John Piette and Joanne Kimata
Three years into raising honeybees, John Piette and Joanne Kimata had an anxious moment when the insects, previously mild mannered, seemed to turn on them. "They were on the defensive," recalls Kimata. "They were buzzing around us and very aggressive."
The couple thought their queen might be "Africanized"-carrying genes from aggressive African bees. But then they found that a family of mice had made a home underneath the hive. Though the mice had fled, the nest seemed to be the culprit-and removing it solved the problem. "The next time we came back we were very wary of the hive, and we were relieved to find that they were back to their usual selves, which is very gentle," says Kimata.
Married seventeen years, Piette and Kimata have been hobby beekeepers for the past five. With a troop of about a dozen volunteers and occasional help from son Jordan, fourteen, and daughter Jessie, twelve, they care for nineteen hives housing about 50,000 bees.
Since they both have day jobs, they have to squeeze in time for their Dancing Crane Honey Farm on weekends. John, forty-five, who sports boyish good looks and a calm manner, is a U-M professor
of internal medicine. Kimata, a young-looking fifty, works for the U-M Health System on special projects. They took up beekeeping when John decided he needed a hobby and remembered how, growing up in rural Wisconsin, he'd enjoyed helping his uncle tend beehives. When Kimata took an interest, they dove in together. "It gets us out to the country where it's beautiful," says John. "Bees are buzzing, cows roaming; we wouldn't do that in our day-to-day life. You're in this different world. . . . You get to wear this really dopey suit with smoke everywhere. How often do people get to do that?"
The hives are in Salem Township northeast of Ann Arbor, a short drive from the family's home near Packard Street and Stone School Road. In white jumpsuits with screened hoods over
their faces, Piette and Kimata resemble astronauts as they check a hive looking for a queen bee-or eggs, which would indicate that a queen lives there. No sign. They drive a short distance to another site to get a queen being held on reserve. "It's like having queen bee insurance," explains Kimata. "If something goes wrong, we have a queen available." Piette describes her as "a lady in waiting."
The hives stand about five feet high and look like stacks of pastel-colored wooden drawers. This time of year, the top three "supers" are full of honey-about thirty-five pounds in each one. This is what the couple will collect and sell. The lower part of the hive, called the brood chamber, holds honey the bees will need to survive the winter.
Each super contains ten flat frames. Kimata pulls one out, revealing hundreds of bees crawling over the honeycomb. She pumps the handle on a tin can filled with burning wood chips, pushing smoke over the frame and calming the bees. Kimata points out the queen, which is longer than the others. Every day the queen can lay her weight in eggs-up to 3,000 of them. Queen breeding is a huge deal, Piette says-the best ones are artificially inseminated and sell for about $700. Piette and Kimata buy naturally inseminated queens, which are much less expensive, though not as reliable for good genes.
Once the queen has been relocated to the queenless hive, the day's work is done. When it is time to collect the honey, Kimata and Piette take the frames to a local man who removes the honey from the combs with a machine that operates by centrifugal force. Last year they produced about 900 pounds, selling it mostly by word of mouth. Their sales brought in several hundred dollars, which they donated to organizations doing humanitarian work in Vietnam. This year they are thinking of donating to a local charity, yet to be determined.
So far they haven't been affected by Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious disappearance of worker bee populations nationally over the last few years. Piette says the unexplained phenomenon could have several causes, including a mite that is infesting the bees, but no one has concrete answers. "It's kind of shocking to me that they haven't figured it out yet," he says.
Piette and Kimata spend every spring weekend tending the bees, but things slow down in the summer as the bees tend themselves. In the fall, maintenance chores add a few more hours on the weekends. The volunteers, mostly environmentalist couples and midlife women who are into gardening, help tend the hives and harvest the honey.
"The bees are really smart," Piette says, "very sensual and aesthetic. The queen knows this time of year to start laying fewer eggs because winter is coming; there are more mouths to feed. Then in the deepest darkest winter she knows it's time to start laying more eggs to get ready for the spring, when everything is in bloom."
Keeping bees, "all of your senses are involved," Piette says. "You see the flowers, the cranes migrating. The hives have this beautiful smell of the honey and beeswax. It's hard to describe in words. How do you describe wine to someone who has never tasted wine?"
[Originally published in October, 2008.]