A childhood incident traumatized Julie Tennis stimulated a lifelong passion for bees and beekeeping.
“My experience as a beekeeper has shown me that the more people care about something living, other than themselves, the more they will care about nature as a whole,” said Julie Tennis, a naturalist and beekeeper from Naselle, Washington.
The art of beekeeping is an exacting and work-intensive yet rewarding way to establish a connection with nature, promote pollination and contribute positively to the overall health of the environment.
She gave a presentation, “What Beekeepers Do” Saturday, Sept. 24, at the Seaside Public Library. The event was sponsored by the Friends of the Seaside Library.
Tennis maintains an oscillating number of hives, or between 20 and 40, depending on what is happening in the environment, but she has not always been a bee lover.
In fact, a traumatic event from her childhood, during which she and a friend got stung more than a dozen times each, gave her fear and hatred of stinging insects that she harbored for a long time. However, she also respected them, especially as she came to understand the insects did not sting until they perceived a threat.
When Tennis was in college, her father started keeping bees. At first, she was hesitant to go to his house, but she eventually started to perceive bees as interesting.
“My curiosity started to overcome my fear,” she said.
In 2005, she realized she was allergic to sugar, and her father became her honey supplier. When she and her husband got their own house in 2008, her father gave her a box of bees to start her own colony.
Eight years later, she said, “I’m totally in love with bees.”
To find success as a beekeeper, a person must be willing to work hard and be consistent with perfunctory tasks. Above all, though, “Beekeepers pay attention,” Tennis said, adding, “The most important aspect of being a beekeeper is being able to observe and retain what you’re observing, or to analyze and understand it.”
Bees are unlike the mammals most people are used to dealing with, such as cats, dogs, horses and rabbits. If a person has not regularly interacted with bees, they likely will struggle to understand bees’ behavior, moods and vocabulary. Beekeepers have to observe and learn quickly to avoid being stung and to keep their colonies healthy and thriving, Tennis said. For instance, bees communicate through pheromones, and the aroma they emanate when upset smells like banana candy.
“You’re always going to be learning something,” Tennis said.
The work of a beekeeper is spread throughout the year.
In the wintertime, bees are in a quiet state because the weather is usually too cold and wet for them to fly and there is little food to forage. That’s when beekeepers can work on equipment, assembling new parts or changing out old frames with wax that has built up an unhealthy amount of toxins or residue.
During her presentation, Tennis described the system she uses, called a Langstroth hive, and explained the significance of each component.
In March or April each year, Tennis usually prepares her honey-gathering equipment, which includes honey supers — smaller boxes where bees will make honey that get placed on top of brood boxes and can later be removed to retrieve the honey — and queen excluders — a flat rack with holes large enough to allow smaller worker bees to enter but not large enough for the queen bee to get through, which prevents her from laying in that section.
In the spring, once she knows baby bees are being laid and male bees are around, Tennis inspects her hives to see if each one has a queen and if she’s laying well. If a hive is strong, she then splits the colony, putting all the frames with baby bees in one box and the others back into the original box. The procedure has three benefits: breaking the reproductive cycles of varroa mites without using pesticides; helping to build apiaries; and controlling or preventing swarming.
During the summer, the bees forage and make honey. That is when Tennis also works as a bee-wrangler of sorts, responding to people’s calls and catching rampaging swarms of bees. While some people are nervous around swarming bees, catching them is Tennis’ favorite task. She has found swarms in some strange places, including chimneys, utility boxes, the walls of sheds and inside a gas tank.
The next phase of beekeeping is harvesting honey during the fall. Plant nectar originally is about 80 percent moisture; after the bees process it, the moisture is reduced to 18 percent or less, making it a highly saturated and hygroscopic fluid. Tennis uses a centrifuge to get the honey from the wax combs on her frames. Depending on where and what plants the nectar originated, honey can have a variety of colors and flavors.
Tennis also shared with the audience how queen bees are made, how gender is determined, the life cycle of bees and other tips for people who are interested in beekeeping.
Those who don’t desire to keep bees but want to contribute to the health of pollinators and that of the environment can take other steps, such as letting their lawn grow, planting flowers that bloom in late fall or early spring and limiting their use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals, Tennis said. They also can support their community beekeepers.
Tennis runs a website, beementor.com, to help educate people about beekeeping and bees.