We Learned What It's Like to Be a Beekeeper (and Only Got Stung Once)
KUT reporters are in “Summer School.” Every Friday, KUT reporters will learn a new skill or craft from folks around town who are experts in that field.
In this class, KUT's Laura Rice takes Beekeeping 101 with a local hive owner.
Lily Rosenman was our teacher. She's been beekeeping in Austin for four years. Right now, Rosenman keeps her hive at her friend Anne Woods's home in East Austin.
"I’ve got this whole wildflower field and I'm a bit of an urban farmer as well, so I get the bees working for me – which is really lovely and amazing to see," Woods says.
That’s one reason people get into beekeeping – they’re pollinators – so they can really help a garden flourish. But Rosenman was drawn to beekeeping mainly by her desire to understand it.
"I think that bees are fascinating," she says. "They have this whole system of hive organization and every bee has their own job and it’s just this super-organism."
Another big reason people keep bees: honey. But before we can collect honey, we have to establish a healthy, thriving bee colony.
Today, we’re visiting the hive – something Rosenman says is only necessary every few weeks.
"We’re mostly looking to see how many bees are in there, make sure they haven’t swarmed and they aren’t looking to swarm and checking their food," Rosenman says.
Now, just to clarify, a swarm isn’t necessarily a scary thing – but it isn’t really something you want if you're keeping bees. It’s when many of the bees leave with a queen bee if a second queen has been established in the hive. When you do hear about bee attacks, it’s likely because someone disturbed a hive they didn’t know was there.
To be honest, they aren’t really keen on us beekeepers messing with their hives either.
"I think the analogy would be if you’re sitting in your living room watching TV and somebody came and took the roof off of your house and started rearranging your furniture," Woods says. "And I think in that situation a lot of people would get kind of disturbed and aggressive and bees are no different."
That's why we suit up before we head to the hive.
"I am wearing a bee suit and boots," Rosenman says. "I don’t like to be nervous at all when I’m out at the hive, I try to be nice and calm and so I completely cover myself up head to toe."
We’re also taking a smoker with us. It’s a little stainless steel tin with a spout. We’ll blow smoke on the bees to keep them calm. The smoke masks the chemical pheromones.
"The bees communicate by pheromone," Rosenman says. "Some things by pheromone. Such as, 'the hive is being attacked.' And they will send out a pheromone about that and pretty instantaneously the whole hive will know the hive is being attacked and it will mobilize the rest of the bees to come and find you and you know, sting you. So if you put smoke in, it does a couple of things. But the most important thing is masking that pheromone."
When we check the hive, we're keeping an eye out for the most important member of the hive – the queen. The queen is the boss and she’s the only one who lays eggs. The other bee types are worker and drone.
"The big guy is a drone and these other ones are workers," Rosenman says. "So the drone is a male bee and all the others bees in the hive are female."
Beekeeping certainly comes with the risk of stings, sweating in a beekeeping suit and the time commitment of an hour or so every couple of weeks. But it also comes with its rewards. And the sweetest one is honey. Rosenman actually harvested five gallons of honey two years ago.
If you’re thinking about getting into beekeeping, you could start making preparations for next spring. That’s the best time to start a new hive. There are several beekeeping clubs and meetup groups in Central Texas where you could get more information from local beekeepers.