Summer is the perfect opportunity to delve into our outdoor hobbies, and beekeeping is one of Engineer Scott Drabicki's fascinating pastimes. At Clark Dietz, we want to celebrate our unique personalities that bring a vibrancy to our professional environment. We're placing our staff in the spotlight, showing that we’re doing more than just Engineering Quality of Life—we’re out there enjoying it as well!
Scott is the Civil and Environmental Engineering Team Leader for Clark Dietz's Northern Illinois region. His experience entails roadway rehabilitation, drainage, wet utilities, and facility maintenance, emergency flood response, public outreach, and capital planning. Outside of his work, Scott has a love for beekeeping, a hobby that he has described as "a great stress reliever."
What exactly is beekeeping, and what does it entail? Beekeeping is the maintenance of bees, commonly in man-made beehives. Beekeepers will collect the honey that their bees produce and either sell or hold onto it for the bees to get through the winter. Other aspects of beekeeping can include raising queens, pollinating crops, and production of package bees.
Beekeeping has been a common form of agriculture for thousands of years. We asked Scott about his own beekeeping experience.
What inspired you to take up beekeeping?
An environmental scientist colleague managed bees and his enthusiasm and passion for the hobby was contagious. Within a year of him mentioning in passing “I’m a beekeeper…” I had picked his brain for every shred of knowledge, taken an entry level class, read several books, joined a local hobby club, and ordered three colonies.
I made the decision to start the hobby late in the “season”, so I started slow by reading a lot of information from the library before signing up for an introductory class the following spring. This sequence allowed me to better understand the terminology and concepts which were all new to me. Once I started ordering equipment the supplier’s staff were adept at ensuring equipment compatibility and kicking me in the right direction if I strayed. The class communicated a lot of experiential concepts and by the time the livestock arrived in spring I feel I was well prepared and excited to get started. I subsequently joined a local hobby club and have been an active member ever since.
I recommend that anyone interested in the hobby start with the hobby club and go work alongside an experienced beekeeper a little bit before investing heavily.
What is your favorite part of being a beekeeper?
I enjoy working with new beekeepers to educate and share the exciting “firsts” in the hobby like picking up and installing the package of bees, witnessing the population boom, complete honeycombs, swarms, and honey harvests. Another favorite part is the humbling nature of farming. I have never been more in tune with nature and the environment around me as I have been since taking up this hobby. I’m excellent with the science and biology of managing colonies but I can’t control the weather which has an even greater impact on the success of the colonies.
What is the busiest time of year to be a beekeeper?
In my opinion there are two critical periods during the season and they aren’t so much busy periods as time critical. First is the delivery of new package bees in early spring. New bees are shipped into the region from out of state and need to be respected as perishable livestock. New colonies are transported in a small crate with enough food for about 5 days. Once they arrive in this area, after 2 days of being trucked across the country, it is critical to install them in their new hive as soon as possible. The second time critical operation is honey harvesting. Inside the hive the bees take care of the honeycomb and protect it from temperature swings and pests. Once the honeycomb is removed from the colony, however, the honey needs to be extracted and sealed in a timely manner to product and preserve the quality.
What do you do with all the honey your bees produce?
I leave the bees their share for winter food and the remainder I bottle and sell.
Have you ever been stung while working with bees? If so, how did you take preventative measures going forward?
Oh yes, hundreds of stings over the years… Sting protection is easy to achieve by covering exposed skin with multiple layers of clothing and the use of heavy gloves and protective veils. The drawback to protection is that most beekeeping activities coincide with the hot summer months and wearing all the protective gear makes it very uncomfortable. As I have matured into this hobby, I have given up the multiple protective layers in favor of personal comfort most days. Today I regularly manage colonies with simple street clothes and a protective veil. The tradeoff is that I am stung more frequently now, especially on long days when working numerous colonies. And yes, every sting still hurts, and I say a bad word when it happens.
Can you explain the process of beekeeping/what it entails?
I’ll start with the concept that honey is canned food for the winter. Honeybees eat nectar as their energy source and without access to flowers in the winter they need to store extra sugar inside the colony for winter use. Honeybees are not native to the Americas, and they need to be managed as livestock to provide the best opportunity to survive and thrive. The basic needs of food, shelter, and safety can be supplemented by the beekeeper to make up for the shortcomings inherent to the way we have tried to domestic them to live in this region and in manmade boxes. At the most basic level beekeeping is managing colonies to ensure they are healthy and have enough space to store food to eat through the winter months. A typical year starting looks like this:
Spring – first big nectar flowers are dandelions and overwintered colonies will gorge on this fresh new crop of nectar after eating honey all winter. Beekeepers typically buy and import new colonies from more temperate climates such as Georgia, Texas, and California. This is a big season for commercial beekeepers who are called into the agricultural centers of the country to pollinate crops.
Summer – busy season for the bees who are trying to gather as much nectar as possible to store as food for the winter (honey). The population of bees in the colony increases drastically and it is critical for the beekeeper to ensure the colony has enough space to live in and store food. If you’re not paying attention, they will fill every nook and cranny with honey to the point where they don’t have enough space to live in resulting in a swarm.
Fall – A colony needs about 80 pounds of honey to eat during the winter and if they have made extra, we can steal it for ourselves. The last big nectar crop is goldenrod and once those beautiful yellow flowers appear on the roadsides it is the end of the growing season for the bees. From then on, their population declines and the effectiveness of beekeeper management decreases.
Winter – the bees are inside their hive and huddling together to stay warm. They eat their honey and venture out on temperate days to see if there are any new sources of food. This is the slow season for beekeepers as there just isn’t a whole lot we can do to assist them at this time.
What would you want people to know about bees and/or beekeeping?
- All the worker bees are female.
- Workers live for about 6 weeks during the summer months.
- The queen can live for several years and is the only female that can lay fertilized eggs.
- Wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets have similar biology to honeybees, but they don’t store food for the winter. Once nectar production slows at the end of summer, they will become increasingly aggressive to outdoor human food because they are starving.
- And most importantly - Support your local beekeepers by buying local honey from farmstands in your community!