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Isaac Hoelle

Isaac Hoelle, Backyard Beekeeper © 2021 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Backyard Beekeeper

In her 1988 book, A Book of Bees … and How to Keep Them, author Sue Hubbell — born and raised in Kalamazoo — wrote, “Buying a hive of bees is, in some ways, like buying an Irish Setter puppy; it changes one’s life.”

This is certainly true for Isaac Hoelle, a 12–year–old beekeeper who just finished sixth grade at Portage Central Middle School. Isaac’s foray into the apiary world began in elementary school when he was introduced to beekeeping through a summer program at
Portage Public Schools. He was so enamored with beekeeping, he saved his holiday gift money from his grandparents to buy bees and supplies and set up a hive in the backyard of his family’s home.

In addition to knowing a lot about the insects through beekeeping, Hoelle has learned a few life lessons as well; he lost his bees this year, likely due to parasitic varroa mites, and had to start over with a new queen and bees in June.

“I was disappointed to lose my bees,” he says, “but I felt OK very soon after because I know that this stuff happens. I was elated to get more bees and to be helping the pollinators again.”

What sparked your interest in beekeeping?

I took a bug class a long time ago in a summer enrichment program with Portage Public Schools. We studied insects and pollinators. The Kalamazoo Bee Club came and talked to the class about bees. That’s what got me interested. The club offered to take us to an apiary, and I went. We had to have our parents’ permission. We were given a bee suit to wear.

What is it like to wear a bee suit?

The first time I put one on (at the apiary) it felt weird because it was hot out. I got used to it, though. I feel more confident wearing a (bee) suit. There’s a thing I learned about bee suits I would like people to know — why they are white. Bee suits are white so the bees don’t think you are a bear.

Wait, what?

Bees evolved to feel threatened by darker colors like brown or black, like bears, which are known for snatching honeycombs and honey from hives. Also, it’s usually hot out when working with the hives, and white reflects sunlight, so we stay cooler.

Have you ever been stung?

No. I’m kind of surprised about that. People do get stung. But a lot depends on how you treat the bees. You can puff the hive with a smoker, which calms them, but if you are calm and gentle, even without using a smoker, they are less likely to sting you.

What are some activities you regularly do as a beekeeper?

In winter we make sure the bees have enough food. Honey can be supplemented with sugar if needed. We make sure there is no moisture in the hive, because moisture can be deadly for bees. We inspect to make sure the bees have been removing the dead bees from the hive. This is normal behavior. If the bees are active, we know there is a live queen inside the hive. In spring we make sure eggs are being laid inside the comb cells. We also check for parasitic varroa mites, which are a common cause of hive death.

What do the bees do in winter?

They act like us — stay inside and keep warm. The queen is in the middle, and they form a ball around her to keep her warm. They eat honey for energy and to live. When we take honey from a hive in late summer, we need to leave enough for the bees to make it through the winter.

What else would you like people to know about bees?

I would like to tell people what is good for bees and what is bad for them. Flowers like dandelions are actually good. They are the first flowers to appear in spring. We just planted an American linden tree in our backyard. They are very good for bees.

In the summer finding water can be hard for bees. People can put a shallow bowl out in their yard with some rocks in it. Bees can’t swim so they need a place to land and drink from.
It is not good for bees when people spray their yard for insects. Bees are insects.

Has becoming a beekeeper changed you in any way?

I feel like I have changed by having bees because I feel the need to take care of them and take my time with them.

What things do you like to do when you aren’t tending to your bees?

I play the tuba and guitar. I also like to work with my mom in our flower and vegetable gardens and with our apple trees.

— Interview by Donna McClurkan, edited for length and clarity

Donna McClurkan

Donna is a Kalamazoo-based freelance writer and climate activist.

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