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Stern Hobbies: Hive Talkin’

As part of our new “Stern Hobbies” series, The Oppy is taking a look at off-the-beaten-path interests among some of our classmates at Stern. If you have a hobby you would like to write or be interviewed about, please e-mail the Oppy at oppy@stern.nyu.edu. Today’s feature is a Q&A with Langone student Owen Lee.

Owen Lee, in the most “B-School” way possible, is quick to note he’s a hands-off beekeeper.

“For millions of years bees have managed themselves pretty well,” Lee says. “I’m not adding a lot of value.”

But when you hear him espouse his laissez-faire philosophy, you can’t help but wonder if, perhaps, he’s buried the lede. The interesting thing to most of us is probably not Lee’s beekeeping strategy so much as the fact that he keeps bees at all. 

For many, spending quality time with tens of thousands of tiny humming aviators just waiting to stab you if you get too close doesn’t sound like a great way to spend your off hours. After all, these little guys aren’t always the most welcoming companions, and they aren’t always the easiest to manage. As Lee notes with some mild understatement, “They’re very temperamental, the bees.” 

But if you can gin up the courage to start tending a hive, there are some sweet rewards in the offing. The Oppy recently spoke with Owen, who keeps a hive at an apiary in Chatham, N.J., about how he picked up his unusual hobby, the occasional battle scars that come with bees, and, yes, the honey. 

Some answers have been edited for content and clarity.

So the first question I want to ask is do you keep bees that are of genus apis or melipona?

(Long pause) What??

Did I pronounce those correctly?

I don’t know!

I read the beekeeping article on Wikipedia last night and thought it would be fun to start with something really obscure.

Well I’ll obscurely go back and say, ‘I don’t know.’ I got my bees, the last batch, from Georgia. I think both batches have come from Georgia. I’ve bought two, what they call “Nucs,” short for nucleus, of bees in the four years I’ve been doing this. The first year I bought one and they survived about three years, and then last year I got a new nucleus. Every year you order one and see if you need it toward the end of the spring with the hope that you won’t, because your bees will have survived. So I don’t know what the species is. I can tell you they’re from Georgia. I get them from a guy in South Jersey, and, as you can imagine, a lot of the people involved in the bee trade are, um, it’s an eclectic group of people. 

What makes them so eclectic?

I would say the large majority are very introverted, and they generally love bees. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground. I keep a beehive for fun. I thought it was a cool thing to do, I was interested in trying it, and when the opportunity came up I jumped on it. But I wouldn’t say I live and breathe bees. I’m more of a hands off beekeeper, but I am definitely the minority. People like to get up in their bees. They check on them regularly, they tweak them, they get all the gear, they’re adding this, they’re adding that to the hive. I’m very hands off, but it’s worked well for me. My bee survival rate is probably the best in my apiary, and I don’t say that to brag. I say it because I think there’s a strong argument to hands-off beekeeping. It also lowers your incidence of getting stung, which happens, and when it rains it pours.

So this isn’t something you would want to keep on the grounds of your home, right?

You could. There are two issues with keeping them where there are neighbors. One is that people are just inherently scared of bees. For the most part, they don’t really do anything unless you really get in there and tick them off. But in the spring you have what they call swarming. If the beehive gets too full as they start ramping up in the spring, the hive will basically split. They’ll make a new queen, I believe it’s the old queen leaves with about half the hive, and they’ll find a place to make a new hive as close as they can to where the old hive is. If that happens, you have them going into people’s property, and they’re a bit more difficult. You can get rid of them, but it’s one of those things that, optically, people don’t like. They freak out. 

What prompted you to give this a shot? You don’t meet a lot of people who make this their hobby.

I would say the average age of members of my bee club is, maybe, 50? So I am coming in a little young there. I’ve been into gardening for like 10 years. As part of that, the whole pollination, keeping a garden with flowers or vegetables, you know the benefit of having bees or any sort of pollinator. I can’t say I was planning to do this, but one of our first employees at Boxcar [Boxcar Transit is a parking marketplace startup, of which Lee is COO] mentioned she was part of this beekeeping club, and I said, “That’s fascinating. I would love to join something like that to try it out.” And 2-3 weeks later she got me in. 

