Chatfield man finds joy in beekeeping

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS Mike Tuohy holds a hive frame with a honeycomb on it that will be placed back in the hive to sustain the honeybees for winter.

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS Honeybees come and go from the hive, bringing pollen from the plants surrounding it to make honey for the queen and for the coming winter.

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS Mike Tuohy's beehive number four stands in a small prairie he maintains outside his Chatfield home.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

F. Mike Tuohy’s in it for the bees’ knees.

It’s a honey of a thing to do.

“I’ve done it for six or eight years. I can’t say I know how, but I’ve done it,” stated Chatfield native Tuohy, standing next to hive number four on his yard, enjoying the gentle buzz as his honeybees came and went, went and came back again with wildflower pollen on their knees to make honey to feed their queen and a whole nursery of upcoming worker bees that are getting a start in the honeycomb just like they did.

Tuohy explained he started keeping bees on his land because he’d been fascinated by their industriousness and had heard the ominous predictions about the demise of honeybees and other pollinators that make it possible for the earth to bloom and its food supply for everything herbivore to omnivore to have good eats.

“When we were young, Mrs. Henry lived over by the school, and she let us come over and see her hive and taste the honey. I started out of curiosity, and I started now because I heard about bees having problems, about hive collapse, and I like to keep learning things,” he said. “I buy most of my bees at B&B Honey between Houston and Hokah, all my supplies. They have lots of knowledge, and you can get a beekeeper’s viewpoint, because I read five different books on keeping bees, and all five books don’t agree with each other. You kind of create your own way. That’s the part that’s the most fun.”

The local beekeeper shared that he’s typically maintained five hives, but four have collapsed due to wild weather conditions this past winter and early spring – the subzero temperatures, combined with a surprise-snow spring — that disrupted the hives’ workings entirely. The remaining hive offers him a means by which to persist in his ecological hobby.

He showed how a honey hive is constructed. “The first two on the bottom are for the queen. This box is called a ‘super,’ and it’s where the frames for the honeycomb go. The bottom two supers are for the fatter queen – the queen separator keeps the queen in the bottom, but it lets the workers through to the hive – the workers fit through, but she’s a big girl and doesn’t fit. She lays eggs in those bottom supers because the cells in them are bigger in those combs. I buy a queen, and she goes out on her maiden trip, finds several matches in drones, then they come back to the hive, where she lays thousands and thousands of eggs. Those eggs hatch into drones or worker bees that live only 28 to 32 days.”

Tuohy’s worker bees are surrounded by a prairie of bee balm, black-eyed Susans and purple coneflowers, a delight to the eye and to the bees themselves as they make wax and honey from the flowers’ pollen.

“I mow around the hive and work with the wildflowers. I save the seeds and reseed this every year or so, and I’ll probably burn this prairie, see how it goes,” Tuohy said. “They build out the frames with beeswax and fill them with honey, then they cap it. When they need more room, they start gluing things together and sealing it up. The bees glue everything together with this glue that’s called ‘propolis.’ I have to pry the hive apart to rotate the frames and take care of the bees. I have bee suits that I only use when I bring new bees in or when I harvest honey…because I’m stealing their food. They’re really very docile and easy to take care of. If they sense you’re frightened, they will attack because if we get nervous, we put out pheromones and they know. But they’re really very docile…fascinating.”

He noted that it takes about two to three weeks to find honey in the hive. “At the end of two to three weeks, there’s honey, and you take out the middle frames that are full of honey. When you go to harvest, you take the frame out, scratch the surface of the beeswax off the comb, put it in a centrifugal machine that spins the honey out, and it collects in the bottom of the separator like a cream separator,” Tuohy explained. “Most of my honey is pretty much wildflower honey because of all the bee balm and black-eyed Susans. Some people have clover honey, and that tastes different. I’ve been to a honey display at the state fair where they may have 50 to 75 different flavors. Some of the stranger ones are from the south part of the country. There’s pure honey or processed honey – processed honey, they take all the natural pollens out – but many people buy local honey when they live somewhere so they aren’t allergic to the pollens in the area.”

Each day that passes brings shorter flight time for Tuohy’s bees, meaning that he’s thinking about winter, beyond the necessity of keeping a metal guard on the hive’s base to keep mice from getting in and devouring the bees’ golden brew.

“I add some of the full honeycomb frames back in the fall so they have something to eat all winter, and when winter comes, I wrap the hive. It’s 92 to 96 degrees because everybody rotates around and heats the hive. I supplement the hive in the fall with sugar water, and in the spring, there’s pollen for making wax.”

That’s for the bees, but given that honey has been found entombed alongside some of history’s most notable civilizations and individuals, it sticks around for quite some time, giving both a tour of where a bee has gone and brought back on its knees and how revered that person or people were considered.

Apiarist Tuohy simply enjoys having his hive close enough to his house that he can wander past and watch the honeybees skitter into and out of their home with new cargo on their minds, knees and elbows.

“We give some of the honey away because there’s more than we need,” Tuohy said. “Mostly, I like learning about them.”