Friday, April 20, 2012

Brooklyn Grange Beekeeping Apprenticeship: Week 1

This past Saturday, my mild (well, more like obsessive) interest in bees changed course as I transitioned from armchair bee enthusiast to full-fledged rooftop beekeeper.

I read about the apprenticeship program of the Brooklyn Grange Apiary Project, Brooklyn Grange's creation of the largest commercial apiary in the city, through this very blog. I had been interested in beekeeping for several years, but without property of my own I did not think I would actual become a beekeeper, at least not while I was living in New York. So when I heard about the project I was overjoyed. As an apprentice, I would learn the ins and outs of beekeeping—everything from preventing swarms to harvesting honey to queen breeding—while helping manage the apiary's 20+ hives. I would also get the chance to share my new skills, teaching others and helping build the beekeeping community. The chance to spend my weekends with a bunch of people as excited about bees as me? Please. It would be a dream come true.

The dream team.
c2012, Alex Brown

It all happened quite suddenly. One week after I applied, I received a phone call telling me the great news that I had been accepted to the apprenticeship program, and the next, I was being texted a location in the Brooklyn Navy Yards to come out and assemble the first hives. At Ted & Honey’s CafĂ©, located in the Navy Yards, I met Tim and the eleven other apprentices. I also got my first look at the empty roof that would soon be buzzing with activity.

Surprisingly, it all went smoothly. Sitting in the back of Tim’s car were five packages of bees, loudly humming and ready to be freed. After a brief discussion of the task before us, we picked up the packages, our gear, and the equipment necessary to assemble the hives, and headed up the four flights of stairs to the roof. As it was a Saturday, the offices we passed were empty, but I couldn’t help thinking how those who work inside would react if they saw us crating thousands of bees past their doors. You have to admit, there’s something slightly comical about it.

Fifteen pounds of fun.

On the roof, we assembled four supers worth of frames, brushing up on our craft skills as we inserted foundation and nailed it in place. In assembly line fashion, we made a good team, finishing quickly so the fun could begin: installing the packages. I had read Tim’s blog post on package installation before arriving that morning, but as I donned my enormous hat and veil, I definitely felt my heart catch in my throat. This was it. This was the moment I’d been waiting for. I was no longer going to merely observe bees, but work with them, look after their needs and help them thrive.

More hands, more better.

We watched Tim masterfully install the first package. Then in teams of four, we worked our way through the process. It certainly was not as easy as it looked. There were some shaky fingers, which made for trouble prying open the package and pulling out the feeding can so we could shake the bees free. Emptying a three-pound box of bees with your bare hands sounds like a daunting task. But actually doing it, feeling the bees woosh past my hands, brushing and sometimes lightly bouncing off my fingertips, was not overwhelming at all. It felt exhilarating and bizarre, but oddly right. I doubt you could see my face beneath the enormous veil, but I’m sure I was positively beaming.

Pouring bees like water.
c2012, Alex Brown

Letting the apprentices take a turn.
c2012, Alex Brown

By the end of the afternoon, our brand new suits were speckled with bee poop, evidence of our encounters, and the once barren rooftop now held the four fledgling hives. While certainly not as excited as they had been thirty minutes before, the bees were still circling around their new homes, acclimating themselves to their surroundings and asserting their presence. As we learned, the bees in each package were randomly selected from a variety of hives. Now, exploring the perimeters of their new home, they are about to make themselves into a functioning unit, a coordinated and responsive team. I look forward to spending the summer with my fellow apprentices, as we, like the bees, learn from each other and develop into a thriving team.

Hooray for bees!
c2012, Alex Brown


  1. Great post and photos. Best to you during your bee adventures!

  2. Thank you, Carrie! Best to you as well.