San Jose, CA

What it's Like Becoming a Beekeeper

Rene Cizio

All those beekeeper TikTok videos I’ve been watching finally got to me, so when I saw a beekeeping class in San Jose, I was abuzz.

Queen Beekeeper Allison hosted me in her bee castle in an unsuspecting subdivision in the San Jose hills. It turns out you don’t need a lot of space to be a beekeeper, just access to flowers, of which California has plenty.

We met in her flower-filled backyard, and she told me about the history of beekeeping while preparing the tools we would need to meet the bees.

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Rene Cizio

Honeybees, as you’ve likely heard, have been teetering near endangerment from loss of habitat, parasites, pesticides, pollution and other causes. Humans can help mitigate a few of these causes, and Allison is doing just that.

Adopted by Bees

About 10 years ago, she was “adopted” by the bees when they started gathering in her yard and she called someone to have them removed. That person showed up in an oversized “bee mobile” and convinced her to give beekeeping a try; thus, her sweet story began.

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Allison showed me how to prepare and light the smoker to stun the bees and make them more compliant to us rooting around in their hive. I was a metal canister with a handle, a funnel and a bellow to keep the straw and lint burning and push out the smoke. There was also a small, handheld metal honeycomb chisel/pry bar for digging in the hive. I was already nervous. I giggled.

“Are you afraid of bees?” she asked.

“No … not really … I mean kind of, I guess. We’re taught to be afraid of bees. But they look nice on the videos, so ….”

Then she suited me up in a bee suit of white cotton pants and a white jacket that looked like a straitjacket without straps but an attached hat. The hat was wide-brimmed and attached to the jacket with a zipper around the neck. The entire front was a dark mesh screen for airflow but closed so the bees couldn’t enter. It was sort of like a hazmat suit. I looked exactly like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, except much less cute.

Keeping Bees

While I got dressed, she explained how bees had gotten a bad rap. You see, there are lots of different types of bees, just like there are lots of different kinds of fish. There are over 20,000 known bee species globally, about 4,000 in the United States alone. And they’re not all bad. Honey bees do not seek to sting. If you’re gentle with them, they’ll be gentle in return, as I was about to learn.

Beekeeping only needs as much space as the size of the hive, which can be as small as a file box. She even knows someone who keeps a hive on their balcony, which got me thinking, but I quickly stopped myself. Right now, I only have a van and bees wouldn’t like trying to follow me around.

Allison kept her bees – nearly a million of them – in a concrete area alongside her house that was about the space of a double-wide hallway. Despite her having several bees hives and a yard filled with flowers, I didn’t see any until we were right next to the hive. Then, it was obvious there was another world of which I’d been unaware.

Hives

She kept the bees in wooded boxes stacked on top of one another to look like little apartment complexes. Some were short, just two stacks high and others were four or six stacks high. The boxes were like filing cabinets and within them hung a series of “files” made of hexagonal prismatic wax cells where the bees were busy making their honey.

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I wondered how I hadn’t been able to hear the buzzing just on the other side of the fence. Now that I was next to the hives, the buzzing was captivating. It reminded me of a meditation called Bhramari Pranayama or Bumblebee Breath. It’s a calming breath practice when you hum like a bee. Watch this quick video to hear how loud they were.

The apartments were entirely sealed shut, except for a tiny door at the bottom where the bees could come and go. I watched as bees entered the door to deposit their collection with their rear leg pollen pockets stuffed with yellow pollen. When Allison stood in front of the door blocking their path, a traffic jam of bees formed behind her. When she moved, they lined up at the entrance to deposit their collections.

Bees can travel up to five miles to collect pollen from different flowers and store it in their leg pockets for transport back to the hive. Once at the hive, they store the pollen in the combs and begin making honey. Each hive has about 60,000 bees. About a dozen hives surrounded us.

Bees

Honey making for the bees is like canning for humans, I learned. They live off honey, and they try to make enough of it, so they will always have food stored, no matter the season or the available pollen, or lack thereof. But they make more the three times the amount of honey they need to survive, clever little worker bees, so human beekeepers harvest the excess. This was the process I was to learn.

Speaking of “worker bees,” that’s real. There are female workers who do everything to make the honey and manage the hive, the queen bee, who makes babies, and the drones. The drones are all males whose only job is to impregnate queens from other hives. I’m not going to go on a feminist rant here, I’m not.

Honey Collection

I pumped the bellow of the smoker into and around the apartment complex and used a honeycomb chisel to pry open the roof. Wax entirely sealed the lid shut and it needed some determination to pry off. Once open, the files of combs were revealed, and hundreds of buzzing bees milled about, surprised by the sunlight but dazed by the smoke.

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Inside the box were several files holding various combs. More wax held the combs inside the box, so I used my tool again to pry them loose and lifted one out. Though only the size of a file folder, the comb weighed about 10 pounds, mostly pure honey. A thin film of wax coated the outside of the file and once punctured with a tool or a finger, the honey oozed out.

I removed my gloves and dipped my finger into the comb, coating it in honey. It was the sweetest, richest, purest honey I’d ever had. Several bees joined me, sticking out their tongues to lap up the sweet nectar. Yes, bees have tongues; of course, they do. I’ve been so ignorant.

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Once the beekeeper is ready to harvest the honey, they place the comb in a honey extractor. It’s a bucket that holds the files and spins them rapidly using centrifugal force to extract the honey for bottling.

Tasty Honey

My job as a beekeeper now done; I enjoyed the fruits, er, sweet reward from my labors. Allison had set up a honey tasting station with various crackers, cheeses, nuts and different types of honey. I learned there are many kinds of honey depending on the locations, the nectar collected, the time of the season, and how it is harvested and stored. It’s like fine wines. The grapes, region and process determine how it will turn out.

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Besides the honey, the wax from the comb is also a useful tool used to make lip balms, candles, lotions and other items. Nothing is wasted. I chewed on some of the beeswax I scrapped from the hive and it was a lot like honey-flavored bubble gum, which should totally bee a thing.

Save the Bees

Bees pollinate the plants we eat and our planet cannot survive without them. Sadly, their populations continue to decline and it's up to us to save them.

Ecological farming and the preservation of their habitats will help. In your own life, you can forgo pesticide use, cultivate flowering plants or support those who do and instead of destroying beehives, save them, as Allison did.

Learn more about bees and ways to protect them by visiting these resources.

Find Allison and her beehives at Purrfecthoney.com and you can learn to be a beekeeper too.

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Digital nomad, solo road tripping through the USA in my van. I write about travel, adventure, culture, and self-improvement. Pictures on Instagram @renecizio

Chicago, IL
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