Dec. 22, 2022

Our Genesis Stories in Beekeeping (105)

Our Genesis Stories in Beekeeping (105)

Not a lot of people start keeping bees without some outside influence. A relative, neighbor, college class, or getting a job in bees. Jim started out with a college class, to fill electives. Kim got a job working for the USDA because he could grow the...

Not a lot of people start keeping bees without some outside influence. A relative, neighbor, college class, or getting a job in bees. Jim started out with a college class, to fill electives. Kim got a job working for the USDA because he could grow the plants they needed for bees to visit for a pollination study on soybeans.

So how did you get started? A family hobby or business? A neighbor who invited you in? An interest in plants and pollination? Perhaps gardening? Almost every beekeeper has their own story to tell and every one of them is a good story to listen to.

We hope you enjoyed today's episode. Please follow today and leave a comment. We'd love to hear from you!


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Honey Bee Obscura is brought to you by Growing Planet Media, LLC, the home of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, All We Know by Midway Music, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2022 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 105 – Our Genesis Stories in Beekeeping


Kim Flottum: Hey, Jim, I was thinking the other day, Kathy and I were talking and your name came up in the conversation and neither of us know, how did you get started with bees?

Jim Tew: First of all, I hate it when my name comes up in conversation and secondly, it's a bit of a story, but the way I got started in bees, Kim, was essentially a mistake. I didn't mean to do it. I didn't mean to do it.

Kim: Well, hi, I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: We're here today to talk about how did you get started in bees. For every beekeeper I know, it's a different way they got started.

Introduction: You are listening to Honey Bee Obscura, brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today podcast. Each week on Honey Bee Obscura, hosts Kim Flotttum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honeybees in today's world. Get ready for an engaging discussion to delight and inform all beekeepers. If you're a longtimer or just starting out, sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honey bees.

Kim: What's your story? You said it was an accident? No--

Jim: Well, in a way it was. I'm soon to be 75 years old, Kim, and I'm still looking for legitimate work. This bee thing, this is really for the long haul. How did I get started? I was looking for a job. Actually, my wife helped me get a job in undergraduate school. That job was grading papers for the entomology teacher. To grade the papers, I had to know some entomology, so I took her class. The bug thing was okay, I liked being outdoors. I liked biology. I wanted some aspect of that, that seemed right. I had no idea how to make a living with it.

I got involved in bugs. Then I had to do some military time and I got distracted for a while. When I got back from all that I had some funding for it and I decided to go to graduate school and what? Well, for lack of anything better, I guess entomology. I'll become a pesticide salesman, and I'll be in the pesticide industry. At the time in the '70s that was all the rage and here's the mistake.

One day pre-computers, when you had to register these large universities manually, stand in long lines for hours to find out the class is already filled. I realized that the day was going to end and I would have to come back tomorrow and continue doing this or I would need to sign up for some classes right now.

Kim: Let me interrupt you here for a second. What university were you at?

Jim: Auburn University.

Kim: Auburn. Okay.

Jim: It was a big school and computers were in their infancy at that time for general use. When that mob of people came, everybody wanted to register, everybody's scrambling to get classes they wanted. I noticed over in the entomology area, a short line in front of beekeeping. I signed up for beekeeping for no other reason than the line was short. I can finish my registration process and get out. Then at some later, more civilized rate of time, I would drop in at that class and change to something more proper.

That's chapter one. I didn't really mean to sign up for beekeeping because I wanted to take bees. I meant to sign up for beekeeping because I could register quickly and get out of that mess and then calm things down. That's my story. I know you have one. What's your story?

Kim: It's a good story. I like the reasoning behind signing up for beekeeping was not beekeeping but make my life simple or simpler anyway.

Jim: Yes. Get me out of this mob.


Kim: Well, I got started-- I was working at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I worked there for a number of years for a State Extension guy whose job was to recommend to farmers and plant growers in the state, how to get rid of bugs in greenhouses, ornamental turf, large fruit, small fruit, and the like. I went to college in horticulture, wanted to learn how to grow things. This professor, his name is Chuck Koval, this professor to kill bugs on plants, he had to have the plants to kill them on. He needed somebody to grow the plants.

