Beekeeping with a Baby
by Paris Morse
“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.”
– Henry David Thoreau
My 50,000 Children: Beekeeping and Motherhood
The hive was ready. I had carefully painted the supers and dropped in the frames months in advance. My new hive tools were still shiny and felt clumsy in my hands, yet I donned my protective hat and heavy leather gloves with the confidence that comes from necessity. I had no choice but to complete the task—there were, after all, approximately 10,000 bees humming in my driveway. A slightly fuzzy mass of legs and wings pressing against the mesh sides of their staple-gunned box. I’d read about it, I’d attended local beekeeping club meetings. But nothing could have truly prepared me for that first moment when I had to open the box on my own, transfer the bees to their new home, and release the queen.
The moment that I decided to become a beekeeper is ingrained in my brain. I held the phone in my hand, staring at a blue sticky note with the phone number of a local beekeeper. Was I really going to do this? Was I really going to start a beehive with a brand new baby? I was hunched over the laptop at the kitchen table—still researching, forever researching. My three-week-old baby nestled in the crook of my arm sound asleep, breathing rhythmically. Why not? I thought. And then I dialed.
There is a name for this irresistible urge to engage with other species and bond with nature: biophilia. Biologist E.O. Wilson discusses this concept at length and popularized the idea in his book of the same name. Though published 30 years ago, the urgency with which people are reaching back to nature is as strong as ever—yet time spent in front of computer screens is increasing, children as a whole are spending less time outside, and the majority of people in the U.S. now live in cities. People are further separating themselves from the diversity of species that are readily available even in a woodland or a meadow. Beekeeping provides a door back to this bond, re-engagement with the natural world, even from the confines of a city lot.
As I shared the news that I was going to start a hive with those close to me, I received many loaded questions. Was I ready to take on more responsibilities when I had a newborn at home? What if I were stung? Did I know that babies aren’t allowed to eat honey until they’re one year old? Despite the many questions echoing in my head, I plodded on. And it turns out beekeeping and motherhood are not as disparate as they may seem.
First the hive arrived in the mail—four behemoth cardboard crates marked with giant cartoon images of bees. I piled them next to the yet-to-be-used stroller and high chair. Then came the call that the bees had arrived from Georgia. For our first post-baby date my husband and I drove to a neighboring town where a local beekeeper had a truck full of bee packages parked in his front yard. There he sat with his 5-year-old daughter on the back of a truck, bees swarming all around. Taking my cue from him, I grabbed a box of bees barehanded and put them in the trunk of our hatchback Volkswagen. With approximately 10,000 bees in the car we giddily made our way home.
The first weeks were tough. I worried about my bees constantly. I gingerly tried to meet their needs. Was I feeding them enough? Too much? Every book told me something different and every beekeeper had different advice. As the weather warmed up, I would spend the afternoon watching the bees with my little one. We’d sit next to the hive and take in the coming and goings of these busy creatures. I would narrate the happenings like a fairy tale saga. We would cheer as the bees warded off robbers like wasps. We commended them for the bounty of their harvests as they would return to the hive, their hind legs brimming with pollen.
I had my moments of panic. Moments when I adjusted something in the hive only to then worry all day long that I had done it completely wrong, convinced that all 50,000 bees (the average number in a healthy hive in the summer) would drop dead or depart in a dissatisfied swarm by the time I got home to take care of them. Despite my worry, my bees are hardy. They made it through two polar vortex storms and a winter in which snow was piled high on the ground well into April. Yet just as my confidence as a beekeeper increases, I’m presented with new challenges.
Opening the hive this spring felt entirely new. The bees were clustered towards the top, not the bottom where they had previously been, and their temperament was stronger. A high-pitched buzz concerned my ears. They were hungry. And they wanted to eat now. I rushed to cook up a sugar patty. Staying up late when everyone else was soundly asleep, I boiled the bees’ sugar as I boiled my son’s sweet potatoes for lunch the next day—determined that no one would go hungry.
By engaging my baby in my work as a beekeeper, I’ve been able to mother him and my bees at the same time. While every day I continue to learn (about my bees and being a mother), there are a few things that have helped me keep my sanity through it all.
Sharing – Much of beekeeping is taking the time to observe and then intervening only when necessary. I have spent a lot of time sitting quietly outside with my babe watching the bees as they head in and out of their hive. Though at first he was too young to understand, I would talk about the pollen that the bees brought home in their hind legs. Now that he is a toddler, I actually have to keep him at a slightly greater distance from the hive entrance since his curiosity draws him near. Next summer, I look forward to getting him a youth veil so that he can observe the bees up close during hive checks.
Community – If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an entire region to raise bees. I’ve been fortunate enough to get involved in a local beekeeping club that draws people in from the entire southeastern portion of the state. At our monthly meetings the sage advice that I glean in a few moments of conversation with the seasoned beekeepers gives me the confidence to tackle any bee problem of the season.
Research – Like pregnancy and new motherhood, starting a hive is a great time to flex your library card and head to your local bookstore. Through referencing a variety of books, I’ve been able to choose what methods will work best for me and my bees—the type of sugar patties to feed them during the cold months, when to expand the hive, etc.
Bravery – Sometimes there is no answer, and no one to hold your hand. Sometimes you just have to go ahead and do it.
Not only does keeping bees provide a natural bond with another species, it connects people with the whole network and ecosystem in which we live. Bees pollinate a tremendous number of the foods that we eat and the flowers that we enjoy. And this connection, this understanding of the natural world is what I want for my family. I want them to know where their food comes from. I want them to feel the passing seasons by observing changes in the bees’ activity. Connecting with the natural world in this way, we can teach our children to be good stewards of the earth. By encouraging our children to work with creatures to cultivate their own food, we’re also teaching them self-sufficiency, which, after all, is what we’re all working towards as parents.