Both of us grew up with families who gardened, and we each have both fond and not-so-fond memories of helping in those gardens. We try to not think about picking okra or gooseberries, but even those memories never deterred us from growing our own vegetables whenever possible. Apparently we absorbed enough knowledge to do quite well, until one year when we had healthy plants with lots of flowers on them, but no vegetables. Well, I say “no,” but truth-be-told we had 5 tomatoes and then one football-sized watermelon at Thanksgiving. When we started to think about what had gone wrong, we realized we had not seen any bees in either the flower or vegetable beds all summer.
That led to the decision to get one bee hive. Two years later, we’d made about 5 years worth of mistakes, learned from each one, and had 18 healthy hives going in to summer. We now know more about bees than we ever thought here was to know and we have full crops of tomatoes, bell peppers and squash again. Even our holly bush had berries for the first time in 15 years as a result of our house bees going to other hollies in the neighborhood.
Yes, we live in a neighborhood, so only a few bees get to live at our house, and now only in an emergency. While we used to create and monitor our splits in our backyard, we simply lost too many hives to mosquito spraying — one time with enough pesticide residue inside two hives that the EPA told us to burn the wood ware because it was not salvageable.
As life-long nature lovers, bee-keeping combines our concern for the environment with our joy of growing our own produce. Hedi’s mother made jams and jellies every year, and her god-mother made the best blackberry-apple jam in the world! Hedi has continued this tradition with varying degrees of success and failure, the most epic of which resulted in strawberry jam dripping from the kitchen ceiling. (Never try to speed up jam by boiling it in a pressure cooker!) Our skills, experiences, and personalities complement each other, and we have enjoyed transforming our barren sand-pit of a yard into a tranquil bird and butterfly haven with soil turned fertile through years of composting. We have reduced the size of our lawn to minimize the need for water, and we top-seeded the grass with clover to introduce nitrogen without the need for chemicals. As “bee people” we continue to make modifications as what we learn changes the way we view our garden.
We have been surprised to discover that bees have personalities. They are attracted to running water and turn out en masse when we refresh the bird bath. They appear very elegant in their landings and take-offs in real time, but look more like circus clowns in slow motion! Last year they fought for space on the purple echinacea, but this year we have yet to see a single bee on the plants. On the other hand, last year they steered clear of the lavender but appear to have an appetite for what it is serving this year.
We remain excited about learning from our more experienced friends, and passing our knowledge on to those just getting started. Let’s sit down with a glass of sweet tea and talk bees sometime!
Gene and Hedi
All photography by Hedi England