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I can say without hesitation, revery - dreamful contemplation - coupled with thoughtful dedication and the love of nature, are essential qualities for a beekeeper. I know. My father was a beekeeper his whole life. It takes great character, knowledge and deep devotion to be this unique kind of caretaker.
Beekeeping dates back to Egyptian times, and brought to North America with the introduction of the European honeybee. Commercial (migratory) beekeeping came with the invention of a moveable multi-framed structure. The most common modern beehive was perfected and patented in 1852 by American apiarist and clergyman, Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth.
Soon after my grandfather Edmund Varney Sr. was born (1865), the family, along with the bees, moved to Nebraska, and eventually settled in California.
While juggling several businesses, my grandfather continued tending bees with the help of my father, Edmund Jr. During the Great Depression, bees were the family’s main source of income, producing forty tons of honey each spring, sold at 20 cents a pound. My father’s family operated 4,000 colonies
, pollinating orange, lemon and eucalyptus groves in California, and alfalfa crops throughout Wyoming, Wisconsin and South Dakota.
While pollination services is the bread and butter of any commercial beekeeping business, family talk would often turn to seeking the holy grail of honey: the pursuit and discovery of the most wild floral sources few beekeepers will ever come to know.
Beekeepers never tire talking about bees, and my father was no exception. He channeled his gift of gab and love of apiculture into teaching, introducing many in our extended family to the beekeeping ways. He passed along his deep understanding of nature and bee behavior to my son Ryan, who is fifth generation. Ryan nurtures thousands of his own colonies in Oregon, with his sister Jessica and brother Austin helping out during the busiest months.
While extremely rewarding, beekeeping is difficult work, and comes with a unique list of dangers and ever-changing risks. The most obvious is getting stung numerous times a day. It was due to a severe bee-sting allergy that I joined the family tradition as an end-producer, sourcing raw clover honey from our beekeeping community to make my line of honey crèmes and honey vinegar. At one time I offered honey varietals, but that became too volatile in both availability and pricing.
Other risks center on nature’s uncertainty (what every farmer worries about), keeping your colonies healthy - which requires meticulous maintenance so they are less susceptible to mite infections - and strong enough to haul them hundreds of miles. Thankfully the latter is an easier task than it was for my father’s generation, when the highway infrastructure was practically non-existent.
With Big Ag also comes the worry of chemicals, most recently the use of neonic**insecticides. Suspected to be a contributing factor in Colony Collapse Disorder (in simplest terms, the disappearance of worker bees from what appears to be a healthy colony, with queen bee, food stores and un-hatched brood intact), three specific neonicotinoid pesticides that pose an acute risk to honeybees, other beneficial insects and birds were banned by the European Union.
To date, eight U.S. municipalities have also banned neonicotinoid insecticides, and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service plan to prohibit its use at national wildlife refuges by January. In addition, a group of beekeepers are suing the EPA for stronger regulation. The suit alleges that the agency has not met its own criteria for granting approval of neonicotinoid pesticides.
It takes a great deal of entomology** knowledge, understanding the behavior of honeybees in its natural environment, not to mention care, worry and business acumen to be a commercial beekeeper. So, the next time you purchase honey, think about those millions of worker bees and their human caretaker, joined in communal collaboration, to present you with a jar of liquid gold, nature’s most beautiful and complete food!