Beekeeping forces you to become more attuned to nature
I met Charmi Anderson Keranen when she welcomed me and Dan into her home for her annual Beers Giving party in November. We were invited (or perhaps I invited myself) by our friends Missy and Shaun Maeyens of Zen Café, South Bend’s best coffee roaster. Charmi hospitably showed us around, gave us a tour of the available home brews and introduced us to other partygoers. We sampled her delightful Lumberjack Stout aged six months in a bourbon barrel and enjoyed a host of other libations. We felt so welcome and even a little interesting as she introduced us to other folks and helped us get a lay of the land. She is kind and thoughtful, and she’s a writer, like me.
When I found out she keeps bees, I was immediately curious. Ever since I first heard about bees mysteriously vanishing across the globe, I’ve wanted to learn more about these lovely little pollinators. Last year I took a couple introductory seminars on beekeeping at the South Bend Unity Gardens spring Growing Summit, and then I learned more as I wrote about South Bend’s award-winning Honey From the Hood. I have yet to get close and personal with a hive, but maybe Charmi will let me sometime.
I know I’m not the only one curious about backyard beekeeping, so I asked Charmi to answer some questions to publish here. She’s such a good host to people, I’m certain she’s a good host to bees. Enjoy!
Katie: When and why did you become interested in beekeeping?
Charmi: I like to say it’s all my husband Gene’s fault. For many years he has been fascinated by bees and beekeeping, but I kept discouraging him from exploring the hobby too deeply. Life was simply too busy to consider one more thing. But suddenly one day our kids were adults. Time became our friend again. So for Christmas 2012, I gave him a couple of beekeeping books. Now, it’s fair to say that I have never met a gardening/nature/animal book I didn’t like. Gene’s Christmas presents weren’t safe from my perusal. By March we had ordered equipment and two packages of bees.
Katie: What books have been most helpful?
Charmi: I have tons of beekeeping books on my shelves. Reference books are an addiction of mine. But my go-to books right now are The Beekeeper’s Handbook by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile and The Practical Beekeeper Beekeeping Naturally by Michael Bush.
Katie: How did you get started?
Charmi: While we were waiting for beekeeping season 2013 to begin, we did everything we could to immerse ourselves in the beekeeping culture. I ordered beekeeping magazines and most importantly we signed up for Bee School in Kalamazoo, which is a one-day course put on by the Kalamazoo Bee Club that has tracks for everyone from beginners to old-time beekeepers. Bee School takes place in February and it’s a great venue to connect with other beekeepers, learn some new skills, and even check out new beekeeping equipment. One of my favorite aspects of the Kalamazoo Bee School is that the organizers bring in a variety of people with many different beekeeping philosophies, running the gamut of treatment-free, no-feed beekeepers using alternative beekeeping equipment all the way to the other end, the big commercial guys. They all have valuable input and knowledge to share.
Katie: What special equipment do you need?
Charmi: I continually consider using alternate beekeeping equipment, but for the moment I am using 8-frame Langstroth medium equipment. This is slightly smaller than the standard 10-frame deep boxes many beekeepers use, but weight quickly becomes an issue in beekeeping. An 8-frame medium box filled with honey weighs about 50 pounds, and 50 pounds is about the limit that this 50-something woman wants to lift. There are many alternatives to the Langstroth hive equipment out there, and I encourage aspiring beekeepers to investigate their options. Other equipment besides the actual hive boxes that I keep are a smoker, a hive tool for opening the boxes (bees glue everything together) and gloves and a veil.
Katie: What do you love about beekeeping?
Charmi: Beekeeping forces you to become more attuned to nature, because bees are living their lives in response to the natural world around them. By watching the actions of the bees, a beekeeper becomes accustomed to the rhythms of the world. We know that it is the start of the bee rearing season when the maple trees bloom. When the dandelions bloom a healthy hive will have become strong enough to consider swarming and setting up a second location. Bees raising brood are constantly carrying in pollen, a protein source for their young. Pollen comes in all different colors, depending on the source. We grow to understand the different bee food sources in our area. When bees don’t have enough to eat (a dearth) they become testy and more likely to protect their hive and sting. These are just beginning beekeeper lessons. Studying bee behavior is complex enough to constitute a many lifetime endeavor.
Katie: Why do you think it’s important for people to keep small backyard hives?
Charmi: Although bees aren’t native to North America, (Europeans brought them many centuries ago) our current landscape is now intertwined with their presence. From pollination to honey production to beeswax, our society depends on bees. But for the small, backyard beekeeper, beekeeping is a steppingstone to understanding not only bees, but other pollinators as well and the role they all play in keeping our world healthy. You can’t be a beekeeper and ignore the environment we all live in. Beekeeping kept us in tune with nature in the past and it is a key to keeping us on key in the future.
Katie: How many bees do you have?
Charmi: How many angels on the head of a pin, you say? It’s probably easiest to say I have three-and-a-half hives, which mean I have three regular-sized colonies and one nucleus colony. In the summer a strong colony can have 60,000 or so bees. Winter colonies are much smaller.
Katie: How much honey do you typically harvest?
Charmi: So far, very minimal. I leave it for the bees to survive the winter. Once I feel like my colonies are strong, I will start harvesting a little.
Katie: What’s rather difficult about beekeeping?
Charmi: Everything. Varroa mites, disease, overwintering, global weirding brought about by climate change. Two years ago my bees froze to death in the polar vortex, they couldn’t move to get to their food sources. This year it has been so warm I am worried that they will remain active and eat through their stores before new food sources become available.
Katie: Have you ever been stung?
Charmi: Many times. All my own fault, too. First lesson, no matter how good you think you look in black, the bees don’t agree.
Katie: What do you find most fascinating about honeybees?
Charmi: At this very moment, I would say the way they communicate with each other through a variety of means, from dancing to sharing food and spreading pheromones. And the great thing is, tomorrow there will be another new most fascinating thing.
Katie: What advice would you give to someone interested in beekeeping? What has worked well, what hasn’t?
Charmi: Read, join a bee group, go to bee school and then go wild putting what you’ve learned to work in conjunction with the new ideas YOU want to try. I’m not a seasoned enough beekeeper to say what is going to work for you. This year, I put up a little greenhouse over my hives as a windbreak. I’ll report in the spring how that worked. It cost about $100, which is about what I will have to pay to replace just one colony of bees. So why not? We’ll see. On warm days I’m out there opening up the windows so they don’t overheat!
Katie: Any fun or not so fun stories from your beekeeping adventures?
Charmi: Nah, just the usual stuff, Gene and I driving back from Holland, Michigan with 30,000 bees in the backseat of our Honda, most of them caged