copyright © 2002 k.ruby

For the last few years I have been a beekeeper. It puts me into yet another wingnut underground of the world. And perhaps I am even weirder than most, as I am relatively young, politically active and urban. A friend recently asked me, when I told her I'd been keeping bees, "I don't get it, what's the appeal?" As I tried to explain my fascination with the bees I reverted to telling about the bees themselves, the many roles they carry out in the hive during their short lifetime, the way they communicate through "bee dances," the amazing precision with which they do what they do.

Among the beekeeping group we tend about 5 or 6 colonies of bees or individual hives. These are in backyards in various parts of the East Bay and there is one in a local community garden. We have experience with two different hive box systems, the traditional Langstroth System, which are the square white boxes most Americans associate with beekeeping, and the Kenyan Top Bar System

(KTBS) which was developed by the peace corps in Africa and is widely used there. There is ongoing discussion as to which system is "better." Each beekeeper insists that one or the other is healthier for the bees, but we have observed strong and weak colonies in both types of hives. After experiencing both, most of us agree that we like the Kenyan system better for a number of reasons:

1. The KTBS can be built with cheap lumber and basic tools. The Langstroth System requires a higher initial cash input for the equipment and/or high quality lumber and really exact carpentry skills.

2. In the Langstroth sytem the combs are constructed by the bees in square frames. At harvest the tops of the combs are cut off and the honey is extracted in a centrifuge. Thus, more equipment and honestly, more work. In the top bar system the bees build "free form" from the top bar, filling out the comb to fit within the hive box. At harvest the comb is cut from the bar, mashed and extracted by gravity. We extract our honey using a white plastic bucket with holes drilled in the bottom and a screen. Again, a low investment process. It may be slightly worse for the bees, as they have to make new comb every time, but thus far, we haven't noticed the difference.

3. In working with the KTBS it is possible to close the hive as you work. Only two combs are open to the air at any one time and thus being overwhelmed with angry bees while working is minimized. In the traditional system when the top of the box is open, the entire hive has access to the air.

There are many reasons to become a beekeeper. It's fun. It’s dangerous. You get to wear a funny costume and hang out with one of the most interesting creatures around. There is a special connection to nature, to plant cycles and to food prodúction that you don’t normally get to experience in our consumer culture. You support the magical process of pollination and support the setting of seed. It is a low cost backyard addition to an urban farm. The honey!!! Getting sticky stuff everywhere to the dismay of your housemates (mother, boy/girlfriend) and then making it up to them by feeding them honey in their tea and on their biscuits.