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.
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.
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.
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?
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.