When I was a child, I was passionate about biology, so I learned a lot about both the human and animal body. But I only started practicing beekeeping at age 20, as I had more free time after finishing the preparatory classes for engineering school.
My uncle started reading a lot about bees about ten years ago – he was mainly concerned about all the harm caused by the massive resorts to pesticides and wanted to do something to help to protect the bees. One day, he decided to build beehives and started collecting swarms. Two years ago, I asked to join him on his way to checking the hives, and he started teaching me about beekeeping.
My name is Marie Brunet Carteaux. I am a 23-year-old French woman who works as an IT consultant in a multinational company. I started about a year ago, after graduating from a French engineering school with a major in Embedded Systems. Until last November, my mission was to develop deep learning-based solutions and I am now working as a DevOps engineer in a telecommunications corporation.
I live near one of the major cities in Brittany, which is a region with a rich historical and cultural heritage. I started volunteering when I was 14 – this is something very important to me. My mother and I were homeless for the two first years of my life and we were quite poor for a while after that, so I’m glad to give back a bit of everything that I have now to help people that may be in a similar situation I was once into. Living here allowed me to get involved in several charities, from raising funds for building schools in India to sharing meals with homeless people. I really would miss this volunteering culture should I move somewhere else.
Outside of my job and volunteer work, I love beekeeping. We (my uncle, aunt, mother and I) collect wild swarms of bees. People in the surrounding area know that they can call us if a swarm landed in their garden, roof or trees – they call us, we come with a hive, and make the bees go into their new property. If those people are willing and able to, we can install the hive in their garden and come back maintaining it from time to time. If they’re afraid or unable to keep the hive though, we take it and install it in our respective gardens. If they’re willing to, we can teach people how to do beekeeping so that they can take care of maintaining the hive themselves and can ask for our help if needed.
There are a lot of tools a beekeeper may use to ease the process of beekeeping. For collecting swarms, we may use things that are called “trap hives”. Those are basically old hives that we make attractive to the bees by rubbing melissa on it (we may even burn it a little to revive the smells of propolis and wax). The smell attracts the swarm and it settles in it, instead of building a wild hive in a tree for instance. To intervene on the hive, we use a smoker that will discourage the bees to come out while we’re maintaining the hive. Some species are so docile they don’t need it though, and I know beekeepers whose hives are so calm they don’t even use overalls, but we stand by the adage “better safe than sorry”. We do use overalls to protect ourselves from potential stinging, but that’s mainly because my aunt is deadly allergic to bee stings. If you’re careful about not intervening when the weather is bad or the pressure is too high, the bees usually won’t show any aggressive behaviour.
The aggressiveness of bees really depends on the species and the weather. Most of our hives are populated with either the Buckfast (apis mellifera buckfast) or the Carnolian bee (apis mellifera carnica), which are species that don’t sting often. But we also have hives of black bees (apis mellifera mellifera), who are known to be aggressive – those ones are the reason why we wear overalls!
I get stung about once or twice a year. Usually, it’s after harvesting; I take off the outfit and they get trapped in my hair. Sometimes I am able to set them free, sometimes I’m too slow, they get scared and sting me. But all in all, getting stung is not so common.
During tough winters, most hives need to be fed, especially if you harvest most of their honey during summer (We don’t. We would rather leave it to them). We use a feeder that we fill with a mixture of water, sugar, thyme (a natural antiseptic), honey and pollen. We start feeding them as soon as the temperature goes below 12°C and check the syrup level every weekend so that they don’t starve.
We are attentive to the cleanliness of the hive: bees are very clean animals. When it gets dirty, it may be a sign that the colony is sick and that we need to cure it immediately. We use natural substances to heal them; very few bee drugs are allowed in France and we are not willing to create an addiction.
We harvest honey only once a year on most of our hives. Before harvesting, we use a smoker to “warn the bees”. They think a fire is coming so they all gather in the hive and eat all the honey they can in order to be prepared to leave the hive if necessary. This makes them calm, and we can then open the hive and get the frames that are filled with honey – the others are filled with brood and will give birth to new bees. We then detach the frames with a special knife (bees tend to put wax on the frame as they build the combs) and, depending on the beehive type, we either put them in a mechanical centrifuge or press the wax above a big tank in which honey will then decant and be filtered after three days. Kids love this second process, as they are allowed to lick they gloved fingers once they are done. We also give them some “honey cake” – a piece of comb still filled with honey. They chew the wax and eat the fresh honey, and they love it. Harvesting is always synonym of a great day!
There are lots of similarities between beekeeping and my work in tech. Beekeeping demands precision, accuracy, and patience. It demands care and needs you not to give up when you are facing difficulties. Those are useful qualities that I am glad I could develop as a beekeeper and reinvest in my tech career.
My advice to anyone interested in beekeeping is to follow beekeepers on their maintaining routines. Learn from watching. There is no better school in beekeeping – and life in general. Also, you don’t need to buy hives. It is so much more fun to build them yourself – and so much cheaper!
I also think that there is always more than tech. Engineering needs to be humane. We are more than tech dudes and dudettes. Passions make us grow in all aspects of our lives and bring us together as individuals. Of course, you should work for a job you love – but you should also love every other aspect of your life. And hobbies help you do that.