Editor’s Note: Christy Hemenway is on a mission to protect the honeybee and preserve the art of beekeeping. She’s the author of The Thinking Beekeeper: A Guide to Natural Beekeeping in Top Bar Hives and owner of a company that sells kits for making the innovative hives with the distinctive horizontal shape. She’s been a speaker at TED and lectures on beekeeping throughout Maine.
IM: Christy, how would you explain to a five year old what you do?
CH: I would tell them I’m a beekeeper. If I could get them near my bee hive, then one of the cool things about a Gold Star hive is that it has a long glass observation window in the back. That’s right about eye-level for a five year old, so I could show them the inside of a bee hive and explain how it works. And then of course I’d talk a little bit about bees making honey and queen bees and all of that. And if you really, if I really had a calm kid and they’re interested, I would snatch a drone. Drones have no stingers, but they’re very buzzy and they’re fuzzy too, so they’re fun. Because they don’t sting, I could hand the bee to a kid and that’s something that they could go home and tell mom and dad about.
IM: My daughter would not be into that. She’s pretty terrified of bees after being stung by one. What do you say to people that are terrified of bees?
CH: People that are terrified of bees haven’t really thought it through very well. Bees are seeking a couple of very specific things and you don’t have any of them. They’re looking for nectar and they’re looking for pollen. They’re not looking for someone to sting, because they only sting once per lifetime. It kills them to sting. So to be afraid of honey bees is a little bit overblown because they really don’t go out their hive and draw a bead on you and go get you.
IM: They are not wasps.
CH: Wasps, Yellow Jackets and hornets are a different kind of bug.
IM: How did you get into bees in the first place? What led you here?
CH: I got into bees because before I opened [Goldstar Honeybees] I ran a thing called ‘Goldstar Alpacas’. I never owned any Alpacas, but I learned that alpaca farmers need to leave the farm and often couldn’t, so I made myself into a alpaca herdsitter. In the process of building that business I wanted to offer more services than just herd sitting, so I went out to a local farmer in Waterbury and said you know, “I want to learn how to shear”. So he taught me how to shear. It was hot, sweaty, muddy, dirty work. And when we were done, he reached over on a shelf in his barn and he handed me a jar, and I looked at the jar and and said, “what is this?” It was a jar of honey, but it wasn’t honey like you see in the squeezy bear in the grocery store. It was opaque and all the pollen was still in it. It hadn’t been filtered to within an inch of its life and I just…my eyes kind of lit up. That jar of honey turned me into a kind of a wall of enthusiasm. Then I went to Knox Lincoln County bee school. By that time I’d bought all the equipment and I’d seen this stuff they call ‘foundation’ and I thought, well this hasn’t been going on for the millions of years the bees have existed, so what did they do before we gave them foundation? To me that seems like a really logical question and something we should all know before we adopted the use of it.
CH: It’s a sheet of plastic with wax on it, and embossed hexagons. If you change the size of that hexagon, you can actually change the gender of the bee that’s laid in there–the egg that goes in there would be female in a small cell, male in a large cell. When they started using foundation, they were so excited to discover that they could make all worker bees because worker bees make honey. Drone bees, which were the males, don’t make honey. But to just cast away the male bee as if it got no use or no meaning was I think a very foolish step on our part.
IM: Why is the top bar hive you use so subversive to some?
CH: Because it’s not traditional. In America we’re so enamored with the (traditional box-style) Langstroth hive and are convinced that it’s the only way to go, that we don’t really look beyond that. ‘Bees must go up’ became the adage. If you had a box and it was this size and you ran out of space, what were your options to make it bigger? You stacked another box on top of it creating this impression that the bees must have to move up. Actually, bees are going into any size or shape container that suits them and they’re going to build cones hanging from the top down, using gravity. So they hang literally in a big chain, chewing up little wax flakes that have come out of their wax glands in their bellies. They chew it up and they stick it one to the other and build all those little cells, starting from the top down. So this idea of foundation out from the middle, it doesn’t make any sense and the idea that bees must move up doesn’t really make any sense either. But if you say it loud enough it’s supposed to be true.
IM: Switching gears now. Is it true that you can make it in Maine here, can you make it anywhere?
CH: I would think so. It’s very difficult to be known for anything in your own backyard in Maine. I think there’s an aspect to that that is truly Maine. It’s a little tougher to be considered an expert, so much of the vindication that I get about what I do comes from elsewhere.
IM: Speaking of that, what’s your connection with the White House?
CH: When the Obamas arrived and they went with an organic garden, the next logical thing was, “Oh, we should have bees”. At the time Charlie Brandt was a carpenter at the White House but he also was a beekeeper. Charlie and a woman named Toni Bernham put in a hive of bees at the White House. It was a [traditional] hive but Charlie is–to the best to my knowledge–a chemical free, treatment-free bee keeper. That hive went gangbusters and was to harvest honey for the White House. They bought little beautiful engraved bottles and give it away to visiting dignitaries and the like. I got invited to come down because I was [in Washington D.C.] for a show. Charlie wrote me an email: “I don’t know where you’re going to stay, or whether this convenient, or how long you’ll be in town or anything else, but if you’d like to come to my place of employment, I’d like to have a look at your top bar hive.” His place of employment just happened to be 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I began to do backflips and got on the phone with him and we made arrangements. I was there for about five hours, on Colombus Day. There were no public tours, so I got a private tour of the White House and the Garden. We talked bees for about five hours.
IM: That’s a great story.
