Ed Colby: A humble start for a new beekeeper
September 3, 2002
In 1991, when our next-door neighbor Joanne said she planned to keep honeybees in her attic, I claimed I was allergic and might die if a bee stung me. To my amazement, Joanne, who is a nurse, accepted this without question and said she’d find another place.
I lied to Joanne because our condo was for sale. Her attic window, the one she proposed to use as a bee entrance, was only a few feet from our own. I worried that bees from her attic would come over to our place and scare off prospective buyers.
We had problems enough unloading our home. It languished at $72,000. Bargain hunters pitched us low-balls and expected us to finance their offer.
The gentrification of Carbondale had already begun, and one close-by neighbor thought Carbondale was in danger of losing its blue-collar character. He wrote letters to the paper advocating a junk-car fleet at the edge of town so that fancy-pants folks would shudder and stay away. He practiced what he preached. His own yard morphed into a sort of Smithsonian of junk.
This guy did me a favor or two. Plus, I actually like a certain amount of stuff lying around, so under different circumstances I might have found his yard merely amusing. But as our unit sat unsold for two years, my good neighbor’s eccentricity wore on me a little. Then Joanne announced her honeybee project. Forgive me for losing it.
What neither Joanne nor I knew then was that her attic would actually have been a poor place to keep bees. Those south-facing attics got hot, even in winter. Warm bees fly ? a fatal mistake on Christmas Day.
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But it was an ingenious idea for a town dweller ? keep your bees at home, yet out of the back yard where neighbors would be sure to complain. New York City beekeepers keep their bees on rooftops.
For her birthday, John gave Joanne everything. At her party she celebrated by donning her new bee suit, gloves and veil and dancing around the yard merrily “smoking” her guests. Ah, youth.
Joanne put her two hives next to an alfalfa field outside of town, but the little darlings didn’t survive the winter. This happens. Joanne moved on to other pursuits, but her brief foray into beekeeping changed my life forever.
Of course the condo eventually sold, and Linda and I found paradise in Peach Valley. The first year we harvested sweet cherries ? big Bings and Lamberts ? but then for a couple of years we got none. Cherry trees bloom in April, and at first I assumed the culprit was those frosts that come hard on the heels of spring snowstorms. One night the mercury dips to 31 degrees. Then another squall comes through, and it falls to 29. When you flirt with freezing temperatures, you never know for sure if you’ll lose your whole crop.
But fruit blossoms also need pollination by insects to produce fruit, and bees don’t fly in stormy spring weather. I began to suspect that it wasn’t so much the freezing nights as poor pollination that lay at the heart of the no-cherry problem. I decided that instead of relying on feral bees or somebody else’s bees, I should put my own beehives right in the orchard. That way if there were a break in the weather, my trees ought to get pollinated.
Then I ran into Joanne at the pool in Glenwood. When I confessed my fib about being allergic to bees, she laughed and scolded me. I pushed my luck and inquired if she still had her old beekeeping equipment. She said yeah, maybe we could work a deal.
A couple of weeks later she called. A new roommate was moving in, and she needed space. She said if I stopped by I’d find all her bee stuff on the porch. Would I please take it so she wouldn’t have to haul it to the dump?
That’s how I got started beekeeping. Linda and I still hardly ever get sweet cherries, but we get honey every year.
When we go to Carbondale, we just about always cruise the alley in the old neighborhood. The alley, which is really more like a street, has a kind of messy, urban vitality. It’s got barbecue grills and overgrown lawns and kids and bikes and guys working on cars and throwing horseshoes. I miss it. I really do. But I don’t see how you could keep honeybees here. Not even in your attic.
[Beekeeper and ski patroller Ed Colby’s column runs on Tuesdays. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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