About 15 years ago, Erich Schmidtke's father broached the idea of keeping honeybees outside Sturgeon Bay, on a farm adjacent to cherry orchards. The younger Schmidtke's response: Why not?
One answer to that question came early on. "We'd make a mistake, and the bees would be chasing us up and down the cornrows," notes Schmidtke, a fitness enthusiast who could outrun the bees. Not so his father, who would sometimes be so bee-stung that "his eyes would shut and his arms and legs would swell up. He looked like a red Michelin Man."
When his father gave up on the avocation about five years ago, he gave his beekeeping gear to Schmidtke, who for the past three years has kept two hives on his front porch on Madison's near west side.
The practice of urban beekeeping is catching on. A handful of people with whom he plays pond hockey have also established hives at their homes here. And retired chemist Jeanne Hanson, a newcomer to beekeeping, launched the Dane County Beekeepers Association early this year. A dozen people attended its inaugural meeting, in March. By last month's gathering, that number had doubled.
"Everybody has a different reason for getting into honeybees," observes Hanson, who lives in the Carpenter-Ridgeway neighborhood on Madison's east side. Her own motivation: "Last summer, my husband gobbled up seven jugs of honey, five pounds each," she explains. "So then out of the clear blue sky, a woman I know said, 'Why don't you get started with honeybees?'"
Her interest piqued, Hanson attended a class for beginning beekeepers and spent the winter poring over beekeeping books at Olbrich Gardens and checking out other volumes from the Madison Public Library's "Bee Culture" subject holdings. (Her favorite: The Honeybee, Vernon Vickery's 1921 guide for beekeepers.)
Hanson's initial hive - containing two pounds of bees and a queen - has grown to three hives and an estimated 60,000 bees. So far, she has harvested three pounds of honey.
Most association members are, like her, new to beekeeping. About 10, however, have been keeping honeybees for three to five years. Hanson views the club as a network, a means to coordinate carpools to vendors like Lapp's Bee Supply Center in Reeseville, and for sharing knowledge and resources.
Open to the public, meetings are held the first Tuesday of each month from 7 to 9 p.m. at sites around Dane County. The group's August session is slated for Pinney Library, followed by the Sequoya Library in September. Hanson invites inquiries at 608-244-5094 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Schmidtke, who is not a member of the association, cautions that not everyone is suited to keeping honeybees. At the height of summer, he might have 200,000 bees at his two hives. "You don't want innocent neighbors getting eaten alive, so you really have to be on top of your game," he explains.
The learning curve is relentless, he adds, even for professionals. Schmidtke likens the experience to "having 10,000 or 100,000 tigers in your backyard, producing a crop. They could turn on you at any second."
Nor is beekeeping an inexpensive hobby. You can drop $200 for a two-frame, hand-cranked centrifuge, Schmidtke says, and $15 for a queen bee. A queen and a starter package of bees can cost $75. Throw in hive frames, specialized tools, gloves and other accessories and you might be looking at anywhere from $500 to $1,000 to get started, he estimates. And if your bees don't over-winter, you'll need to buy new bees the following year.
Drugs and other treatments to prevent mites, viruses, disease and colony collapse can escalate those costs. "You can really get into a game of drugs and treatments and propping up these weak hives," Schmidtke says. "I've gotten away from that. My new strategy is tough bees. I get bees from Michigan that are super-tough. They have to over-winter in the Michigan woods three years in a row with no human intervention before they're bred."
A planning analyst who reviews boundary disputes for the state Department of Administration, Schmidtke, 40, allows that the rewards of keeping honeybees counterbalance the challenges. Even early on, up near Sturgeon Bay, he and his father enjoyed "some huge harvests - honey everywhere. Bucketloads of honey. Five-gallon buckets of honey."
All that honey took some of the sting out of their mistakes. They gave some to friends, but used much of it themselves. "We quit using sugar," he recalls, "and once you do that, you start to use a lot of honey. Like pies, there's a cup of honey right there. Granola, there's another quart."
Schmidtke's favorite honey is light clover: "It's light flavored, and when I see that honey come gushing out of the centrifuge, that's pretty cool." A few weeks ago he pulled 70 pounds of honey from one of his front-porch hives, yielding almost three gallons.
The thought of all that wholesome goodness is enough to set anyone's tastebuds to buzzing.