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River Town Chronicles: How I learned to love bees

An adventure in beekeeping turns out better than expected

I wanted nothing to do with bees. They sting. Venom is involved. They can fly faster than I can run.

So when my son, Jay, asked for help setting up a couple of hives in the woods behind my brother’s house, I balked.

The backstory: Six years ago, after graduating with a landscape architecture degree, Jay worked downtown for firms designing and overseeing commercial and residential installations. This year, wanting to branch out – so to speak – beyond designing and planting gardens, trees and ponds, he decided to dedicate himself full time to his own company, INN Studio (, INN being short for Innovation. He could now dig into – ha, ha – other passions, such as, well, apiaries.

When my sister-in-law mentioned how cool it would be to have bees, Jay called his godfather, Charlie, a survivor of several bee seasons.

“I’d suggest reading up on it and wait a year,” Charlie advised, which I echoed whenever an opening occurred. However, as I’ve come to learn, children may do far better following their own whispered passions.

So on a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, I met Jay in Wayne after he’d picked up the hives and bees. At the edge of a forest, several white boxes had been piled waist high, two announcing, “JUST ADD BEES,” as though beekeeping were as easy as spilling gin into a tonic and lime.

“How’d the pickup go?” I asked.

“Great!” he cried, more excited than if he’d unloaded a hot tub. Besides the bees and hives, he’d brought the top half of what looked like what health workers wear when burying infectious disease victims, and directions for assembling the hives and transferring the bees.

First we hauled a bench outweighing a pregnant pachyderm that Jay had sawed and screwed together the day before – turning our driveway into a sawdust beach – from my SUV to the clearing he’d hacked out in the woods. As Jay was assembling the hives, our longtime friend, Jim, drove up, allowing me to escape into the house to boil sugar water while he videoed Jay’s fragile machinations.

Later, on Jay’s phone, I watched him in his space suit carefully insert the queen, ensconced in her wood-and-screen matchbox, between two vertical shelves, a miniature marshmallow, soon to be eaten through, plugging the hole. With Her Majesty’s pheromones pervading the hive, Jay upended the bee box, clusters flowing out like buzzing yellow lava.

Returning with the sugar water, I find bees flying giddy formations, gilded specks racing through speckled sunlight.

“It was so easy, Dad!” Jay exalts. “They’re so happy. I didn’t get stung once. Knock on wood,” he adds, finding a scraggly buckthorn.

Standing apart from the hives as far as a tight end’s down-and-out pattern, I spot a bee riding my shirttail – and immediately I’m in love.

“This was cool,” I admit to my son, the beekeeper. “I’m so impressed with what you’ve done.” He smiles, and once again I understand how little I know about my children.

Before leaving, I glance once more at the clearing where hundreds of golden electrons swirl around their white nucleus. They seem, to me, as deliriously happy as I am.

Rick Holinger lives in Geneva, teaches English at Marmion Academy and moderates a writing workshop. Contact him at

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