the upcoming new arrivals and my best friend will be recording my bee installation for a memento of when it all started.
Hopefully, my blogging will assist my fellow new beekeepers as they start their journey into beekeeping. And, if you’re experiencing what I am, I can’t get people to stop asking me for honey! Which means I already get to start educating them about giving the new colonies time to build up and survive their first winter.
I’m looking forward to educating my neighbors about how they can be good stewards of their working friends nearby.
I have heard great things about the beekeeping community - wonderful people, with an eager desire to help each other, sharing a common fascination with bees. But in the oh-so-short time since I have started down this path, I have already come up against my first major frustration.
Beekeepers are said to go out of their way to help, no matter the circumstances. For example, last week I heard from Mark Williams, the founder of PerfectBee, who had an unfortunate situation with a nuc he had purchased, which turned out to be queenless.
Mark called his supplier. They immediately offered to provide another mated queen. But they also offered to deliver it to his home. That's a 50 mile round trip! Now THAT is customer service.
I had decided to order the two nucs. Unfortunately, after ordering, the suppler called and told me the nucs would be arriving a week later than planned.
I was somewhat crestfallen, not just because this created some complications with an unavoidable business trip, but also because I was so excited! But stuff happens and I quickly came to peace with this!
Then things went bad.
The day before I was due to pick up my nucs, my return flight for a business trip was cancelled. I called the supplier to ask to hold them for just one day.
THEY SAID NO!
Having told me, at late notice, that they would delay my nucs by a week because of an issue they had, they refused to hold them for one single day, in my time of need.
They went so far as to say that the extra day would likely result in my nucs swarming. Oh really?!
Anyway, long story short.... After much calling around, I finally found someone who very kindly picked up the nucs for me.
I got there a day later. They didn't swarm.
It's a sad way to start out but, truth be told, I don't believe this sort of poor customer service and lack of empathy is common. I hope....
When the owner found out how upset I was and what had happened, she spoke with my friend who picked up my two new nucs. She had one nuc with a marked queen which she gave him for me and then another nuc literally brimming with bees.
She told him that she was upset that this had happened and at least an attempt to make amends was made.
I will return the wooden nuc boxes and pick up the nuc box I purchased for my own work with splits (eventually). Maybe there is yet hope for a long relationship between me and this shop.
I would rather hope so but I remain guarded.
I would like to whet your appetite for future installments of The New Beekeeper’s Journal.
Future musings will include:
As I share my adventures in beekeeping, I hope you will respond to the posts, ask me questions, and share your experiences.
I would like this to be a great forum for all the “newbees” among us who are beginning to experience the joys of being a beekeeper.