Beekeeping creates a buzz in Bozeman
Novice beekeeper Laef Olson prepares to examine his hive. He's only been at it for three weeks and has yet to find his queen.
"It's a little unnerving, the first time you go into a hive and there's bees buzzing all around so, we just kind of figure we'll make mistakes but we'll learn as we go," explains Olson.
Olson tells me he heard about Colony Collapse Disorder, when close to entire colonies unexpectedly abandon the hive, and thought he'd try to maintain his own hive.
"We have a great spot for it, we've got hillside with a bunch of wildflowers on it and I'm running about 100 acres of alfalfa," says Olson.
I got into a suit to lend Olson a hand, looking for his queen. Olson let me operate the cool smoke, which is used to drive off and confuse the guard bees so the keeper can access the hive.
He tells me doesn't know what he's doing quite yet. He's been reading books, learning about gear and bee behavior, and attending the local beekeeper club meetings.
"I think it's very Bozeman. There's a whole movement here about eating local and bringing in your own honey," explains Olson.
Though he's just starting out, Olson says his new hobby has allowed him to meet a new community of people. Plus, his family is beginning to share his enthusiasm.
"I have four kids and they were all terrified of bees. The kind of kids that, when a bee comes to the picnic table, they'd all jump up and run away but they're starting to get pretty intrigued by them and reading the bee books and learning about insect behavior and colonies and that sort of thing so, that's been fun, too," says Olson.
Experienced beekeeper Gretchen Rupp takes a look at her hives to see which are strong and which are bringing in pollen before she suits up.
Rupp's been beekeeping for 30 years and says she didn't know what she was doing when she started, either.
"In those days, there were not nearly as many diseases and pests and parasites and you could keep bees alive without knowing what you were doing. Now, you have to know what you're doing, especially in this climate. The winters are very hard on the beehives," explains Rupp.
She says, in the past, weather has cost her four out of her seven hives. But it's not just weather she has to worry about, Rupp also takes precautions against mites and bacterial dieases.
"One thing about beekeepers, even hobbyists is, we're always trying new stuff to get around one problem or another and each person has a different approach," says Rupp.
She does it for her love of biology and her fascination with these these tiny colonial organisms.
"What place could be sweeter than a bee yard in the spring with thousands of bees coming and going, going about their business and doing what their lineage has done for millions of years," Rupp says with a smile.
That's not to mention the hundreds of pounds of wax and honey. But Rupp says folks like Olson aren't likely to see honey in their first or even second year. That's she says it's important for beginners to read, spend time observing their bees and rack up some experience.
"If you're serious about beekeeping you have to be serious about beekeeping," Rupp laughs.
She suggests beginners start with two colonies, because there's so much variation between each one. Rupp doesn't like to "monkey around" for too long in the hives, since it’s a disruption to the bees and one might risk crushing the queen. She says also it's important not to become discouraged if you lose a colony or two over the winter.