I'm kind of like you in a way I'm looking, I can learn how to grow plants and get paid for it. This is all right. I spent four years working for him, work my way through school growing plants, growing bugs, spraying trees, spraying golf courses, you name it. I was a nozzle head as we put it in those days. I learned a lot about bugs.

Jim: What was that? A nozzle head? Like a spray nozzle?

Kim: [crosstalk] Yes.

Jim: Okay, nozzle head, I got that now. Go ahead.

Kim: [laughs] That's what they called us. During this time, I worked in a greenhouse and we had a field plot on the experimental farm there in Madison. I got to know a lot of the people in the greenhouse and in the field plot work. I had a great big greenhouse and a third of it was devoted to the bee people on campus. What they did is they had cages in there. What they were doing was they were bringing in plants and they bring in bees and they would let the bees pollinate the plants in the cages because they wanted to do crossing and do some hybrid work and they needed bees to do it.

I sat and watched bees. I was in my half of the greenhouse watering plants, watching bees, and the other half. It was interesting, but plants was still the main show here. Out in the experimental farm, we had beehives outside. They had beehives outside and I had a garden plot, I grew lots of plants to spray, to kill, or to not kill. That was what we were looking for. The biggest question was if I sprayed his chemical on this plant, is it going to kill the bugs? Is it going to not kill the plant? It's a yes or no pretty much. That was easy.

Well, I graduated and when I graduated, my job working for the university went away. All the bee people knew me because I'd spent time in the greenhouse and spent time on the experimental farm. The guy running the bee program there was Dr. Eric Erickson, he was the professor there. I'd gotten to know him a little bit. I graduated, and the day after I graduated, he knocked on my door. I had an office in the same building he was in. He knocked on my door and he says, "I hear you're looking for a job."

I said, "Well, I guess yes, I'm still cleaning up after this one." He said, "Well, I got something to offer you here." He says, "You know that we do bees, and we also do pollination. To do pollination, we have to have plants to pollinate. I've been watching you and you know how to grow plants. Would you be interested in growing some plants for us to do some pollination experiments on?" I'm thinking, let's see, I don't have to move, I don't have to get another job. It pays really well. It's growing plants, what's wrong with this equation? Nothing. [laughs]

Jim: It does sound good.

Kim: The next Monday, I reported to work at the bee lab out in the experimental farm. I walked in and he filled out some papers and he says, "There's one more thing we got to do before you get started." He threw a bee suit at me. He said, "We got to go look at bees." I'm thinking, "How hard can this be? I've been watching these guys for four years, they're doing okay, looked like fun." I put the bee suit on. I went out with one of his grad students. He lit a smoker. He slowly opened the top of that beehive, didn't use hardly any smoke at all, just almost none. He said, "I want you to put your face down there and take a real deep breath."

I put my face on there so my veil was touching the top bars of that hive and I took a real deep breath and you know and I know what that smell was like.

Jim: Yes.

Kim: I never looked back. I said, "This is what I want to do." I got to keep growing plants because that's what I like to do, but I got into the world of bees because the world of bees got into me.

Jim: Well, can I say that in a way, you started in beekeeping too almost due to an accident or to luck or whatever, but it's not that you woke up one day and said, "Oh my stars, I think I want to be a beekeeper." It just fell on you, didn't it?

Kim: Yes, it did and a lot of the beekeepers we both know are third-generation. Their dad did it, their grandpa did it and their great-grandpa did it. They were all like just hobbyists, one or two in the backyard. It was in their genes when they were born I think.

Jim: I want to tell you my last thought. I want to take a break. Let me get my thoughts together and then I want to tell you about what chapter two is like.

Kim: Okay.


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Jim: The day I went to that first lab, I was just doing this because I'm not going to stay in this class. This has nothing to do with pesticide work and pesticide applications and developing that whole industry contact. I was just going to the class because I needed to go satisfy GI Bill requirements. That first day in that class has become a very, very valuable moment to me in my life because I view it as my last moment of what? Sanity? Before I crossed over into the bee world.

Kim: [laughs]

Jim: Kim, in '70-- What was it? '72 or '73. It was a hippie generation, long hair, overalls, everybody eating raw soybean seed and health food and whatever. It was a unique time.

