Go Bee-hind the Scenes With Jose Galvan

Go Bee-Hind the Scenes

A Q&A about one keeper's journey into the secret life of bees

The theme of Earth Day 2019 is “Protect Our Species,” and one group of species in particular that is calling out for our help is bees. 

In fact, to say that bees are critical to our planet’s survival is an understatement. There are 369,000 flowering plant species, and 90% of them are dependent on insect pollination…what’s more, pollination makes food available for other organisms and also allows floral growth, which provides habitats for animals, including other insects and birds. 

For much of the past ten years, beekeepers, primarily in the United States and Europe, have been reporting annual hive losses of 30 percent or higher, substantially more than is considered normal or sustainable. In fact, one in four wild bee species in the U.S. is at risk of extinction. 

This month, we’re chatting with amateur apiary aficionados and beekeepers Jose and Liz Marie Galvan. You may recognize blogger, designer, and Instagram personality Liz Marie and her husband Jose from Liz’s blogs (LizMarieBlog and The White Cottage Farm) or from our Get Inspired with Liz Marie blog—all of which detail various aspects of the restoration of the couple’s 1800s Michigan farmhouse.

We took a few minutes to sit down with Jose and find out how they got started in the hobby and talk about some simple steps other people can do to help protect the bees.

When did you first decide you wanted to keep bees? How long between your interest and actually procuring them? How long have you been keeping bees, to date?

I think I’ve always been interested, although it wasn’t until awhile ago that we really thought it would be a reality.

While we were in the military, we would come home throughout the year to spend time with family and friends. I can remember one time, driving up north with Liz’s parents, where a part of the drive hosted yards and yards of beehives. 

And Liz’s dad mentions how he’s always wanted to raise bees—and I told him that I’d had that same thought. The rest of the ride we talked about how fun it would be to learn about bees and beekeeping…and, of course, harvest our own honey! I believe this was around 2012 or so? It was a couple more years before we did anything, though…although the conversation continued!

So, what made you get serious about it and decide to get started? Was there a particular angle that interested you? Farming? Ecology? Tasty, delicious, honey?

All of the above! I’m generally curious, for one. And I’ve always had an affinity for science; I have an associate’s degree in Chemistry. So naturally it fell within my interest there. 

On top of all that, I think there’s the overall need to “save the bees.” [Pollinator numbers] continue to decrease each year, which could have disastrous affects on so many things. I mean, I know I wasn’t going to save the world all alone, but a little hobby could got a long way locally on so many different levels, and from there I knew I would raise them, it was just a matter of where and when.

So where and when was the where and when?

In late 2013, we decided not re re-enlist, and to transition to civilian life, and then moved back home (to Michigan) in 2014. We knew that wasn’t our “final stop,” and that that first home was only temporary, but I was still thinking about bee keeping and whenever Liz’s dad and I would get together…yep, we kept talking about it!

In 2016, we found our dream home. A seven-acre farm, complete with red barn, and 1800s-era fixer-upper farmhouse. And you know what the very first thing we saw there? Those bees we’d been talking about for years! We bought the property, christened it White Cottage Farm, and got to work. 

You renovated the house, and also started keeping some livestock—chickens, sheep, and of course the bees. [Ed. Note…you can follow the whole project at WhiteCottageFarm and LizMarieBlog] What was your process?

Our goals were to start from the bottom, learn the basics with the help of some local seasoned beekeepers, and just to just to soak it all in. 

A friend of ours who was also just getting started bought a book for us, The Beekeepers Bible. I continued the gesture and purchased a copy for my father-in-law. [After doing our research], we felt comfortable to take the plunge on purchase our first set of hives. Since Liz’s father and I were both doing it together on our farm, we went pretty big with five hives and set them up in the perfect little orchard.

So, how did it go? That first year can have a lot of ups and downs, yes?

