miscellaneous musings

More than a box of bees


Sultry July afternoon. Windless. Melty. Chickens bury themselves in the dirt beneath a grape vine. The cat stretches to twice her normal length. The hives smell of raw meat, like a string of butcher shops on a city street.

As a kid, I spent days like these with Nancy Drew, folded into the crook of a sugar maple, hiding from my brother. But today—a rare occasion without a schedule or to-do list—I sneak out to my shed and play with bee stuff.

What is the best part of beekeeping? I like bees and their honey, of course, but it’s much more than that. I like fiddling with pieces of wood and tools I never had a use for. I like being outside on a summer day, inhaling the hive scent and watching the bees dart and soar. But I also love bees on blustery fall days, and snowy winter days, and earthy spring ones. I love the whole outsideness of beekeeping.

I like photographing the bees, sketching a garden for next year, planning a better way to raise queens, designing a new honey super. I like the sight of perfectly straight and compulsively symmetrical comb, but I marvel at comb doggedly erected in odd places and small spaces.

I love pouring over seed catalogs, reading honey recipes, finding ideas for rendering beeswax, and dreaming up new ways to use comb honey. My interest in honey bees has segued into a fascination with all bees, and that, in turn, has led to an interest in wasps and other insects.

No matter what you think beekeeping is about when you start, it is bigger, more challenging, and more enlightening than you ever thought possible. You can keep bees in a box, but you can’t keep beekeeping in a box: it flows in unexpected directions and leads you to places you never thought of going.

Sitting here beneath the trees, I reflect on how bees have changed me. I watch them firing into the sky with innate urgency. I see them seeking a drop from the hose bibb, intimidating my dog, and pooping on my truck. Everything about them leads to something else. I am indescribably happy to have bees in my life, and I hope you feel the same.



Bees are endlessly fascinating. © Rusty Burlew.


  • Oh indeed! You said this perfectly! I have become completely enthralled with bees of all sorts…seeing a new bumble lumbering around on a flower will stop me in mid-conversation! The more I learn, the more I want to learn…and I am eagerly awaiting “retirement” so I can focus on bees the majority of the time, instead of early mornings and after work.

  • Nice reflections. The influx of pollinators to my yard puts any Manhattan street throng to shame. I find the variety of insects endlessly fascinating. Honeybees are only a small part of it. If I hadn’t become an anthropologist, I have no doubt I’d’ve become an entomologist who studied wasps.

    • Andy,

      I’ve been doing some wasp research lately (outside the scope of this website) and I’m finding them fascinating. If I were to do it all over again, I could see myself making a career out of them.

  • Thanks Rusty for your thought-provoking insight. It stirred my own memories of a childhood filled with wonder at these and many other of God’s creatures. My “bee” background was forged in feral bees. When I was a child, honey bees were so plentiful that no one thought twice about destroying the bees and taking the honey. Sad, but that was then.

    My story starts in a rented house. Most old houses were not insulated. It was clapboards on the outside and some sort of plaster on the inside with nice cavities between the studs. Shortly after we moved in, a swarm of bees hovered overhead and landed in a large bush. We watched in fascination as they hung there for a few hours. After a while the swarm burst into the air with a roar and landed on one corner of the house. Slowly they proceeded to disappear inside. We ran upstairs but couldn’t see them. Once they were inside we could hear them buzzing away, making comb for their nest.

    My bed was right against that wall. Every night I went to bed listening to their humming and smelling the odor of honey and comb. In the fall, Dad cut a narrow slot near the floor and inserted sulfur candles in each stud bay. He closed it up and after a while the humming stopped. He then cut the plaster away, revealing lots of beautiful honeycomb filled with different colored honey from the fields around us. After harvesting the honey, he made removable panels to cover the wall. Most every year after that. a new swarm would come and build their hive in there. After that it was easy to open the little bottom panels, smoke the bees and remove the honey.

    It was second World War time and sugar was hard to get so Mom cooked and preserved all our food with honey. On a few occasions I helped my Dad cut down bee trees in the fall and harvest the honey. Today, with the shortage of bees, I enjoy removing bees from wherever they are NOT wanted. I have equipment to trap or vacuum them into a hive, feed them and help them develop more colonies. I don’t count my time on these jobs. It wouldn’t be worth it. I just enjoy working with them and letting them teach me many lessons.

    • Sherm,

      That is a great story. It was very prescient of your father to realize that honey bees would re-populate the spot where others had lived, and then to plan for it by installing removable panels. Very clever. And to think you had a home-grown (literally) source of sweetener during the war years! Awesome. Thanks for writing.

  • Amen to this Rusty. I never imagined how I could fall in love with bees and where else it would take me. It’s been a great journey so far, and I expect it will continue to be in the future.

  • I do feel the same way. You really can’t know why you started beekeeping until you’ve done it for a while. Then you realize it was something you were missing and now can’t imagine being without. On those clear days it’s an abyss of beauty, on all others, your teacher. Thanks for your voice.

  • Love this picture of this old girl. You can tell she has really put in the miles of hauling food stores.

