A Good Beekeeper?

A Good Beekeeper?

I wrote a while ago that I had been buying seeds from the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Co for 8 years. I have got a collection of vegetable, fruit, herb and flower seeds in my freezer by now. Their mission is to preserve heirloom seeds. This past year only, they added a very exciting selection of edible and decorative flowers, culinary and medicinal herbs and even (hold your breath, if you love heirlooms) plants and bulbs… But, it was not until I started reading about each and every plant, that I began to appreciate all the varieties and understand some of the growing requirements… Squashes, of example, can be grown in the same year,  if they belong to different species (I grow spaghetti and lemon squash, but not in the same year); garlic can be hardneck or softneck and its longevity depends on its type (we grow Elephant garlic, which is even more interesting);  tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers all belong to the nightshade family (and we are allergic to the nightshade family); daylilies are edible and are not “lilies” at all, etc. There is so much information to absorb, that I started a spreadsheet with notes on each plant, as I plan my garden each year.

Here, in Alabama, gardening can be done all year around. Cold season gardening is my favorite. By September, I manage to pull weeds around my raised beds, add fresh compost, and go back to the most pleasurable activity of all: planning and planting. Spring is always hectic: we check on bees regularly, raise ducks or chickens, plow a little field, clear our land (before it becomes too overgrown and the temperatures hit 90F), fix equipment (which somehow takes most of our time) – all of it happens while the weather changes constantly. My spring garden is always late, my seedlings are overdue for transplanting and my watering routine is off and on, which means that my cucumbers and squashes don’t get a good start until July… That is when the squash bugs multiply faster than the weeds grow  around our raised beds, adding to my frustration with the whole gardening idea… A good gardener, I once heard, is the one who does not give up. The Zen of gardening can only be achieved when one surrenders to the inevitable reality of failure in some aspects of it.

Beekeeping is much like gardening. While I pride myself on raising all our ducklings, for example, I can never expect 100% survival  rate for my bee colonies. Although, I have never lost my bees to any mysterious illness, I am not protected from such a misfortune, either. Bees are much like our plants in the garden: they will always remain exposed to the wild more than any other “domesticated” animals. There will always be something new for us to learn, they will always be hard to contain within some artificial environment. There are a lot of diseases and parasites, genetic variances and, simply even weather, that can crush the hopes for good harvest after a hard season. Is a good beekeeper the one who does not give up? Should I treat my bees like the means to the end result – harvest of honey,  beeswax, and propolis?

When my oldest daughter was born I spent countless hours researching about allergies, genetic predisposition and diseases that may surface later. None of it helped. It was not until my second child was two and a half, after getting seriously sick myself and watching my girls struggle to recover from one strep infection after another, that I began to spend days, not hours, researching about allergies as a result of digestive imbalance. Probiotics and vitamins, Betaine HCl and digestive enzymes, avoiding all sucrose, even commercial bread flour (in addition to already avoiding all processed forms of food, preservatives and chemicals), and yes, a year in practical insolation from the world of human pathogens, did the miracle to my girls’ and my health. Yet, I remember well those dark days. There was no reason to get to that point. Our health should be our priority. Shouldn’t be our animals’ health our priority too? Before we get a tortoise or a chicken as a pet, should we not read as much as possible about them? Find out about their environment, natural habits, and then decide whether we can, at least partially, replicate those conditions? If the eye and skin problems exist in tortoises kept in terrariums, should we not abandon the idea of having one, unless we can provide a nice outdoor pavilion? Is it not humane? So, the same is with bees. Is it not humane to keep them in dry, well ventilated hives, on a good foundation, with plenty of food? The long-term effects of our treatment of animals are the best indicator of our worth as animal keepers. The end result of my efforts as a beekeeper should be not honey, but happy bees. What is the definition of good beekeeping? It depends on the beekeeper, really.

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