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Season of the hives: Two learn the ins and outs of beekeeping together
MONROE - There's one thing Pat Holmstrom and Bob Beck want to make clear about their foray into beekeeping this summer:

"Just make sure to let everyone know we're beginners," Holmstrom says. It's been a common refrain as he and Beck, both of Monroe, checked on their beehives together throughout the season. They've often remarked how a more seasoned beekeeper might get a good laugh at the way they were working.

The knowledge needed to start and keep a healthy hive often passes from one beekeeper to another: Holmstrom actually started keeping bees last year, learning from Eric Anderson.

He in turn got Beck interested during their semi-monthly visits when they "discussed the problems with the world," as Beck says.

"Obviously we talked about what we're interested in, and he (Pat) talked a lot about the bees - he was really into it," Beck says. "I had been aware for some time, with my reading about environmental things, how the bees were under stress and how important they are to our survival. So I thought, I better get into this and do my part to help."

And so in April, the two picked up their packages of bees, each containing 10,000 to 12,000 bees, including the queen, the lifeblood of the hive. They went about the task of installing the bees into the hives on their respective property.

The first night, Holmstrom installed three newly-built hives with bees, carrying a fourth hive over from last year, while Beck started with one package in the top-bar hive he built during the last winter.

They had to remove and place the queen inside the hive, which is covered in swarming bees, and with a quick downward shake or two, drop the remaining bees into the new hive. Then the hive was covered, and inverted cans of sugar water placed on the top to slowly feed the bees. Another cover was added before moving on to the next hive.

The start-up process went smoothly for Holmstrom. But for Beck, the process finished with some uncertainty as to whether the queen was actually in the hive - he thought he might have dropped her on the ground.

He checked the hives every week or two, and his fears were later confirmed.

"There wasn't a queen," Beck says. "I saw the hive declining and there was no brood (baby bees) at all. After that I had to decide whether to get another queen, or wait and see if they would develop their own.

"By the time I decided, they had developed their own."

Beck's experience epitomizes what Holmstrom joked is the beekeeper's "emotional relationship" with the queen.

"The psychology of beekeepers, they go from super high, when everything's going well, to the depths of despair, when they think they lost their queen - typical beekeeper mentality," Holmstrom says.

They learned from their mistakes along the way. The first night, they wore only a protective head mask and ended up swatting away bees that landed on them, and got a few stings.

They now wear protective bee suits when they check their hives. To check on the colony's health, they take the hive's cover off, pull a frame out and closely inspect for new brood, honey production and the queen.

On one trip out, as bees fly around the two, Holmstrom pointed and joked, "That's no drone dressed in drag," as he found the queen with a green dot painted on its back that he bought and added to his nucleus hive on Beck's property. That hive is a smaller version of a normal beehive created from parts of a larger colony during the summer.

Holmstrom says one of the first questions always posed to him is what he's going to do with the honey. But honey was far down the list of priorities when he began.

"All I wanted was some bees living around the place when I first started. I didn't know I was going to get interested. It seems like I got interested in it, and one hive wasn't enough. You've got to have more," Holmstrom says.

His second season has worked out well, he says.

"My expectations have been pretty low, but it worked out great this year again.

"I'm just having fantastic luck with bees," he says. But Holmstrom also knows that luck can easily run out. "You know it can't last.

"Although I do keep wandering around finding four-leaf clovers this summer" he says, opening a notebook displaying four, four-leaf clovers.

Even with a few hiccups in the first year of beekeeping - a sting to the temple from an angry bee resulted in half of his face swelling - Beck recognizes it's been a great learning experience.

"If I did have to start over, I'll be ahead of the game," he says.

Beck is optimistic that his hive has made a turnaround. As of mid-August, he had a "fair amount of brood."

And he recently found a large population of bees in his hive. In the hopes they will survive, he doesn't plan to harvest any honey.

"They're going to need all they can make to survive the winter," he says.

He's not worried about not having honey from his hive. "I've gotten enough honey from Holmstrom this fall."