  • Great post!
    ‘I am indescribably happy to have bees in my life”. Never heard it put quite like that but, yes, that pretty much says it. I love watching my minions come in just as night is beginning. They flow into the hive like a river. They really are so amazing. That is some amazing photo too.

  • “I love the whole outsideness of beekeeping.”
    Thanks for this essay, I do very much feel the same.

  • Very well written, my thoughts exactly….bees are fascinating creations…and we don’t even know yet all there is to know about them!

  • Rusty, what a glorious evocative piece…….thanks for sharing this. Its cold in southern Australia currently, so my bees are rarely out and about which made the pictures you created a wonderful source of visual expectation for spring.

  • Hi Rusty,

    How come you said the hives smell like raw meat? I would expect a pleasant honey smell.

    Claire (in Australia where it’s 2C so no bees about)

    • Clare,

      There are many components to the smell, but I believe it’s the uncapped brood that smells to me like meat. After all, larvae are meat, high in protein and delicious (so I am told).

  • Well said. For me, too, keeping bees has brought me pleasures from unexpected places and changed how I see the world. I love the image in the sentence, “I watch them firing into the sky with innate urgency.”

  • I spent part of my day out with my bees and was very excited to watch individual honeybees cling to the edges of my maple leaf hydrangea, taking up what I assume is xylum (sp?) from the leaf tips. Love reading your blogs.

  • Yes, yes I do. I always look forward to reading your stories. A smile comes to my face when I see Honey Bee Suite in my email.

    Thank you, bill

  • Thanks for putting my thoughts “on paper” so to speak! My wife calls me a bee addict and I guess she is right about that too! Thanks for your wonderful blog!

  • I LOVE your blog! Inspiring and educational….thank you so much for taking the time to pen your thoughts and wisdom on these marvelous creatures 🙂

  • Ageed, so much more than a box of bees or a jar of honey. The bees help you slow down, to use all of your senses. The can take you to a Zen place. They remind you to appreciate the wonders of nature. Thank You for sharing your thoughts in this wonderful post.

  • Exactly! Tried explaining to others how I can just stand and watch the bees come and go all afternoon. It makes my soul long to go with them.

  • You’ve just described the true love of Beekeeping….
    I’m never more calm, or happy, or completely at peace, than when I’m in the middle of 10,000 little ladies buzzing all around me.

    Thank you,

  • Once again thank you for sharing your wonderful gifts of writing, photography and knowledge of the bees. You are an inspiration to so many of us! Your articles challenge and equip us to do better, not only with our bees but the world in which we share. Many of the very good instructional books and articles focus on what happens within the hive, a large portion of your posts prompt us to think out of the “box” regarding so many practices that have an major impact on the many pollinators as well as our world….

  • I’m really sad about my bees right now. I don’t think they’ll survive this year. I lost one hive and didn’t get a replacement accomplished. Then they cast off a swarm in May. My life was complicated by family wedding, illness, and incessant rain. By the time I was able to open the hive I discovered it full of honey but absolutely no brood. I accidentally ripped a row of queen cells open that were adhered to both the bottom on a frame and the top of one below. I knew something was amiss because I wasn’t seeing much pollen go in the hive. I installed a new queen, but a week later still no sign of brood. I couldn’t even find the queen cage, so I’m not sure what happened. I’m hoping I just opened it prematurely and I didn’t see eggs that hadn’t been capped yet. I’m just so discouraged. This hive is from a nuc of Indiana winter survivor bees and had been doing so well up to this point.

  • Regarding robber bees…. My hive is new as of June…a survival swarm that swarmed into the box. They have done very well and increased in size, doubled twice. Suddenly, there were all the robbing signs and I sprung into action with a robbing screen and a wet towel over the entrance. My bees were frantic the first day, but by day two they were settled down a bit and less stressed with the brawling. I did not know how to feel about this, but it was increasing. Since I am beekeeping to help the bees survive globally, I did not want to be frustrated with the invaders. I needed to love them too and help them to survive as well, just away from my hive. After assessing where the robbers were coming from, I placed a pie pan of sugar syrup with a dishrag over the syrup, on a stack of upside down 5 gallon buckets at a short distance from my hive, in the flight path. This provided a feeding distraction away from my hive. The robber bees appeared starving and aggressive and quickly consumed the sugar syrup. I added more and kept feeding them moving the pie plate and bucket stack a little further from my hive each day, while still in the robber bees flight pathway. When it seemed that I was bringing in more and more rogue bees, I put out a second pie plate of sugar syrup. This seemed to fulfill the robber bees needs and move them away from my hive. My hive bees could now settle down and get back to the business of creating their winter store of honey. If my bees went to the feeding dishes, that is fine as well, as they too are being fed sugar syrup within the hive. The pie plates of syrup concentrated the robber bees, gave them what they were needing, pulled them away from my hive and helped to keep the wild bees in the area alive and well too. It is a short term solution, but it seems to work well at keeping my hive bees calm and working, not defending.

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