MICHAEL BUSH’S BEE CAMP

Michael Bush's Bee Camp

If you’re like me, Michael Bush’s website is in your favorites tab on your web browser. His writings validated nearly all the subversive decisions I made as a new beekeeper and strengthened my resolve to follow my instincts. With natural beekeeping mentors few and far between, his online presence is invaluable to those of us isolated in areas where conventional beekeeping is dominant. So, you can imagine my glee at discovering the existence of his “bee camp”.

As a native Californian with a penchant for coastal living, I never thought I’d visit Nebraska. Yet, for the last 5 days I have been sleeping in a tipi outside of Michael Bush’s brick manse in Newhaka, Nebraska; marveling at the lush greenery and wearing my bee veil around the clock for fear of mosquito bites. His camp runs for two weeks once a year, with a work week prior to that for those who can’t afford the $100 a day rate (this includes  meals). On his website, he freely admits this camp’s similarities to Tom Sawyer’s picket fence scheme: you will be paying to work. However, you can’t do so without learning a whole lot, too.

Michael Bush's Bee Camp

I don’t often have the opportunity to speak with someone who knows more about bees than I do. I spend all my time teaching beginners and doing community outreach to non-beekeepers. When I do encounter an experienced beekeeper, the conversation is often halted or interrupted by newbees struggling with the basics and there isn’t much room for an elevated discussion on bees. So, it was a relief to find that the other campers were not total beginners and that there were plenty of opportunities for lengthly discussions with Mr. Bush. In addition to his 40-some years of beekeeping experience, it’s clear that he does a tremendous amount of reading. His beekeeping library had well over 100 books some of which were over 200 years old! Throughout my time at camp, I felt like a miner excavating the mountain that is his knowledge. At times we would meditate in rocky silence and other times I would strike a vein and bring forth a rich, rush of information. Not that he wasn’t forthcoming with his teachings, you only had to ask a question to uncover some precious tip, but as any beekeeper knows– you can only ask about what you already know something about. I got the feeling that there were topics completely unknown to me, buried and awaiting a bonanza.

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Michael Bush's Bee Camp The daily schedule at bee camp was surprisingly unstructured. In most ways this was a positive, it was easy to steer the day’s tasks in whatever direction the group found interesting. There was usually a morning bee activity related to raising queens. One morning we practiced grafting, another we made mating nucs. Another day we made a Russian scion (pictured above), which is a kind of swarm lure that utilizes a piece of burlap dipped in beeswax. We had a general idea of what might be done on that day and Mr. Bush was very open to ideas and requests. On several occasions, at our request, he drove us to some of his outyards where we checked hives and made splits. We typically spent a few hours in the hives each morning before tackling the enormous pile of unassembled equipment that needed to be built and on some days we did some afternoon beekeeping as well. For me, building equipment was the very last thing I wanted to do while at bee camp because I am overwhelmed with this task at home. For other campers, I think the building of equipment became a fevered crusade. They worked tireless to assemble boxes and frames because they wanted very much to help Mr. Bush rebuild and improve his bee yards. With a large family, a full time job, horses and a house to restore: it was clear that Mr. Bush was running on a time deficit and clearly in need of an intern! Lucky for me, there were alternatives to building equipment and all I had to do was ask.

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One of the tasks I took on was dipping boxes. I had read on his website that no longer paints his hives and instead dips them in a mixture of 2/3 beeswax 1/3 gum rosin. This process involves heating a large amount of both ingredients to around 200F before submerging the woodenware for 5-10 minutes. I love the look of natural wood, which this process would preserve, and had heard that this technique also extends the life of the equipment more so than painting so, I was intrigued to see it done. We hauled a vintage gas stove out into a field, set a huge vat of wax on top and waited hours for it to melt. This process had to be supervised, due to the flammable nature of the materials. When I asked if we could dip boxes, I hadn’t considered the enormity of the task. The barn had over 100 untreated boxes and that number was growing all the time because of the diligent worker bees hammering and drilling around the clock. Given that we could only dip two boxes at a time, this meant that any significant goal for number of boxes dipped was going to take us well into the night! Sara, Mr. Bush and I ended up staying up until 2AM dipping boxes and still could not finish them all. It felt like a ritual of endurance. Many moths were sacrificed to the great halogen light as we stargazed from our fort of stacked supers. The smell of beeswax, gum rosin and pine saturating the night. I continue to laugh to myself about the absurdity that night. Who knew that I would ever hang out with Michael Bush until 2AM?

