DRYDEN — Cindy Garza told herself that if her honey bees did not survive the winter, she was giving up her fledgling hobby.
So when she opened up her two backyard hives on a sunny day earlier this month, she was relieved to see thousands of bees busily working inside.
But she didn’t know if they were healthy. the honeycomb seemed too dark and the hive appeared to have mold.
With no local beekeeping club to connect with, Garza is gingerly trying to feel her way through a hobby that can be daunting and a bit terrifying to novices. With some 50,000 bees in an average hive, mistakes can be painful.
Garza is among an estimated 100,000 hobby beekeepers across the country, a number that has been growing in recent years as part of a homesteading movement that has also seen renewed interest in gardening and raising egg-laying chickens at home.
The hobby is relatively inexpensive — starting a hive can cost as little as a couple hundred dollars — and the rewards include harvesting your own jars of golden honey.
But how on Earth do you get started? And who would want to work with stinging bees — for fun?
For Garza, it wasn’t an interest in bees or a desire for honey that motivated her. Two and a half years ago, her aunt and uncle — longtime beekeepers from Olympia — unexpectedly gave her an empty bee hive and a bee veil for Christmas. five months later, they gave her a box full of bees and a pair of gloves for her birthday.
Garza thought it would be a nice way to bond with her relatives. she bought a copy of “Beekeeping for Dummies” and attended an introductory class once a week in Olympia.
That first winter, all her bees died.
Last year, she bought more bees and sought out the help of Ernie Theis, her retired high school science teacher and a longtime commercial beekeeper in the Dryden area.
Earlier this week, Theis visited Garza’s home to examine her hives and offer up some advise.
Garza calls Theis — who wears no protective gear and uses cigar smoke to work with the bees — the “bee whisperer.”
He and Garza used their hive tools to pry the lid off one of her hives to reveal a series of wooden frames inside that bees build their comb on. Theis took a long drag on his cigar and blew smoke into the hive. he explained that the smoke distracts the bees so they don’t get mad at the intrusion.
Watching from a short distance away, Garza’s husband, Jay, joked, “I guess I’m going to have to buy her a box of cigars now.”
Traditionally, beekeepers use a smoker — which looks like a can with bellows inside which you light canvass or other slow burning materials that can generate smoke.
Theis removed several bee-covered frames and finally located the queen, which he determined to be healthy.
Garza shared that she names her queen bees. Last year, she named one queen “Eliz-z-zabeth.” One of her current queens is “Beatriz-z-z.”
Theiss assured her that the honeycomb, which she thought was too dark and possibly diseased, was actually healthy.
“I’m so excited that I don’t have to replace a bunch of foundation,” she said.
After finishing the first hive, Theis explained that he started working with bees at age 16. his father was a hobby beekeeper, tending 10 hives at their family home in Grand Coulee while he worked on construction of Grand Coulee Dam.
When Theis started teaching at Peshastin-Dryden High School in the 1950s, he bought a small orchard and started a commercial beekeeping business on the side. At one time, he had 800 hives.
He said anyone can get started keeping bees with little or no experience. you don’t need to live on a farm or out in the country either, he said. Even a small city lot is sufficient for bees as long as city codes allow it.
“Bees loved dandelions,” he said.
Just don’t put a hive where children or pets could get too close, he said. Garza has her hives are in an open, sunny area of her large yard.
You should also make sure you aren’t allergic to bees, Theis cautioned.
Garza said she has only been stung twice since she started. she keeps Benadryl nearby, just in case she has a reaction. But she’s no longer nervous around the bees, or afraid of being stung.
“The first time, I was pretty nervous,” she said. “My heart rate was pretty up there.”
Theis added, “Boy, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been stung …”
Theis determined that one of Garza’s hives was healthy, but the queen in the second hive was weak. he recommended that she kill the queen and buy another one to replace it. once she does that, Garza said she will turn her attention to honey. she hasn’t harvested much in the last two years, but hopes this year will be better.
She’s also hoping to find other beekeepers to form a local club.
Garza said she learns a little bit more about her bees all the time, which is part of the fun and challenge of her new hobby.
“I don’t even have a proper bee suit,” she joked. “It’s a spray suit I bought for $8 at Wilbur Ellis.”
“I really love it,” she added. “I just want to get out there to my bees every day.”
Michelle McNiel: 664-7152