By Orren Fox / Photos by Michael Piazza
Orren Fox is a high school student from Newburyport, Massachusetts who currently attends The Thacher School in Ojai, California. At the young age of 13 he started keeping bees at home. Now away at school, he keeps active colonies on both sides of the country.
As I pick my way around the brush, being careful to avoid poison ivy, I hear an insect zoom by my ear. I glance up and realize it is one of my roughly 200,000 honeybees. She swerves left, then right, as her baskets, full of pollen, weigh her down. When I arrive at the hives, all four of them buzz loudly, full of life. Before I suit up, I merely observe the bees for a moment. Every second, hundreds of them land and take flight, ready for another day of foraging. After a few seconds, I grab my veil and zip the rest of my suit. I grab a couple of necessary tools and head over to the first hive. As I pry it open, the sweet smells of honey, pollen, and beeswax fill my nose. When I peel the lid back, I am met with a wave of curious hive-dwellers.
For the remainder of the day, these little guard bees constantly bump into my veil with harmless, silent little thuds. I put my face closer to the hive and peer down into the frames. The smells are so strong, they’re nearly overpowering. Since it is a hot, sunny day, the propolis inside the hive is gooey, and due to this extra heat, the bees have been cooling their hive with their wings and blowing the scents out of the hive and up into my veil. The hive is strong; thousands of bees are hard at work both inside and out. I realize that this moment, with thousands of them buzzing around, is the reason why I keep bees.
Mother’s Day of this year, 2013, will mark my fourth year of owning bees. Since day one, the amount of hives under my care has fluctuated from three all the way down to one, and then up to four, the number where I stand today. Along with the population of my hives, my knowledge about these little creatures has grown significantly. Although you may be able to learn the technicalities of honeybees through reading, the place where I have learned the most is with my nose right in the hive, with my eyes glancing around.
In order to maximize what I learn, I decided to get more than one hive so that I could compare and contrast different methods of dealing with various problems that may arise. Think about it: if you only have one hive, and it appears that something has gone wrong, you have nothing to compare it to in the absence of a neighboring hive. I have found a great balance having four hives, as it allows me to truly compare various findings with great accuracy.
Before I acquired my first few hives, I was relatively oblivious to the importance of the honeybee. I was unaware that one-third of the food that humans eat is because of the honeybee. And no, one-third of our diet is not honey—the pollination from the bees is what allows us to eat the delicious fruits and vegetables that we do. Essentially, bees are a vital part of the natural ecosystem, a part that we cannot afford to lose. While this is an interesting piece of knowledge, it is not what drives me to continue keeping bees.
The reason why I do it is pure enjoyment and curiosity. Every time that I suit up and bushwhack out to the hives, I experience the feelings that drove me to acquire hives in the first place. For some odd reason, every time I open up a hive, it feels completely different than the last; it seemingly never gets old. For some, the act of opening up a hive is merely repetitive, a boring task that needs to get done or else the hives will swarm. I, however, see the act not as a chore but as a chance to learn more, get great photos, and eat some honey. This is what drives me on those scorching hot summer evenings or those freezing cold winter mornings. This passion is what drove me to get my first beehives in Newburyport.
Although I had some bees I could care for at home, I began to wonder how I could get my peers involved in my newfound hobby. I thought of bringing honey to school, but that didn’t seem like enough—I wanted to get my buddies really involved. Eventually I came to the only logical way to allow my peers to learn about bees: I had to install some hives at school. In order to do this, I got a faculty advisor signed on and started the very first bee club at The Thacher School; and thus, the Thacher Bee Club was born. Initially, people were shy about joining, and in the first couple of weeks only a couple of students voiced any interest. After the word spread about how exciting it is to open up the hives, the interest grew. I had peer after peer ask me whether or not they could join the club and of course the answer was yes! Suddenly, instead of having an empty suit lying around, we had people gathering around the hives without suits because they were so interested. Unfortunately, no honey was harvested during my freshman year, although the hives did rather well.
During one of the final weeks of school, I harvested dozens of jars of honey from the beehives. It was a nice break from studying, going out and getting surprisingly sticky bottling the delicious Ojai honey. Once other students got a glance of Thacher Bee Club stickers on the jars, I had many more students approach me about acquiring one of these stickers, in addition to a jar of honey.
Finally, one night, at the school’s weekly snack bar where you buy post-study hall snacks, the Bee Club started selling our jars of honey. This was directly after the tornadoes in Oklahoma, so we decided the proceeds should go to buying new school supplies for the victims. When my peers finally got a taste of the liquid gold, the compliments began rolling in. It was very gratifying to experience the fruits of our labor affecting fellow friends so positively. There is truly nothing like it.
Although the vast majority of time spent keeping hives is filled with exciting new discoveries, occasionally you lose a hive. I can clearly remember the first time that I lost a hive. I trudged through snow up to my knees, out to the silent hives, halfway buried with snow. The moment I arrived, I began shoveling snow away from the hives before I even checked if they were still living. After I finished shoveling out the hives, I put my ear up to the first one. I heard a quiet hum, and a little grin spread across my face: this hive had made it through the winter. Although the first one had survived, I failed to hear the same hum coming from the next hive. When I opened it up, I saw what I feared. The hive had not made it. It was saddening to see the bees, all stationary and cold. This event unfortunately occurs on a regular basis on the east coast due to the brutal, freezing winters.
Luckily, positives severely outweigh the negatives of owning hives, which is why I choose to continue this rather unique hobby every year. And I never regret it.
Orren Fox is the author of happychickens.com, a blog about raising chickens and bees. He currently has 25 hens and 7 hives, 3 at school and 4 at home. Orren is on the advisory board of ChopChop, a magazine about kids, food, and cooking. He is also an avid fan of the Patriots and Celtics. He can be reached at @happyhoneybees on Twitter and Beehappy on Facebook.