At first, they were all doing well, one in particular took off and grew at an astonishing rate. It was remarkable the first year. I remember just sitting and watching the hive for hours at a time. I didn’t want to leave them alone, it was just amazing. Before you knew it, I was on my second deep (bigger box toward the bottom), and looking at adding my mediums (smaller boxes toward the top of the Langstroth hive). 

As the season went on, our comfort level with handling the frames and bees grew. Toward the end of the season, I even felt confident enough with our hives that I felt like I could have gone without donning the full beekeeping suit when I worked with them (but didn’t!).

Overall, summer went well, the local hay farms and apple, cherry, and pear trees were keeping our hives very busy. One hive did not really take off at all… but other than that we were very pleased with our first adventure with our bees. 

We did our first inspection for mites and hive robbers, and no big concerns. Fall came and we decided to only harvest 10 frames from our strongest hive, with hopes of leaving them plenty for what we hoped would be a mild winter. We added a little (not much) winter protection and the closed up shop for the winter.

I’m sensing a “but…” coming…

Unfortunately, we lost the one hive before fall due to robbing [Ed. Note: Robbing is when a foreign colony invades another hive to steal the stored honey. The defending colony will often fight to the death]; we lost the remaining four over the winter.

Oh…I’m sorry! What happened?

Well, we did a few inspections through the winter, but really tried to leave them to seal themselves up. The first one seemed to go okay… they were pushing those less fortunate bees out the front door, which is normal and good. The second inspection we just replaced the little bee pattie (food) that gives them a little extra nourishment. Then…winter came back and snow was in the forecast for March.

Fast forward to April, and we opened up all the hives and all the boxes only to find no survivors. All of our poor little bees did not make it. I believe they froze to death.

I was heartbroken. To see this unbelievable, well-functioning society end so tragically… it breaks my heart. 

How do you cope with something like that?

I can say my first thought was to stop beekeeping and quit. I didn’t want to do this again. Sure, the summertime is fun, I could sit and watch them all day. Interact with them during inspection you build a little relationship with each hive. Some are so happy you could hang out in your birthday suit without issue… while others in a constant state of “pre-coffee and hangry.”

But it isn’t that easy—for anyone. As you know, everyone is having a hard time keeping their bees alive over the seasons, and you’ve all seen the popular news coverage of the low bee population… and we found ourselves in that percentage of loss. However it is very hard not to blame yourself being in charge for the care of these little guys. 

It took me some time to realize the even the experienced are losing their bees, and you can only do so much. I was reading a forum and one of the most experience keepers said you just have to “keep-keeping.” So we just had to say to ourselves, “let’s get back at it.”

You learned some, grew some, and got back on the horse (apologies for the mixed metaphor). Your second year turned out better, yes? What’s next?

Our goals have definitely shifted going on our third year of keeping bees. Initially it was to harvest honey and just appreciate the bees around the farm and the importance of cross pollination. 

But like most we lost our hives over the winter of our first year. The impact that had on us shifted us from less of a honey-first thinking to more of a [total husbandry approach]. 

We’ve learned that each hive is different, we’ve come to recognize some signs of swarming and disease, and we’re discovered how to successfully set the hive up to be the best it can be in-season. 

I can honestly say we are still trying to find our sweet spot in the winter. A lot of keepers in the midwest are losing their hives to the winter. While there is a mix bag of treatment vs treatment-free, we try to ensure going into winter our bees are equipped with enough stored honey, some sugary snacks for them to hit on when stock gets low, and a little sugar water mixture in the spring to help things to move along. We inspect them on a regular basis for mites and continue to learn ways to keep the hive thriving each year. 

We are still trying to figure it out how to keep our bees alive over the winter… but we’re learning and loving every second of it. 

So, what are the biggest lessons learned? Why should someone get started in beekeeping? Is it for everyone?

