It is difficult to categorize the art of beekeeping; hobby sounds too safe and soft, and bees certainly are not pets. Beekeeping seems to exist as more of a working relationship built upon patience and respect. I was fortunate to recently get up close and personal with about 30,000 bees in the backyard of Montclair resident Derek Stordahl and it was at once both beautiful and thrilling.
Stordahl credits his rural upbringing and a chance residential beehive sighting with sparking his interest. He said: "Growing up in Montana, I used to see beehives out in the fields or come across wild bee hives, and always thought they were fascinating. Then last November, I was in Berkeley, California and walked past a house with beehives in the front yard, and realized that maybe I could keep bees in our yard. These days there are fewer wild bees than ever before, and commercial or small-scale beekeeping is under threat from Colony Collapse Disorder, so by keeping a hive of bees I figured I could help the environment a little and have fun too."
A small section of yard stands host to Stordhal's hive, which actually looks like a charming piece of furniture complete with crown etchings in honor of the queen nestled inside. I was invited to observe while he smoked the bees out of the hive in order to do routine maintenance. Admittedly, I was wary of the process and scoped out how far away I could possibly stand without looking chicken. But once the brass smoker billowed and the hive was slowly dismantled, I found myself having to refrain from sticking my face in the wax-covered screens teeming with bees.
I had imagined the smoke sending bees into some kind of frenzied chaotic departure, but frankly I gave these remarkable insects too little credit. The bees flew around — mainly staying within the immediate area — and overall were pretty uninterested in me. Stordahl explained that the bees actually begin to gorge on honey when they are being smoked out, in preparation to leave the hive in what they view as an emergency.
Often helping Stordahl tend the bees is his 10-year-old son, Oliver. Not surprisingly, when asked what his favorite part of bee keeping was, Oliver stated simply and firmly, "lighting the fire." Although not a 10-year-old boy myself, I have to admit, getting the fire started for the smoker was pretty cool and definitely upped the organic experience of it all.
As one might imagine, beekeeping requires commitment and education. And so Stordahl completed the following after receiving some equipment as a Christmas gift. "I took a beginning beekeeping class at the Essex County Environmental Center. I also read a lot, signed up as a member of the Essex County Beekeepers Association, and also took a couple of webinars," he said. "Taking the course was great and being a member of the beekeeping association means I get updates and a network of people to turn to if I need help."
In addition to educating oneself about beekeeping, there are some expenses to consider, but Stordahl notes it is not pricey in the long run. "A beginner might pay for a course, buy equipment and bees, [and] this could be around $500 or so," he said. "However, once the initial investment is made, it's not that expensive to keep going, especially if the beekeeper can keep the bees alive through the winter."
After witnessing just a modicum of the beekeeping experience, it is not difficult to see the allure. For Stordahl, one of the most gratifying aspects of beekeeping is evidenced in his daily commute. "During the spring, before I had bees, I walked to and from the train station every day. I walked past fruit trees in bloom, a park full of clover, and rarely saw a honeybee," he said. "Now that I'm keeping bees, I see bees working the flowers all along the way. It's rewarding to see that, and it's rewarding to see my bees thriving. It's only my first season keeping bees, so I'm also looking forward to my first honey harvest next year."
If you are considering beekeeping, Stordhal has this advice: "read a lot, check out resources online, and take a course or attend a local beekeepers meeting. Then you can decide if it works for you and your neighborhood — and go for it if it does. Friends of mine from the beekeeping course didn't buy bees this spring because they wanted to think about it some more, but now they have a case of hive envy."
For more information about local residential beekeeping check out:
Essex County Environmental Center
The New Jersey Beekeepers Association