When people discover Jim Miller keeps bees, typically the first question they ask is, “How often do you get stung?”
“I got stung a lot when I first started,” he admits. “Now, not so much.”
Miller says his bees recognize him, “so when I work my hives I dress the same, my motions are slow and gentle, and I don’t have a problem. When I went out to the hives this morning, the bees were like, ‘Oh, hi Jim.’ Very calm. But we still wear protective clothing.”
The other half of “we” is Jim’s wife, Jenine, who handles the books for the couple’s modest business, Millers Homestead Natural Honey, near Medical Lake.
It’s Jim’s fourth career. He retired from the Pennsylvania State Police before earning a degree in mechanical engineering, which he put to use in the heating and ventilation trade. He also owned a hydraulic business.
“I always got bored with what I was doing. I figured the same thing would happen with beekeeping. But after almost 20 years, I’m still fascinated and I have so much to learn.”
During a recent interview, Miller described his business and how beekeeping has changed his outlook on life.
S-R: How did you get into beekeeping?
Miller: When we moved here in the mid-1990s, we planted 200 fruit trees. I knew I’d need to pollinate the trees, so I bought honeybees. That first winter, mice ate the bark off all 200 fruit trees. I lost the trees, but the bees have stayed.
S-R: How did your hobby morph into a business?
Miller: I was extracting honey in the garage, and I wasn’t satisfied with the quality. So I put up a 24-by-24-foot building in 1998 specifically for extracting honey. My wife said, “How many times will you use that in a year?” and I said, “Just once.” And she said, “Not a very good return on investment. What can we do to increase that?” That’s when I started doing custom extraction for other beekeepers. Then I began selling bees and woodenware (hives and frames). My wife, who retired from programming in 2006, really developed the business. Now we’re open twice a week – Fridays and Saturdays. I also give lessons all over the area, and we ship honey throughout the United States.
S-R: Do people buy your honey because it tastes different than honey they can buy closer to home?
Miller: Yes. Our most popular is buckwheat honey, which comes from the buckwheat flower. It’s very strong – almost like molasses – and particularly popular in the Northeast.
S-R: Before you started keeping bees, did you eat honey?
Miller: A little. Now I eat a lot more. I’m a Type 2 diabetic, and honey stabilizes me better.
S-R: How many people have taken your introductory beekeeping class?
Miller: About 700. Lessons cost $35 a family for 12 hours of instruction.
S-R: What does it cost to set up a hive in your yard?
Miller: This is an expensive hobby. To get started costs about $150 for a hive and frames, another $100 for bees, plus $100 for protective clothing. Some people spend $800 or $900 to get started.
S-R: Do newcomers sometimes discover they don’t like bees, honey or getting stung?
Miller: All of the above. Our advice is to take a class before you spend money on bees and equipment.
S-R: Is the Inland Northwest a difficult place to keep bees?
Miller: Not really. I have 30 hives, and I typically lose about 10 percent, or three hives, each winter. Some places lose more, others lose less.
S-R: Has colony collapse been a problem for you?
Miller: It was when I first started beekeeping. But now we know what causes it. A recent study done in England showed that certain pesticides, even in amounts as small as two parts per billion, can make bees too weak to return to their hive.
S-R: What about this hobby surprises people the most?
Miller: Honeybees are friendly. People group them together with hornets and yellow jackets, but there’s a difference. Yellow jackets and hornets don’t have a barb on their stinger, so they can sting you repeatedly. Honeybees’ stinger has a barb, so if they sting you, the stinger stays in you and they die. And they’re not interested in dying – they’re just protecting themselves and their hive.
S-R: When are bees active?
Miller: The season begins about the first of April, when you check your hives or set up new ones. Bee packages show up in the middle of April. Then you’re busy feeding them to get them established and growing, so when the nectar flow starts in mid-May or early June, your hive is strong enough to collect pollen. In late July or August, you start pulling honey off the hives and extracting it. By September, you’re done extracting and you focus on making the bees healthy enough to get through winter. Late October is the last time we check on them.
S-R: Is the beekeeping business recession-proof?
Miller: After the crash hit in 2008, we had more people interested in beekeeping. Now that jobs are available, our growth has slowed.
S-R: But you really don’t save money by keeping bees, do you?
Miller: No. When we help people extract honey, they’ll look at a quart and joke that it cost them $56.
S-R: What do you get out of this?
Miller: I enjoy working with the bees, extracting honey and talking with people about bees.
S-R: What do you like least?
Miller: Having to get up at 6 a.m. in the summer so I can go check the hives before it gets too hot and the combs are soft.
S-R: You’ve said there’s no correct way to be a beekeeper. What do you mean?
Miller: It’s like putting on your pants. Some people put their right leg in first. Others start with their left. Both still get dressed. How I manage my hives works for me, and other techniques work for other people. I don’t use chemicals, and I’m trying to get away from using medications by planting certain (medicinal) flowers close to the hives.
S-R: Do the bees sometimes surprise you?
Miller: Oh, yes. One year I had 64 hives on star thistle, which is a noxious weed. When I checked the hives in early July, there was hardly any honey. A month later, I pulled 2,000 pounds of it off them.
S-R: What sort of person makes a good beekeeper?
Miller: Someone who enjoys the outdoors and is patient. Someone who likes working with their hands, but also can sit down and read books and scientific studies.
S-R: What’s the future for beekeeping?
Miller: It has to be strong. Over 90 fruits and vegetables rely on honeybees to pollinate them. If we lose the bees, the cost of food is going to go way up.
S-R: How has your passion for bees changed your outlook on life?
Miller: It’s made me see the world around me differently, and think about my relationship with my wife. In a hive, no one bee is in charge. Likewise, in our marriage neither one of us is in charge. We work together.
S-R: How about your attitude toward pesticides?
Miller: That, too. There’s a reason for all the insects. I don’t have a problem with yellow jackets as long as they leave me alone.
S-R: Anything else?
Miller: I’ve given up hunting and fishing because of beekeeping. I try real hard not to kill bees as I move boxes around, and that’s made me more aware of life in general. Fish have a life, and the deer and bear I used to hunt all have the ability to think. I can’t kill them anymore.