Well, there are so many reasons to get in to this hobby than to not…but nothing is for EVERYONE. I suppose if you’re not completely not excited about raising bees—and ready for the challenges—it’s not for you. And of course, if you are someone with an allergy or live in a a small community with someone who has allergies (be a good neighbor!), it’s probably not right for you. Outside of that, it is so very beneficial and so much fun.

So…what’s on your personal list of “Top Five Reasons Apiaries Are Awesome”?

1. Community support. The community of beekeepers are so concerned with saving the bees and they are so very helpful and willing to teach. 

2. It’s a hobby you can do in so many places. You don’t need a lot of space to raise bees (I was surprised to find this out). You don’t need a ton of hives, and most city have ordinances to the number of hives that you can raise… so the misconception of needing acres of farmland to get started is just that—a misconception. 

3. Environmental impact. We have a cherry tree on our property that was nested right next to the beehive. The previous family who lived here said it would produce a few cherries, but not a lot… not enough to pick from. After our first year with the hive in place, we had cherries pouring out of our ears there were so many! Our orchard, the nearby hay fields and crop fields…[we feel like] each bee and each hive is having an impact. Maybe it’s a coincidence with weather and environment…but I’m giving it to the bees. 

4. It’s an excellent way to provide learning for yourself and for children. We didn’t have kids our first year, but neighbor kids would come over and ask about them, it was so much fun for the community.

5. And of course…Honey!

You said that one of the greatest things about beekeeping was the community and how everyone was willing to help. You also mentioned you learned a lot from your peers before you even got going. So…for folks who are where you were a few years ago, mulling it over and trying to decide, what are some tips for them?

It’s easy to feel like there’s. So. Much. Stuff. for this hobby. But there isn’t! The basics are fairly simple… they’re more “don’ts” than “do’s”…

🐝 Don’t feel overwhelmed with cost. The upfront cost is minimal for equipment, and hopefully if your bees make it from season to season, you won’t have too much money invested.

 

🐝 Don’t feel overwhelmed by all the information or intimidated by how much knowledge other people seem to have. The community of beekeepers is very willing to teach and help overall. 

 

🐝 Don’t feel like you need a lot of space to raise a hive—remember…some people even keep bees on urban rooftops. (But bee a good neighbor!)

 

🐝 Don’t forget to do your research. Reach out to a local beekeeper or bee club to go onsite and see for yourself firsthand what it’s like. See if you can connect with some beekeepers who will welcome those interested in the hobby and help them learn.

 

🐝 And don’t forget… Honey!!!
Last one… pretend you’re penning your auto-Bee-ography… let’s call it The Galvans’ Guide to Bee-utiful Beekeepery. Or… maybe not. Maybe let’s just call it Things in Life I Learned From Bees. Or… on third thought, maybe I should avoid giving it a title. Let’s just pretend you’re writing an as-yet-to-be-titled Bee Book…what are some of your chapters?

Haha. Okay… How about:

“Keep on Keeping on” (A few of our more seasoned keeper friends always says that even after 20-plus years of keeping bees, they’ve only scratched the surface of figuring out what they’re doing.)
 
“The Beekeper Fellowship: The Most Welcoming Community in the World.” (Because it truly is! We want each other to succeed) [Ed.’s note: Well, your success is the planet’s success…so hurrah for that!
 
“Bee-Bunking the Myths” (Covering all sorts of surprising stuff, like the very small footprint and space that is needed for keeping bees, how it’s possible—and necessary—to be learning on the run with other beekeepers, and how yow definitely don’t need to know everything in order to start, among others…)
 
“The New-Bee Beekeeper Diaries” (A look into our processes and experiences—told first-person/story-style, rather than non-fiction instruction manual, to help curb some of the insecurities people have and make it seem real-life). 
 
And, lastly…
 
“More Honey Please!” (I think this one’s pretty self-explanatory!)

Get more eco-friendly inspiration, see more about life at the White Cottage Farm, and go bee-hind (haha) the scenes of the Galvan's farmhouse renovation at Get Inspired with Liz Marie!

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