To bee, or not to bee

Many years ago, when I lived in California, my friend Greg came to visit. I knew, at the time, that Greg played a mean game of ping pong, but I didn’t know he was interested in competitive table tennis. I didn’t know there was competitive table tennis. But we headed over to Berkeley for a tournament and the scales fell from my eyes.

A semi-final doubles match at the 2009 World Table Tennis Championships (photo borrowed from Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images). Note shoes, shorts, and focus.

The tournament was in a huge, open room, set up with ping-pong tables as far as the eye could see. They were spaced father apart than I would have thought necessary, but that was because the players, as I later learned, stood a good six feet back from the table.

That wasn’t the only way in which this kind of game did not resemble the rec-room ping pong I’d occasionally dabbled in. For starters, there was the concentration. The players were every bit as focused as Serena Williams or Rafael Nadal.

“Didn’t anyone tell them this isn’t real tennis?” I whispered to Greg. He kicked me and told me to be quiet.

They had super-duper paddles that, judging by their cost, must have been made from titanium. They had special shorts that allowed them freedom of movement. They had ping-pong shoes that gave them the right kind of grip. Many of them looked like serious athletes.

I found it fascinating. And it wasn’t just the game, although I found myself drawn in. It was the idea that there was an entire table-tennis subculture that I knew nothing about. I’d probably passed some of these players on the street, having no idea that they had secret lives as competitive ping-pong players.

A glimpse into someone else’s subculture, previously unknown, is a reminder of all the things you might be doing with your leisure time if you didn’t squander it all on Facebook.

Since we’ve been here, I’ve discovered that there are groups – some loosely organized, some formal enough to be incorporated – that have coalesced around every activity we’ve undertaken. There are not only gardeners, there are shellfishers and bird-watchers and mushroom foragers.

And beekeepers. Monday was our first night of Bee School, a class intended to help rank novices learn how – or whether – to keep bees. It’s put on by the Barnstable County Beekeepers Association, which has a fifty-year history and a robust membership. Beekeeping is very popular on Cape Cod, and more of our fellow citizens than I would have suspected have hives in their backyards. Who knew?

We’d been planning to get a hive in the spring, but our first class gave us pause. In order to thrive, the instructor pointed out, bees need an abundant supply of nectar. At some level, of course, I knew that, but I’d never stopped to consider the implications for our situation. We live in the woods, and are nectar-challenged. I looked at Kevin in alarm. “We’re nectar- challenged,” I said.

He scoffed. “We have 120 rhododendrons.”

It’s true, we have 120 rhododendrons. I’d forgotten about them because they flowered months ago. Out of sight, out of mind. But they’re only in bloom for six weeks. What are the bees going to live on the rest of the year?

After class, we explained our situation to Andy, one of the professional apiarists teaching the class. “ Will the rhododendrons be sufficient?” we asked.

“Rhododendrons are no good for bees,” he told us. “They don’t have nectar.” He saw my look of disappointment. “What else you got?” he asked.

We have exactly what he’d already said was, from the bees’ perspective, a barren wasteland – oak and scrub pine. And nasty prickery vines.

“No linden trees? Or black locusts?” he asked.

I couldn’t say for sure, but I didn’t think so.

“How about holly?”

Bingo! Andy told us that holly was almost as good as linden, with nectar-rich flowers. And holly, we’ve got in abundance. Not only that, it turns out we live about two miles from a decommissioned holly farm, which still has many acres of mature trees. Since two miles is well within a bee’s foraging radius, things were looking up.

“Do you think we should do it?” I asked Kevin. The initial investment is in the neighborhood of $400. so, although we’re both very interested in bees, I didn’t want to try it if we were doomed to fail.

Kevin shrugged. “Sure.” He’s more sanguine about these things than I am.

“It might be worth it just for the endless stream of bad puns,” I suggested.

“Might bee,” said Kevin.


Next week, at our second class, we’ll be picking our equipment and signing up to get a colony delivered in the spring. Success isn’t guaranteed. But, as Andy pointed out, very little in life is. If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.

Part of what characterizes a subculture, whether it’s table tennis or beekeeping, is enthusiasm. You just gotta beelieve.

15 people are having a conversation about “To bee, or not to bee

  1. You’re the third other blogger I’ve read of who’s starting bees this year. I am too. The start up costs are indeed high, so I hope we see some success. I can already see how easy it is to become a little obsessive with all things bee. They are fascinating creatures. Good luck with yours!

  2. I’ve been keeping bees since 2002 and haven’t looked back. It’s addictive. I would recommend you start with two hives, so you can compare them. I started with three and found it easier to figure out how they were progressing based on where each stacked up against the others. Also, if something bad happens, you have back-up.
    Good luck!

  3. I’m planning bees too, but not this year because I don’t have any fodder. I think with all the stuff I’ll be planting this spring, including fruit and nut trees, that eventually I’ll have more, but I’m also considering planting flowers, just for the bees.

    If you have a corner that you don’t plan on using for anything else, you might think about the black locusts. I did some research on fast growing trees that are suitable for coppicing and discovered that black locusts grow really fast, produce a coppicing stool if cut back (look it up), have a super high BTU rate for firewood, are really really hard and don’t rot in the ground, so they make great fence posts (which you could grow yourself in your coppice), and produce a pea-shaped flower that is supposed to smell heavenly and make great bee fodder. They are the quintessentially perfect tree. Almost- they do have one potential issue, and that is that they sucker, but supposedly you’re supposed to be able to keep that under control by mowing. If you guys have a wood stove and have thought about your own wood lot, black locusts could be a good choice for you because bees love them. And they make great firewood, and you only have to plant them once (if you manage your coppice correctly).

    Good luck with your bees. I’m kind of jealous.