CH: It was the greatest thing. Charlie has since retired. I think he’s still mentoring somebody who’s got the hive there, but I haven’t seen anything in the news and I haven’t talked to him in a while.
IM: So why are bees important?
CH: You can probably spend a day just thinking up things and saying, ‘Okay: How is it connected to bees?’ And you can draw some sort of connection. But obviously the primary one is that, no bees, no food. Almost everything that reproduces on an annual turnover basis has to be pollinated by something.
IM: Bees aren’t the only pollinators.
CH: No. But the neat thing about honey bees is they’re what they call monofloral, so when a bee leaves the hive it goes to a plant, whatever that plant is, that’s the only species of plant that it will go to on that trip. So it goes from dandelion to dandelion to dandelion, to dandelion. One flower…one type of flower each trip out of the hive.
IM: That’s why they’re such a great pollinator for agriculture?
CH: Exactly. They’re little machines. Because they’re so social and they live in a colony and there’s this whole super organism that is a colony of bees living in a hive, you can pick up the hive and move it. You can do things like grow a thousand acres of only one type of crop because you can move the bees there and then take them away and put them somewhere else. It’s actually pretty hideous and really indicative of what we’ve done to break our agricultural system. Because they work the way they do it makes it possible to pollinate like that; because they’re going to go out and do one plant and then they’re going to come back home and you know where they are, so you can pick them up and move them.
IM: So what makes Maine a good place to advocate for changes in the ways bees are kept?
CH: We are unique in a couple of ways. The first one is that we’ve got MOFGA, (Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association). It’s the oldest and largest organic farming association in the United States. Every time I leave the State of Maine, I’m happy to get back home, because when you go somewhere else where the mindset isn’t so focused on local food and local farms, and the idea of CSAs and ‘farm to table’ programs, well, those people eat whatever is served by the restaurant. In Maine we ask them “where did the eggs come from?” And we expect to know and they expect to tell us, and the smart ones market it that way. We’re pretty unique in that way.
IM: Is the problem with beekeeping the traditional “Langstroth” box?
CH: This is not a war between boxes. It’s not about the box, it’s about the wax that the bees are making inside the box. You could do what I do, foundational bees-keeping in a Langstroth hive. Just take away the foundation. But typically Langstroth beekeepers are focused on getting enough honey to at least pay for their equipment, if not sell it. So there’s a tendency to move towards foundation. The process is faster: you don’t have to wait for the wax to organically be created by bees.
IM: Do you mentor the beekeepers at this point?
CH: I guess you’d call it mentoring. I teach classes primarily. I wrote ‘The Thinking Beekeeper’ which was a wonderful way to spread the word without having to be in front of all of those people.
IM: How has it been received?
CH: It’s been out over a year and a half now and we’ve moved into the second edition. It’s pretty exciting.
CH: Thank you. Somebody on Amazon has it out there as a collector’s item, a signed copy. Somebody named David. The book is signed ‘Dear David. Proud to be part of your beekeeping journey’ or something.
IM: How else do you spread the word about top bar hives?
CH: If you’re here local in Maine I do open hives. We literally open up the hive and go through it bar by bar, looking through what’s there to see. And you get to see whatever happens to be in the hive that day. And you start to understand the progression through the season. And we also do a series of video conferences, so you just got to get on anymeeting.com, you go to my website, you sign up, you get a link, you sign up to the link and the subjects change as the season changes. Yesterday it was, “Hi Dad, drones do matter”. It was Father’s Day. On Mother’s Day it was ‘Hi Mom, how do you spot your queens?”. I try to make it fun and tie it into real life and with what’s happening currently in the bee yard.
IM: That’s great. Are you seeing more interest?
CH: When I started out I was a service. I had three clients. The next year I had five. The next year I had ten. But by that time I was going into my third year using the equipment and I was having it made and I knew what I needed it to do and be. And then I said, “This should be a kit”. I had to teach all these people how to keep bees so they could become their own beekeeper, because I couldn’t run around all over Maine taking care of ten bee hives. They were scattered from Belfast to Cumberland. It was crazy. So I got out of the service aspect and went into manufacturing the hive kits, and that was a big paradigm shift. But is also meant that the idea of interchangeable equipment now made sense. So I went into the manufacturing of the equipment and I’ve watched my gross revenue go from there exponentially year after year. It’s not quite to the point where I can kick back and say, “Hah hah, I’m making a living”, but the increase has been incredible.
IM: Good for you. What advice do you have for aspiring beekeepers?
CH: People getting into beekeeping don’t always know that there are options and so they end up in a class with people teaching how to use and manage the Langstroth type. There’s nothing wrong with the Langstroth type except that the majority of the conventional beekeepers are the ones who are going to tell you, “Well, you have to treat for mites,” and they build it right into the beekeeping course. So many people who get into beekeeping thinking that they are going to do something green and supportive of bees are completely turned off, thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m not putting chemicals like that into my beehive. Are you crazy?’ Then they get yelled at and told that they’re irresponsible for not treating [chemically]. I would offer that perhaps people who put chemicals in beehives are irresponsible, not so much the treatment-free people. You have to think about how connected everything is. That was the whole point of my TED talk—how connected things are. Those chemicals go into the wax, the honey is stored in the wax. The baby bees are raised in the wax. The bees live on that wax. They contaminate the wax. And you can’t magically turn that back into ‘clean’ again without letting the bees start over from scratch and make all the wax.
IM: How can people find out more about what you do?
CH: I just started a Maine top bar hives Facebook group. I think we need one of those in every state.