What appeals to you about it? Is it the challenge? Is there a zen-like aspect to it?

So you have this cover, which is that it’s good for the environment. A lot of people mention that as one of the reasons they do it. I just think it’s fascinating that you set them up and they just go. Their entire life is work, work, work, work, work. They’re doing all these great things, but the productivity, for me, is just something else. They have this perfectly-honed system to do what they do. The bees know how to get to where they gotta go, they maintain that hive impeccably, and the main benefit for me personally I guess is at the end of the year, some years, depending on how it goes, you get 20-40 pounds worth of honey, which is a nice thing to have, a nice thing to give to people. 

That sounds kind of geeky. You can’t make this sound geeky.

You’re way too worried about whether or not this is interesting.

I just don’t want to kill your nascent Stern Hobbies column and have someone read it and go, “Beekeeping? Shut it down! Shut it down!”

If they don’t find it interesting they’ll just move on and read my political columns.

There you go.

What’s a typical couple of hours at the apiary like?

Honestly, if all you’re doing is maintenance, you’re probably looking at thirty minutes. You’re going down, you gotta open the hive up. You have this little beehive crowbar-type tool to open it because as soon as you’ve left the last time they’ve sealed everything up with wax. As soon as you put a frame in or take a frame off, anywhere air is coming in. The frames are spaced out somewhere between 3/8 of an inch and 5/8 of an inch gap between each of the frames. Anything more and they’ll seal it off, and anything less and they’ll seal it off. In any beehive it’s really all the same amount of space between the honeycombs. That was the main technological discovery in beekeeping 200 years ago. Nothing really has changed since then. 

So you’re gonna go down there, you’re gonna get a smoker, you’re gonna open it up, you’re gonna smoke the bees. You smoke the bees to make them a bit more chill. It makes them think there’s a fire so their first instinct is to eat all of the honey and protect it in case they have to leave. You’re basically making them do something that’s not focused on stinging you. And you’ll pull out some frames depending on what you’re doing. You can check to see if the queen is alive, but that’s very difficult because you can look for her, but there are 40,000 bees in one of these hives. You look for signals that the queen is alive, like eggs in a honeycomb. If you’re there to treat, you put these treatment strips on there. One of the issues with beehives is there are bee mites. It’s ok to have some, but if they get to a certain level they can kill the hive. 

If you’re there in the winter you could be feeding the bees basically sugar water if you don’t think they have enough honey. I generally try not to. I leave them with extra honey. I figure they made the honey, it’s probably the best thing for them. But it just means you have less honey to maybe harvest in the spring. If you’re doing that in the winter you’re going every couple of days. In the spring you maybe give them a little extra pollen before things get going, and then spring/summer they’re kind of just ripping. In the fall you take your honey off and there’s the whole extracting honey process. That does take a couple of hours, but it’s like once a year.

What does that entail? Do you have access to one of those large centrifuges that will spin the honey out?

Yes, we share one with the town over and it’s maybe 3-4 feet from base to top and it’s got space for four of these honey frames. You whip it around until you get as much of the honey as you can out, and then you’ve gotta wait for it to get to the bottom and you drain it. A 12-inch super [a box placed on a hive where bees store honey], there could be 30 pounds of honey in there, 40 pounds. They can be difficult to move.

So what’s the annual yield like for your hive?

You could harvest twice a year. The business of beekeeping at a commercial level isn’t honey production. It’s pollination. Professionals throw out most of their honey.

That seems like a waste.

Well different pollination will yield different flavored honey. Some are better, some are worse, but there’s a lot of work involved in honey production, and pollination you just drop off boxes of bees and let them fly around and then you move them somewhere else. They get paid thousands of dollars a week for a beehive. If you’re pollinating almonds in California, people steal bee hives. The money’s not in the honey, unfortunately.

So you’re not going into business in the honey industry any time soon.

Oh no. For the work required and the yield, you’re better off just buying honey. But, like I said before, I like planting gardens and I like watching things grow. I like the process of helping make something, and I think that’s what it is for beekeeping. You’re just helping them do what they do.

How much honey would you usually expect to get?

I harvested about 35 pounds of honey last year, and that was the first time I’ve harvested from my hive. That was after about two years.

How long does that last you?

