Jennette Green dipped her toes into beekeeping four-plus years ago by purchasing two hives.
Her husband, Ryan, was a reluctant partner in the endeavor until they extracted some honey after their first year.
“He was sold,” said Jennette Green, clinical analyst for the Department of Family Medicine in the Medical School. “He’s like, ‘We need to make this a business.’ I’m just a hobbyist, and he’s there, ‘We want 25 hives, we want to expand it.’ It’s kind of funny that he was ‘Absolutely not’ to ‘This is the best thing on Earth.’”
Green has not taken her husband’s advice to expand, instead choosing to embrace the wonder of beekeeping, a hobby that has provided pain, pride and plenty of learning.
“It’s been four-plus years that I’ve done this, and every year is different,” she said. “They are quite opinionated, these little creatures. I didn’t know that they had opinions. They’re smarter than me, and they teach me something new every year. They’re very powerful for being (so small).”
Green’s foray into beekeeping started thanks to a couple friends, one who made soap and another who is a photographer.
“I wanted a good I could barter, a little trade I could give people or trade people,” she said. “I started with wanting a trade, a cool little niche, and now it’s something that’s environmentally a good thing. There’s many layers to it.”
She never could have envisioned just how many layers four years ago when she invested about $1,000 in the equipment and other needs for her first two hives that each contained about 10,000 honeybees, including two queens.
Each hive had four super boxes with 10 frames, where the queen lays eggs and the honeybees make and store honey. Her husband helped build platforms for the boxes to keep them off the ground and away from would-be honey stealers, such as skunks.
Green enrolled in a course through the Ann Arbor Beekeeping Club her first year in hopes of working some of the hives at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. But poor weather every time the monthly class met prevented that and forced Green to learn on the fly.
This year has been an especially perplexing one for Green, who started the year with three hives and noticed in June that only one was flourishing while the other two were devoid of eggs and no queen was present.
She enlisted the help of a commercial beekeeper in Chelsea, who diagnosed the problem as a laying worker bee issue. A laying worker bee can lay eggs but only of male drones, while a queen will lay eggs of female worker bees.
“He said he’s never seen as many hives with laying workers as he had this year,” Green said. “I had to take the whole hive out into the middle of a field and shake each frame out in hopes that the laying worker won’t be able to find her way back. The rest of the bees just went into the one hive that was strong.”
Despite the setbacks, Green finds beekeeping to be quite rewarding and entertaining. She estimates she now has about 50,000 honeybees in that one hive that occupies a corner of their 5-acre property in Manchester.
Her neighbors have been supportive of the beekeeping effort, including her in-laws who own adjacent farmland.
No one has reported being bothered or stung by the bees, although Green says she’s been stung “plenty of times.”
“Sometimes they get a little angry and they kind of swarm you. A lot of times when they get really frustrated with me, I’ll walk away, let them chill out, and then I’ll hurriedly put everything back together,” she said.
This time of year is an especially testy one for the honeybees, who have endured their first frost and are preparing the hive for the winter. Green supplements them by providing sugar water or honey cakes and in late October she’ll put granular sugar in the top of her three boxes. The honeybees can consume an entire bag of sugar in a day, and during a warm winter will carve through their store of honey quicker than during a cold one.
Green hopes this hive survives the winter, unlike others that have not been so fortunate. She said two things play a primary role in preventing a hive from making it to the spring: a mite that if not treated will kill off much of the hive, and a poorly ventilated hive.
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“Because they’re always generating heat to keep everyone warm, the hive can condensate,” she said. “If it’s not properly vented, that condensation will drip on them and get them wet and then they’ll freeze to death.”
Green has learned many facts like that over four-plus years of beekeeping. Others are that drones are not allowed to overwinter and are kept out of the hive when winter comes, and also do not eat a banana before working with a hive.
“The smell of a banana means they’re about to attack,” she said. “You smell like fear to them, and they’ll be more defensive. It’s been a couple years, but I was in there doing something and all of a sudden I smelled bananas, and I was like, ‘oh, no.’”
Green said she would never steer someone away from beekeeping, but anyone interested should consider the high cost as well as any local ordinances about hives. But she has no regrets about getting involved.
“If you want some good entertainment, they are it,” she said. “And if you really want to learn, their own little ecosystem is just amazing and how well they work together. They’re a good example for the human race.”