Household Husbandry and Its Sweet Rewards.

Lately, I’ve been reading the essays of Wendell Berry on farming and food.  In several of his essays he discusses the connections that used to exist between farms and households.  When he grew up (around the 1930s), farms still existed as businesses who’s primary goal was to turn an economic profit.  But at the same time, everything a farm family did was not purely for the benefit of their business.  Most farmers also practiced some degree of what Berry calls household husbandry.  And what exactly is household husbandry?  Essentially, it includes all those things farm families did to sustain themselves: practices that were marginal to the farm, but central to the household.  Examples include gardening, keeping a couple dairy cows for milk, raising chickens for fresh eggs and foraging for berries in the summer.  Farm families may not have benefited directly from selling these goods, but they also did not lose money by having to purchase them.  It was an entirely different mentality than our current approach of consumerism that “assumes it is better to buy whatever one needs than to find it or make it or grow it.”

Immediately I started to wonder when we stopped doing these activities.  When did we stop making things for ourselves for the pure joy of connecting with the land, the animals and the insects surrounding us?

But then I looked towards my experiences in F.H. King and realized these kinds of subsistence practices may be coming back into mainstream society.  I remembered how excited everyone got during workshops where we learned how to make cheese or yogurt and the pure joy  that has come from working in the garden and watching seeds become delicious vegetables.

The world has changed.  Our culture and social enterprises are different than they were in the 1930s, but increasingly these practices of household husbandry are coming back into popularity.  Just ask the Dane County Beekeepers Association, who are enthusiastic and passionate about the rising popularity and appreciation of apiculture (the keeping of bees).

On Saturday, April 9th, F.H. King hosted a beekeeping workshop led by Jeanne Hansen of the Dane County Beekeepers Association.  And I will begin by saying that  although I did not attend the event, I received some extensive notes, and will try my best to inform you of the essential apiculture information.

However, if you are interested in starting a backyard beehive and this short blog is not informative enough (which is likely, given there are books written on backyard beekeeping) feel free to contact any of the officers of the Dane Co. Beekeepers Association.  Jeanne stressed the fact that beekeepers love to talk!  You can contact them through their website, and chances are they will give you their phone numbers and e-mail addresses for any additional questions you may have.  Also, the association offers a Beginner Workshop Series that includes 4 classes, a beekeeping book, bees and equipment.

So now, to begin, here are the basics on why beekeeping is so cool:

  • Connecting back to household husbandry, with the help of some very hardworking bees, you can produce free honey for yourself!
  • Additionally, the old brood combs can go into creating some amazing natural substances such as lotions, creams and candles.
  • But the most interesting part is not what bees can do for you specifically: it is what they can do for the world around you.  Bees benefit both agriculture and urban landscapes by leaving their hives to gather pollen and nectar, pollinating flowers in the process.  Garden and crop yields are benefited by this presence of bees.

You may wonder how bees can benefit the world around them when they are “kept” (it is called beekeeping) within the hives you create.  Or you may be smarter than me and actually know why… but I just learned that the man-made beekeeping hives are  just like any normal hive, and that a hive is only where bees lives.  A hive has a small hole near the entrance so they can fly in and out as they please.  When a swarm of bees is looking for a home, they go into a man-made hive’s entrance the same way they would go into a hollow tree’s entrance.

  • Additionally, as Jeanne told me via e-mail, beekeeping is about more than the nice harvest of honey that bees will provide for you.  Beekeeping will help you to appreciate the world around you as you begin to “take a bigger interest in the weather, and in the flowers, than you ever did before.  You will find out lots about the fascinating life and habits of the bees.”

But back to that delicious, sugary-substance, what exactly is honey?

Honey begins as plant nectar.  Bees split the disaccharide into two sugars that can be easily absorbed by the human body.  We cannot process pollen because of its hard exterior, but bees can, and turn it into something we can consume.

And interestingly enough, as one New York Times article told me, the small amount of local pollen within locally-produced honey can help people develop defenses again local allergens.  Strong scientific evidence is still being collected, but plenty of anecdotal evidence exists.

And which type of bee produces the honey?

If you’re looking at something that fits the normal stereotype of a bee (obvious stripes of black and yellow), it does not produce honey.  These are wasps.  Who knew?

A honeybee is black and honey-colored or even gray at times, and fuzzy.  Their stripes are much less distinctive.

But fuzziness is not entirely indicative of a honey producer.  If you’re looking at something more bulbous and fuzzy (and still very distinctively striped), this is a bumblebee.  This also does not produce honey.

Once you’ve thoroughly learned how to identify honeybees and then decide to get your first hive (purchased or made: both of which are a bit over my head), where should you put the hive to best benefit the bees?

  • Place the hive somewhere that is sunny and protected from wind.
  • Avoid areas that get cold gusts of air, many believe a high prevalence of heat and sunshine prevent disease.
  • Position the hive entrance so that bees fly right over your yard (and not over your neighbors).
  • Plant bushes in front of the hive entrance so that the bees learn to fly straight up, rather than at “people height”.
  • Paint your hive any color you’d like: the bees don’t care!

How do you avoid getting stung, without that silly-looking, expensive suit:

  • DO buy and wear a veil.  It works best if you wear a collared-shirt, pop it, and make sure your popped collar is inside of the veil.
  • Wear light colored clothing (especially avoid bright, colorful attire).
  • Tuck your pants into your socks.  Wear thick shoes.
  • Wear neoprene surgery gloves.
  • Wear long-sleeves and make sure the cuffs are closed.
  • Move slowly and calmly.  Make 90-degree turns and stay in shadowy areas.
  • It is also best to inspect them during good weather and daytime hours, preferably between 10 am and 4 pm.
  • Always use smoke!  It interrupts bees’ sense of smell.  You can “smoke yourself” to disguise your own scent.  In fact, a smoker is one of the key tools a beekeeper should acquire when getting starting.

Obviously, I have skipped over a couple things.  Beehive design and function are extremely important, as is how to keep your bees nourished, but with no experience, I don’t feel confident to give advice.  The workshop cited a couple great beginner books that could be found at the Madison Public Library: The Honeybee by Vernon Vickery and The How-To-Do It Book of Beekeeping by Richard Taylor.  Additionally, Steenbock Library has a wealth of material available and librarians are enthusiastic to help!  Supply catalogs also contain important information.  And again, the 4-workshop series offered by the Dane County Beekeeping Association is a great way to start without having to research intensively on your own.

As Jeanne told the workshop group, as well as me via e-mail, beekeeping is not a light endeavor.  But luckily, there is a wealth of knowledge out there and many people in the Madison area eager to share their apiculture wisdom with you.  And now that you know how to avoid getting stung, I hope you’ll give it a try.