  4. Kate — So we’re in this together, eh? We can compare notes as we go. I wish us all successful hives!

    Beth — We had exactly that thought. Two hives would be ideal. Unfortunately, our concern for the food supply, coupled with the cost of the hive, is going to limit us to one — this year. If it works out well, we’d love to add another. I’m glad you’re doing well with yours.

    Paula — Is there no fodder in your neighborhood for bees? No local farms, or neighbors with gardens, or appropriate trees? Now that we’re on the bee bandwagon, we want everyone to join. And you’re right about the black locust. It’s a multitasking tree. Unfortunately, we have no sunny space at all (that isn’t already taken up with garden). We’re even having some trouble finding the right spot for the hive (more on that later). One of our local bee guys is coming to see our property this weekend to advise us.

  5. Tamar – given that you live on the Cape, you can’t be that far from nectar sources, we just don’t have those kinds of distances on this peninsula. I’ve never heard of honeybees not having enough nectar around here, other than when they can’t get out because of rain or if there is some other generalized issue. Just a thought.
    The only drawbacks to keeping bees are getting stung by bees frequently and very heavy lifting that often leads to “beekeeper’s back.” Full deep supers can go way over 50 pounds and they’re filled with bees when you pop them off! Oh yeah – and if you rototill anywhere near your hive stands the vibration will go up into the hives and guard bees will pour out to try to kill you!

  6. Yes! I kept bees when on the Cape – a bitter/sweet event that ended badly with the bees all freezing to death during a very hard winter in the hive’s first year. I got chased into the house a few times by the little suckers too – scary!

    You should get a second hive and put it on the cranberry bog of you-know-who. I read that cranberry bogs to a honey bee are like a chocolate store to a kid.

    Just remember, bees get riled easily, sting a lot, and look at you as a probable threat that they must stave off en masse.

  7. Beth — I’m not looking forward to getting stung. I’m told that, if you have a good sense of your hive (yeah, right!) and you work carefully, you seldom get stung. I’ll do my best. And thanks for the tip about the rototiller!

    Mimi — Sorry to hear about your hive. Interesting about cranberry bogs, though. One of the professionals who spoke to us told us that bogs are actually not a big favorite. In fact, he told a story of one bog owner being irritated by watching the bees he paid to come pollinate his bog fly right past it to greener pastures nearby. But, as Beth pointed out, the Cape should have plenty of food sources.

  8. Me again Tamar – I spoke too soon – my friends with the bog already have hives in situ with no need for more. I had not checked it out and should be more cautious before offering another’s land for a hive site. Mea culpa. And yes, the cape does have ample nectar sources for all number of bees – and I am grateful there are bees there after hive collapse disease rampaging the country.

  9. One other thing – according to Amy Stewart’s new book “Wicked Plants” it has been reported that honey made from the nectar of rhododendrons can be toxic, which I find interesting because my bees live near an area that features too many of these plants. It kind of makes sense, given that rhodies’ leaves are toxic to goats and sheep, but that was the first I ever heard about the honey. I’m still alive.

  10. Mimi — Luckily, colony collapse disorder doesn’t seem to have come here, so that’s one less thing to worry about.

    Beth — Killer rhododendron honey doesn’t make my risk radar. Since you lived to tell the tale, I’m just not going to worry about it.

  11. Tamar, I’m happy to share what happens as I go along. Don’t know how much advice I’ll feel comfortable giving as a new beekeeper; I like to feel confident of my observations/experience before sharing. Unless of course it’s a failure I’m sharing, in which case I hope readers can learn from my mistakes. We shall see!

    Are you going to start your bees on foundation? I’m leaning towards just starter strips.

  12. Kate — Embarrassing. I had no idea what starter strips were, and had to look them up. And now that I did that, I know that I’m not doing starter strips. We’re beginning with standard-issue frames, and we’ll let the bees do their thing.

    In some ways, this is a repeat of the decisions we made about the chickens. We thought long and hard about electrifying the coop, and then decided that, since people have been raising chickens since way before electricity, we could do without. I’m hoping the bees just know what to do.

    This could be a mistake.

  13. Tamar, not to start an intractable beekeeping debate, especially between newbs, but… From my perspective, starter strips ARE more like letting the bees do their own thing than giving them foundation. Our frames all came with foundation, but I’m leaning towards removing it and putting in just little cardboard starter strips coated with wax. It’s just a way of telling the bees: “here – start building the comb here.” Some people feel (and I guess I’m leaning towards this school of thought) that foundation not only (potentially, but likely) introduces residues of pesticide into the new hive via the wax, but also guides the bees as to the cell size in the comb they draw. Some believe brood in “natural” sized comb are less susceptible to varroa. And some also claim that frames without foundation take no longer for the bees to completely fill with comb than those drawn on foundation. So why bother?

    It’s so complicated sorting through the opinions, data, theory, speculation, etc. I’m mostly with you in feeling that we should let bees be bees. But I also know that these creatures are under incredible pressure from diseases and pesticides, and not faring well over all. So there is also the impulse to help them along quite a bit. Not to mention the fear of losing the monetary investment. Anyway – my two cents based on zero experience.

  14. Kate — I’m extremely glad your brought this up, because it hadn’t even been on my radar. You’re absolutely right, both about letting bees be bees and about the possibility of pesticide residues (the danger of which, I’ve been led to believe, is pesticide-resistant mites). The foundation is for convenience, both in setting up the hive and in doing the extraction.

    Now we’re thinking about getting two hives, and doing one with starter strips and one with foundation so we can compare. By tomorrow, though, we may be thinking that both should have starter strips.

    Funny how quickly this beekeeping thing sucks you in. We’re already fascinated, and we don’t even have the bees yet.

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