Kim: I was there. I remember it.

Jim: I thought you probably were there. I thought this is a weird bunch of people. Right in the middle of the room, I had never seen packaged bees in my life, right in the middle of the room. Must have been 35 or 40 packages of bees, and they were putting out that low hum.

I was just completely certain that everybody in that room, except for me, had lost their minds. We're looking death in the face with all these bees, with all these goofy people. The professor was boisterous and confident and had a great personality. Off we did go. Unless you just leave the class, here's your package of bees and this is your assigned location out in the bee yard. We all went out and shook those bees in. I was hooked.

I don't know what to say. Something triggered and I didn't drop the class. I stayed in the class, and I guess to this minute, Kim, I'm still looking for something legitimate, because dad, one day out of the blue said, "Jimmy, you can't make a living with your hobby." That still hangs on me. Dad's long gone. That comment still hangs on me that I guess I spent my whole life trying to make a living with my hobby. I got started by a mistake, but I stayed in by intent. That was my genesis all those years ago. It wasn't because I was just awakened one day.

Kim, I'm always intrigued by people. You'll be talking to a guy at a bee meeting or at church or something that keeps bees and he'll say, "I just wanted to get bees. I've always been-- I've liked them," and just ramble on. I never had that experience. It was never something that I thought consciously about doing. It was just something I fell into every step of the way.

Kim: I remember visiting my parents after I got started. Shortly after I got started, my parents were living in northern Wisconsin where I grew up. I went home for the weekend and my dad looked at me and he said, "What are you going to do now that you graduated?" I said, "I got a job. I'm working bees." He had to sit down.


Kim: He had no comprehension of what a beekeeper would do. That's not quite true because we had a beekeeper in the small town I grew up in, and he sold his honey to my dad at my dad's grocery store. I never saw the bees. I never went to a bee yard with him. I never saw him in a bee suit, but I know that there was a guy in town who made a living making honey and selling honey to grocery stores.

It wasn't as if beekeeping and beekeepers and bees were aliens in this town, but that I was doing was what made dad sit down for a minute and ask me what I thought I was going to be doing. It worked out all right. My mom didn't mind it one way or another. Had a job. What else? When you're that age, he's got a job.

Jim: He's got a job.

Kim: He's got an education and he's got a job. Let's see, two for two. Okay. [laughs]

Jim: Maybe he'll move out now.

Kim: [laughs] It worked out all right. I did that research for four years. During the time I did that research, one of the things that I had to do is I had to write extension bulletins, and I had to learn how to write a research paper. By the time I got done with that job, the grant lasted four years. By the time I was done with four years,

I was writing extension bulletins for beekeepers who had to deal with horticulturists because that was my specialty and I took my new bee stuff. I was talking to two groups of people. Then the research papers were the research that I'd been hired to do. We published a couple of papers on soybean pollination, and suddenly my name was out in two different worlds.

It was in the homeowner world where they had problems with their turf. It was in the beekeeping world where they were looking for information on commercial pollination. When that job got done I moved to Connecticut, got a job on a farm being a farmer. I knew how to be a farmer. I had tractors and corn and soybeans and all of the things that we were doing.

The local bee people knew about me because of the research work I'd done. The University of Connecticut had a scientist there who was a bee guy, and he knew my name and suddenly I'm involved in the Connecticut Beekeepers Association. They had a rule back then that the president of the association was also the representative from that state to the Eastern Apiculture Society.

Suddenly I was appointed president and Connecticut director for the Eastern Apiculture Society. I went to the first meeting and met John Root, who was on the EAS board. The rest, as they say, is history, which is why I'm here talking to you today.

Jim: For those who don't know, who was John Root? He was an influential guy, but tell us who he was.

Kim: John Root had been the chairman of the board. He was the first chairman of the board of the Eastern Apiculture Society, and he was the president of the AI Root Company, which at the time was still manufacturing bee supplies. Before him, when his dad was running the company and his grandfather was running the company, AI Root, you've probably heard that name, they were one of the largest manufacturers of beekeeping equipment and beekeeping information in the US.

