How To Keep Bees with Hilary Kearney
Hilary Kearney aka @girlnextdoorhoney
Friends, I never knew about beekeeping until I did research for this painting of Nicholas and Catalina tending their beehives for our collaboration with Wee Bee Box in honor of National Honey Bee Day.
But now, I have gone deep down the fascinating rabbit hole of Hilary Kearney’s excellent blog, Beekeeping Like a Girl. So (1) I know a little more about beekeeping and bees, (2) I’m filled with respect for Hilary’s beekeeping expertise, and (3) I see that my painting and dolly beekeeping suit need some practical improvements. Good thing they are pretend…
I got to interview Hilary last week. In addition to her super-informative blog and Instagram, Hilary has written two books; Queenspotting and The Little Book of Bees. She also teaches classes, both in her home city of San Diego and online; manages a whole bunch of beehives; and provides services like beekeeper training and live bee removal. Unsurprisingly, a lot of our conversation was about being super busy. Read our Q&A below!
How old were you when you started beekeeping? What made you start?
In my last year of college, I met my now-husband and he had a random bucket list on his wall. It included ride a bike cross-country, get bees… I asked him about the bees and he had taken an entomology class, and he just thought it would be cool. I had thought all beekeepers were dead, like beekeeping was a thing from history. I didn’t know anyone still did it. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
So I found The Backyard Beekeeper on Amazon. I bought it for his birthday, then I read it. It blew my mind. I became super interested in bees and how cool they were; I started writing papers for school about bees. And after college, I moved back to San Diego to my dad’s house. He has a big backyard and I started keeping beehives there. I’ve been doing it ever since.
Who likes bees more now, you or your husband?
Definitely me. He’s definitely a good sport about it but I wouldn’t call it his passion.
What was your favorite beekeeping challenge that happened lately?
So Mount Palomar is a real mountain, about an hour away from the city. I have a student who has land up there and he invited me to keep bees up there because he gets really good honey. So I brought a Flow Hive up there. I thought it would be so easy and good. But I forgot that because honey consistency varies depending on foraging conditions and weather, the honey might not flow so well. So, in fact, it wasn’t easy and it took like five hours for the honey to flow out.
I talked to my friend later and he said the honey up there is usually pretty thick in general. There are different plants up there, different climate, I’m still not familiar with what the bees are making honey from there. As long as you’re not actually testing, you’re really just guessing what’s in the honey.
Could you heat the honey or vacuum it out somehow, without hurting the bees?
It was already a warm day and the bees keep the inside of their hives at 97 degrees anyway. And if there were a way to vacuum the honey out, I think the Australian guys who invented the Flow Hive would have figured it out already, because they spent like 10 years tinkering.
For someone like me who’s just working all the time, it was forced relaxation. First I thought, what can I do to be productive? I walked around taking pictures of flowers and stuff until my battery died. Then I just sat and twiddled my thumbs.
What would you improve if you were re-doing it?
I would actually still use a Flow Hive up there. But I only had one tube to let the honey flow out of. If I had brought multiple tubes, I could have harvested honey from more sections at once.
What do you want to do next, in the scheme of things?
I’m trying to work smarter, not harder. No one thought this could be a business. I said yes to a lot of things as I was getting going, and now I’m having to go through this process of trying to carve the workload down. But I keep changing my mind about what tasks I would be okay getting rid of.
I had an epiphany a couple of weeks ago that I really want land. So far, I’ve been dependent on other people’s land. What people don’t understand is, beekeeping is on an annual cycle. So a year is a long time for most people, but it isn’t a long time in the world of bees. I’m ready to have my own base, where I can keep beehives for many years uninterrupted. I want to find land to make these things happen. I have this following of people who are international and I’m getting people who are coming in from San Francisco or Arizona to do trainings with me. Having a space to do that in would be really cool.
It’s so overwhelming. I’m good at creative things, but I’m not so good at the business aspects of this. Like, how do I get a loan? But I figure, a lot of times you come up with an idea that sounds impossible but sometimes if you try, you can do it. For example, no one thought this could be a business at all, but it is now.
Is there any skill or subject you know or you wish you knew to help you do this work?
Well, I think as far as running a business, one thing that was surprising was how valuable artistic abilities have been. Being able to take photos, write well, and design all my own stuff has been really advantageous. Artistic skills are often valued in a separate, pedestal, extra way. But they’re integral to everything we do and valuable to being a business owner. But I wish I knew more about all the traditional business stuff like writing a business plan, organizational stuff, numbers, businessy stuff.
Thank you, Hilary! The idea of your beekeeping land acquisition has been making me super happy ever since I heard about it. Keep us posted!
To learn more about the importance of bees and how to help them, check out this downloadable with facts and a coloring page here!