It’s a lot of honey, but I gave a lot of it away, right? My dad’s big into honey, I give a quarter of it to the woman I know in the club who helps me. People find this interesting, so if they’ve expressed interest, hell, I’m gonna give them honey. The next time I see you, I’ll give you some honey, just so you can say you’ve had it and you’ve tried it and if you don’t like it, you don’t like it.

I was going to actually ask you why you haven’t shared any honey with Spring 2020 Blue Block yet. Is the honey you harvest particularly good, or at least different from what we might get in a store? 

The honest answer is, no, it’s too subjective. If you get into honey as a thing, you’ll soon realize that honey from different places is akin to a wine or a whiskey. There are just a lot of different flavors. What you like is subjective, but there’s a huge variety. The desert honeys are super viscous. My honey is a lot more fluid. I thought it was fairly sweet. The first harvest I had was gold. Very light. The last one was much darker. Flavor-wise there wasn’t much of a variety, but what’s interesting is my hive, the woman I do this with has the hive right next to us, and the co-op hive is five feet away. Those three hives will have completely different honey, and the bees are going to more or less the same plants. I couldn’t tell you why, but there’s a lot of variety.

So what kind of protective gear do you have to wear? Is that a big investment? Do you just get it at the club or do you have your own netted hat, or whatever you’d call it?

I have very good beekeeping gear, not because I bought it, but because my business partner, before we started Boxcar, he had a company that made mead, which is basically alcohol made from honey. As part of their marketing, he had a whole, from the waist up, beekeeping set. It was like a long-sleeved shirt zipped into a veil. Usually, you just see the hat and the veil and you can wear a long-sleeved shirt, but he had the one-piece and the gloves, so when I got into this he just gave it to me. He had it for marketing events where you’d take the veil and people would take photos with you, but he said, “I don’t use it anymore, so here you go.” I have since bought another veil, but that’s normally what I use.

If you could ballpark it, how many times do you think you’ve been stung since you picked this up.

Well, we’ll do the math. I had very good luck insofar as maybe I got stung once or twice and then one time I got stung, like, 40 times. And that was through protective gear. It was through my pants, I think I got stung in the veil. Once they sting you and you’re messing around with their hive, it gives off a pheromone that tells the other bees to sting you, so things escalate very quickly. You go from no stings, to one sting to ten stings to being that guy running, swinging your arms over your head and not knowing where they are anymore. 

They die when they sting you, right?

Oh yeah. They’re getting after it, and you try to take these frames off as gently as possible in general. You don’t want to stress out the bees. But I think we had done it too forcefully, and because I hadn’t really been stung before, we didn’t have any smoke. It was supposed to be a quick thing that wouldn’t take much time so we thought why bother with all the smoke. That was a mistake you only make once. 

That time you got stung 40 times, is there a point where you get numb to it and stop feeling it or do they all hurt?

They all hurt. They all hurt and the first one or two you’re not really sure you’ve been stung. It’s a little uncomfortable, but it doesn’t hit you right away. It’s a little while until you get stung a bunch of times and you realize you’re getting stung, and you look up and you realize you’ve been stung 40 times and you think, “Am I going to die?” If you’re not allergic, I think you can get stung, like, 1,000 times before you die. The fear of getting stung is much worse than actually getting stung. But still, I don’t want to get stung.

There’s been a lot of talk about a global bee shortage and how that will impact ecosystems. You could probably make a strong argument that you’re the biggest bee enthusiast in Stern, so knowing what you know, how concerned should we really be about this?

I think there’s cause to be fairly concerned. I think the number they throw out is something like ⅔ of our food wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for bees pollinating, and hive die-off is real. Wild bee populations are down significantly. I couldn’t begin to tell you why that is. I’m not as well-versed as I should be, but I have seen hives die off and I think maybe 20 years ago, these aren’t researched numbers, but it was like 10-20% of hives were dying off and now it’s 50-plus% every year of kept bees. Something’s going on. 

The last thing I’ll ask you is, did you know King Tutankhamun was buried with jars of honey in his tomb and would you want to do something similar?

(Laughs) I did not know that and I don’t think I’m going to have the same sort of burial tomb as King Tut, so I’m probably going to pass on the honey. I don’t think that makes the short list. 

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