MICHAEL BUSH BEE CAMP

Which brings me to the final lesson of bee camp: that our beekeeping heroes are still beekeepers. They too lose hives, can’t find enough time in the day, piss off their bees, get stung, marvel at oddities and give up in frustration. We are all humbled by the bees.

17 Comments

susan rudnicki

I went last year—-loved it just as much as you write here. His old Friesian mare (now passed) loved grooming and scratching. The opportunity to speak about bees all day long was wonderful! He is a polymath to the nth degree! I am glad to hear he is getting some new woodware. The pile of “composting” hive bodies and frames we were trying to resurrect from their sodden grave was not going to yield much. Regarding this—“Which brings me to the final lesson of bee camp: that our beekeeping heroes are still beekeepers” —-and my dismay at discovering so much plastic in the colonies!!!

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Susan Rupp

Hilary, I can’t thank you enough for your informative blog and Instagram photos. I have been keeping top-bar hives for about 5 years and I still find myself yearning for more information. I just want you to know that you are making a difference in this world of beekeeping!

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Erik

Great post, thank you for sharing your experience. Sounds like a lot of fun and some great learning.

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Scott Mickle

That is so cool Hilary, thanks for sharing, glad you enjoyed Nebraska !

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Gee Beez

I’ve emailed Michael on a few topics and it was a honor to have him help me, would love to attend a event he is speaking at

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Bill V (worker bee)

Great post, great pictures and great meeting you and Sara at Bee Camp. Impressed with the work you are doing and your passion for bees/life – keep on!

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Scott R

Hillary, thank you for the informative posts. I’m new to beekeeping and saw an article you wrote a couple weeks ago that I think was attached to a Mother Earth News article. My problem is I started with two nucs (in April this year) that in turn one grew to a strong hive and the other into what I think is an average hive. Two weeks ago the wax moths got into the strong hive and destroyed it. I noticed that the population just prior had dwindled dramatically and then the moths….
The average hive is still going strong, but still not as large as the other one. I froze what was left in the deep freeze (25 degrees) for a week and pulled them this morning. After the frames thawed out some bees flew out of the bag! Is this normal? I didn’t know bees could be thawed. The little worms on the frames are all dead. Can I put the comb and honey in the existing hive? Can the capped honey that was frozen be consumed? Sorry for all the questions but I’m still learning.

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Hilary

Hi Scott, first which article in Mother Earth News? Lol I had no idea they featured one of my articles? Second, moths did not kill your colony. Something else did and then the moths moved in. You need to find out what killed your bees. I would not transfer any comb, honey or equipment to your remaining hive without having a good understanding of what happened to the one you lost. You can transmit things that way. The mystery of the bees coming out of the bag… my guess is they went in there after you brought the bags out of the freezer to investigate the combs, the probably were not frozen. Make sure the bees cannot access those bags or they might bring back viruses etc. to their hives.

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Susan Rudnicki

Scott—you most likely had a queen failure—that’s why you noticed the drop in population. Bees die every day and the queen had to not only keep up with that attrition but top it in laying eggs if the colony is to grow. Moths and other decomposers never kill hives, though this is a common newbee mistake in understanding. The hive becomes weak and the remaining worker bees are unable to patrol for pests and control them adequately which is how the moths move in. You don’t say how often you are inspecting, but in a new colony every 10 days to 2 weeks is not too often. You ALWAYS want to confirm the presence of eggs for this shows the queen is viable and working.

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John O'Rahilly

Hi Hilary….lovely interesting article,,,just started this August with my first Nuc thrived during the good September and October we had here in Ireland. Just got Michael’s books for study.Keep it up.

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Li

I love the way this is written, like a short story, I feel like I’m there dipping boxes into the night!
I was fortunate to get The Practical Beekeeper before I got bees and it became my bible. I started with all eight frame mediums with foundationless frames, never treated with anything, worked for me.

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