Who Keeps Bees?

Who keeps honeybees?

The number of beekeepers globally is statistically elusive, but there are something like 30 million hives worldwide, tended by a few million beekeepers. Some manage a single colony while the largest commercial beekeeping operation runs about 70,000 hives. There also are an inestimable number of semi-managed hives kept in logs in the less developed world, and wild nests from which honey is removed regularly by families who often have cultivated the same feral nest sites for many generations.

What’s notable about who keeps bees is the range of characteristics that are exhibited by beekeepers. A recent set of profiles in BeeScene, the quarterly journal of the British Columbia Honey Producers Association, provided some insights into who keeps bees and why in B.C.

There’s a good mix of males, females and couples in the B.C. beekeeper community, with quite a range of personal and professional backgrounds. Some are retired, some still working, with current or past professions ranging through police officer, physician, designer/manufacture of electronic systems, printer, forester, chef and medical office administrator.

There are a number of traits commonly found in this otherwise diverse group. For one thing, most experienced beekeeping at a young age, or got the idea to keep bees during childhood. Many had grandparents or parents who kept bees, or an eccentric neighbor who let them observe while they went through colonies.

Most began beekeeping in middle age or upon retirement, when the pressures of starting a family and growing a profession abated. At that point memories from childhood served as a reminder of their delayed passion for beekeeping, and they began looking around to buy some bees.

It’s also common for serendipity to step in. One of B.C.’s beekeepers began keeping bees when he was offered two hives in trade for sheep fleeces produced on his hobby farm. Others connected with the bee world through an interest in gardening that brought up the necessity of pollination. A casual conversation with a local beekeeper at a coffee shop often winds up with a new hive in the garden.

The role of a mentor is another frequent theme for beginning beekeepers. Local bee clubs invariably have an old-timer who looks after the newbies, taking them out and passing on the wisdom of the beekeeping ages, then looking in on the new beekeepers to provide advice as their colonies grow and management becomes more complex.

Hobby farming or intensive gardening is another quality shared by many beekeepers, for whom adding bees to the mix is a relatively small jump in time and commitment. Backyard gardening has been a route into bee management for many, especially in recent years as urban agriculture has experienced a boom across North America.

The BeeScene survey also was interesting in asking personal preferences for the two devices that beekeepers invariably use: a hive tool to separate and lift frames for inspection, and the type of fuel they burn in their smoker, used to pacify bees before opening the hive and during an inspection.

Hive tools come in many varieties, each with a subtle variation. Beekeepers ardently defend their chosen tool; the possibilities mentioned in the survey included J-shaped tool (also referred to as “the hooked one”), a serrated bread knife, pocketknives, screwdrivers, pry bars, a welder’s wire brush, and the “old standard” sold at Canadian Tire, with a flat scraper at one end and a curved blade at the other.

Preferred smoker fuel showed a similar creativity and range, including wood shavings, dried grasses, burlap, pinecones, grass clippings, cardboard and dried cow patties.

Another characteristic that beekeepers hold in common, and one that is perhaps their most endearing trait, is an essential quirkiness. It’s an odd hobby to take up, and a difficult path to follow commercially. It takes individuals who notice the nature around them with an unusual attentiveness, and have that peculiar affinity for honeybees that overcomes the hard fact that bees sting.

I’ve had the privilege of travelling globally and meeting beekeepers from the jungles of South America to the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, the outback in Australia to Arab villages in Palestine. Invariably, beekeepers are willing to set aside the too-common things that divide us: race, religion, politics, national origin and economic class, to just talk bees.

Perhaps there is a larger message to be learned from beekeepers, the potential for collaboration and collegiality when otherwise distant segments of society come together in fellowship united by common interest. It’s not world peace, but it’s a start.