Musings About Me, the Beekeeper
You could easily say that my beekeeping experiences over the last 25 years have been varied.
They go from small scale backyard beekeeping to working with Africanized bees to working with a 2000-hive commercial operation. My beekeeping has taken place in the United States, Honduras, and Jamaica. Throw into the mix beekeeping trainings given as a Peace Corps volunteer, with Honduran farmers and high school students, and with “bee farmers” across the island of Jamaica. And then the experiences are divided between using top bar hives for my own Africanized beekeeping in Honduras but using Langstroth hives for the commercial honey production in Wisconsin and the almond pollination in California.
Me, taking a break from the bee work and using the hive stand as a bench—in the top bar hive apiary I have up on a coffee farm in west-central Honduras.
My beekeeping journey started quite by accident in 1991—it was something that had never even crossed my mind before then. I graduated from a university in Wisconsin with a degree in print journalism and Latin American studies. Coming out of high school, my idea had always been to combine the two somehow. Journalism experience I got during my university years working with the student newspaper and two of the local papers. My Spanish was lacking, however. I wanted to learn it but it wasn’t my main focus during my university years.
With graduation looming on the near horizon, I began thinking about how to improve my Spanish. One of the most obvious ways was for me to join Peace Corps. You live for two years in another culture, do good work for others, and you have to learn Spanish. I went through the interview process and finally got the eventful phone call.
“We would like to invite you to be part of Peace Corps Honduras,” said a lady at the other end of the line. “How does that sound?”
“Great,” I replied. Honduras is Latin America and that is where I wanted to be.
“We would also like you to be part of our beekeeping program there. How does that sound to you?”
“That sounds good,” I told her without really thinking. Honestly, what was going through my head was if that would get me to Honduras than why not.
My Peace Corps training group for beekeeping, at the Escuela Nacional Agricola in Catacamas, Olancho, Honduras, January 1991.
A beekeeping workshop for fellow Peace Corps volunteers in 1993. Yea, that’s me, the one with the long hair and a beard on the right. Try to find the clean-cut me in the previous photo—Peace Corps will do this to a person.
So I just sort of jumped haphazardly into the world of beekeeping. Up until that time my only experience with the bees was freezing when a bumblebee would come and circle around my head as a boy playing on the lawn, waiting for it to go away. It also consisted of always having peanut butter and honey sandwiches as an afterschool snack. (“Mom, I’m hungry. What’s there to eat?” Honey and peanut butter were ever present in the cupboard.)
And so my beekeeping adventures began, with the bee bug biting (or should I say stinging) me hard during our Peace Corps training. After 23 years they continue to do so. There have been ups and downs in this journey, but these little nectar creatures have always continued to play a role in my life. You can plan your career as much as possible but you never really know where life will end up taking you.
Over the years as a Peace Corps volunteer the idea kept growing about staying in Honduras with my wife and becoming a full time beekeeper. When it came time to actually leave Peace Corps and set out on my own, the reality really set in. I learned firsthand about the situation of the people I had been working with. How can I support my family (my wife had three children) with beekeeping if I don’t really have the resources to invest in the needed equipment?
The truth was that Langstroth hives were simply too expensive. I couldn't justify spending that much money when I needed to put food on the table and pay for school expenses. And I certainly couldn’t justify spending money on all the extras that go with these hives so they could be managed as they were intended. I was now put in the very shoes of the people I had been helping as a volunteer.
So the obvious alternative was to put into practice what I had been promoting—the top bar hive. A simple economic system for managing bees. It can be used as a stepping stone to eventually move into Langstroth hives or turn out to be your hive of choice. It continues to be my favorite hive in Honduras for its low costs and for helping me manage Africanized bees. This “closed system” helps me control these ornery bees better since only a small space needs to be kept opened.
My wife Sofia has always been a big help to me with the beekeeping—to the point where she has gone alone to catch swarms and harvest honey.
Over the years I also had the opportunity to work with a couple commercial beekeeping operations. One was a large melon grower in southern Honduras who needed the hives for pollination. The other was a three-year stint with commercial beekeepers in Central Wisconsin (where I grew up). These folks had just about 2000 hives for honey production and almond pollination. They also made package bees and nucleus hives in addition to raising some queens. Both of these operations only used Langstroth hives.
Top—Bees in central Wisconsin—loaded up and ready to move out to the almond groves of California. Bottom—Extracting the honey from John’s beekeeping operation in Central Wisconsin. That’s John on the left—a wise man with lots of beekeeping experience under his belt.
I also thoroughly enjoy teaching about beekeeping. I’ve had opportunities to continue teaching beekeeping outside of Peace Corps—most recently through the Partners of the America’s Farmer to Farmer program with the bee farmers of Jamaica. I’ve done three one-month missions on the island, promoting and teaching top bar hive beekeeping as an economically sustainable alternative for many people on the island. Themes have included tbh construction, tbh management, pollen traps for tbhs, simple cement mold for making wax foundation (for the Langstroth beekeepers), and bookkeeping/record keeping.
Building pollen traps for top bar hives with beekeepers from the St. Mary Bee Farmers Association on the north coast of Jamaica.
Harvesting honey from one of my top bar hives in Honduras.
Top bar hives on the coffee-farm apiary in the mountains above the town where I live in Honduras.