Under last Thursday’s spring-like sun, several young honeybees flew in and out of their hives in an apiary off Bank Road, taking their first flights to learn where their hives are located in relationship to the sun.
The apiary is a teaching space and belongs to the Vashon Island Beekeepers’ Association, a group of experienced and novice island beekeepers who learn from each other how to keep bees alive in the maritime Northwest. Currently, members of the group are reaching out to others interested in keeping bees, encouraging them to join the club and take part in a series of four introductory beekeeping classes they will offer beginning in mid-February. Theo Eicher, a beekeeper for four years, is the president of the group, which has grown to approximately 30 members after beginning with just a few people last spring. Eicher and other members say joining the group has been valuable in learning the art and science of beekeeping, which for many includes a considerable lack of success in keeping bees alive.
“Vashon is littered with people who started … and three years later after having bought bees every year, they give up because they cannot figure out what is going on,” Eicher said. “Seeking the community, asking questions and getting answers, and seeing what is going on in other hives has helped all of us.”
Eicher and several other beekeepers in the club gathered recently to share their experiences with bees, and each stressed that along with its rewards, keeping bees requires time, attention and some money for success. They also say it is extremely local, with the needs of bees on Maury Island at any particular time possibly different from bees at the north end.
Rebecca Drewes has kept bees for about four years and said that the friend who helped her begin beekeeping had a hands-off approach, leaving the bees’ lives up to fate.
Drewes disagrees with that style, stressing that the parasitic mite Varroa destructor, among other challenges, makes that path one that often leads to failure.
“If you are going to have a hive, you need to be actively involved with it,” she said. “If you are going to keep bees, you need to take as much care of them as a pet or chickens.”
Group members advise beekeepers to allocate one hour per week in the summer and be prepared for tasks of some kind — preventing a swarm, dusting for mites or feeding the bees in late summer or winter.
They also recommend starting with two hives, in part because bees, like people, have different characteristics and having two hives may help beekeepers discern what is normal bee behavior and what is not.
Members of the group say there are several rewards to keeping bees — and that being curious helps.
“I love beekeeping because there is no right way of doing it,” Eicher said. “There is no manual to it. Every time you go to the hive, you plan on doing something, but you find something else. And it is an interesting experience to learn about nature in a completely different way than I am used to.”
He noted that when he began raising chickens, the big questions were what kind to get and what to feed them. That was it; the learning curve was complete.
John McCoy, a beekeeper and the current owner of 100 chickens, agreed with that assessment.
“Chickens are simple and straightforward. Bees are mysterious and complex,” he said, mentioning bee society with its queens, drones and workers, along with royal jelly.
“Chickens could not imagine royal jelly,” he added.
Drewes said as a beekeeper she pays careful attention to the temperature, how much it is raining and what is blooming.
“Unlike chickens, bees teach mindfulness,” he said.
Members of the group also advise that if people want to keep bees for honey, they might be out of luck. Drewes noted that bees make one-quarter of a teaspoon of honey in six weeks and need to live on the honey themselves through the winter.
She told her husband, also a beekeeper, “Honey, you cannot count on honey.”
Regarding honey, Eicher stressed that the worst thing beekeepers can do is feed commercial honey to their bees. While it might be fine, it may also contain disease vectors or chemicals or drugs used on the hives that produced the honey and could kill the bees it is given to.
He added that Vashon beekeepers are a chemical- and drug-free group and that none of the club’s hives have ever been treated with chemicals.
Annie Myers, who has 35 hives and has been a beekeeper for seven years, noted that there are differing opinions about how much a beekeeper should be involved with bees, but most share a long-term goal.
“The holy grail of beekeepers is to breed a strain of bees that can manage without treatment. That is eventually an objective of the bee club, but we do not practice the ‘let God sort them out’ approach. We try to treat as minimally as possible, as responsibly as possible and as organically as possible.” she said.
Another objective, she said, is for Vashon Island to become sustainable in providing its own bees, instead of relying on commercial bees, which are bred to pollinate almond orchards in California. At the least, she said, the club would like to bring in bees that are locally adapted to this climate and that over winter well.
“Bees that do well in Florida do not necessarily do well here,” she added.
For now, though, the group of beekeepers is interested in reaching out to people who might be interested in joining them, benefiting from the combined experience of the group and a monthly visit — typically on a Saturday — to the club’s apiary. The sunny afternoon visit last week found all the bees — 40,000 to 60,000 bees in each of the 10 hives — in apparent good health. Eicher opened up each of the beehives, checking for moisture — the biggest threat in this climate — if the bees had enough food and myriad other problems, including if mice had moved in to any of the hives. He gave sugar to some of the bees, noting the bees are feeding now on honey they made last June. Ten percent of bee colonies die naturally, he added, but all the club’s bees seemed to be doing well.
“It is a big deal to have 100 percent survival,” he said, leaving the bees behind in the warm January sun.
The Vashon Island Beekeepers’ Association will hold its next class at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 16. It will begin at the Vashon Senior Center and then move to the apiary, both on Bank Road.
Other classes in the series will meet in April on a date yet to be determined, then at 10 a.m. May 18 and July 13. For information about the club, including cost of the classes and the club membership fee, see the website at tinyurl.com/yampjajo. The club also has a Facebook page; look for Vashon Island Bee Association.