John came there with a background in not only running a business but also on being a beekeeper and running a beekeeping business. It turns out he was looking for somebody to run his magazine. At the time, it was called Gleanings in Bee Culture. Came up to me, he said, "I hear you're a writer." I said, "Yes." He said, "Send me some of the stuff you've written." I sent him everything I had written. He wrote back and he says, "You looking for a job?" Okay, I got to move to Medina, Ohio, and took over that magazine. That was 1986. That was how many years ago? A bunch of years ago.

Jim: That was a bunch of years ago, Kim.

Kim: I'm still writing books, I'm still writing papers, I'm doing podcasts, and I'm sitting here talking to you on a cold December day.

Jim: You sound like a man that I envision being in quicksand. You just get in deeper and deeper and deeper and the more you struggle, the more you try to move away, the more opportunities that came along and you just kept getting in deeper and deeper.

Kim: That's a good analogy. I like that but that's my story.

Jim: It's a great story, Kim, and it's you and I have that in common. I didn't really see a pathway. I was just trying to make any kind of money and support my wife and me. She was doing most of the supporting at the time. I never really woke up one day and said I want to work for a university and be a bee guy. You just take what doors are open and you don't try to get through the doors that are closed and this is where I am all these years later.

I did want to ask you a question. All those years ago, when you saw those beehives in that cage and when you saw those beehives out in the field, what was your wonderment? What was your curiosity about what was going on? Those people wearing those odd clothes over there, what were they doing? Did you ever have any thoughts that you remember about the oddity of that? The mystery of that? What's happening?

Kim: Well, it's interesting you bring that up, because I really didn't. I got to watch through the window. I got to watch people work bees through a window and I could stick my nose and I was six inches from that beehive, which is right next to the window. When they opened it, I could see inside and they'd smoke it. A little bit of smoke could come in. I smell the smoke, I can hear the bees, I could see the bees.

That was something to do for a couple few minutes because I got a job to do over here. It got to get done. I go back to work. When we were outside in the summers, some of our plots were real close to beehives that they had out there. They had bees sitting on top. We were on a great big hill and they had some bees sitting on the top of the hill and then bees across the road. I got to see, I was around bees and beekeepers a lot. I had a crew of two other people when we broke for lunch, we all ate in the same lunchroom out there on the extension or on the experimental farm. I got to talk with them and I'd listen to them talk to each other telling about what they'd seen, what had happened, what to do. I got to do this tomorrow, this, this afternoon. I got to see them extract. I was close without having to be a part of. For four years, I just kind of watched.

Jim: In my case, I went back, we need to wind this down. I could reminisce for a couple of more years. I went back to my earliest notes in undergraduate school when I was taking biology. I'd go to those sections where bees were mentioned. I just took child-like notes that a drone is a male, a worker, go figure, does all the work. The queen is the queen and they swarm.

It was just very unexciting, very elementary notes. In the late '60s, early '70s, nothing clicked when I was exposed to bees. It was only all those years later when I accidentally signed up for the class and went to that lab that something snapped into place. All the mystery in all those years, I have to see those white beehives, and many times they were boxes, they were gums. You think, "Wow, why don't those people get killed when they go out there?" They must really take pain. I didn't know what, it was a puzzlement.

I guess, Kim, that I'm going to go ahead and stick with it since we've done it now all these decades but everybody has a genesis. If the people who are still hanging on right now listening, every one of those people who's listening has a story about the first time, when, why, and how they did it. Everybody has a genesis.

Kim: Yes, I think you're right. We got to wrap this up, but I'll tell you the people that I find most interesting are the people that just woke up one morning and we're going to keep bees this summer. Without knowing where, who, how, why, they get started, and by the end of the summer they are true blue beekeepers and they may even be running part of their association. They are.

It's the genesis. I like the word genesis. It's a good way to address this and I'm going to have to ask a few more people. I don't think about that very often, but if you got a thought on how you got started that was pretty weird, drop us a note. Maybe we can talk about it sometime later down the road, hey, Jim.

Jim: I'd like to hear from them. Everybody has a story that's not [crosstalk]

Kim: Okay. Well, take care. See you next time.

Jim: I'll see you next time. Bye-bye.

[00:24:34] [END OF AUDIO]