Inside the Nucleus Colony: Josh Nobel on Beekeeping

Josh is suited up in a beekeeping jacket, a netted veil covering his face almost like an astronaut as he burns a rolled up issue of Student Life. He stands with a small group of students, gathered in a small grassy patch overrun with flowers and brush tucked behind the Kappa Sigma fraternity house. We are here for a hive inspection organized by WU Beekeepers, the student run beekeeping club on campus. This is Josh’s first time leading a hive inspection on his own. There aren’t enough extra beekeeping suits for everyone, so some of us, including myself, feel alarmingly exposed. Josh assures us that we are safe to observe the bees oscillating around the hive.

“It’s a little weird, thinking you’re going to be really close to these insects that you perceive as really dangerous and can sting you,” Josh explains to me. Beekeeping wasn’t on Josh’s radar when he first came to WashU, so he recounts vividly when he first found out about the group on campus. Josh was at the activities fair when he was approached by a member of WU Beekeepers “Kane Koubsky, the current president, wearing his beekeeping suit yelled, ‘Hey, do you wanna know more about bees? I figured sure, why not?” 

Beehives look unassuming to the untrained eye. The hidden structures are made up of white wooden boxes stacked on top of each other and closed off with a lid, almost resembling old discarded furniture. Each box holds eight to ten empty wooden frames the bees use to build a wall of tiny, perfectly identical bee-sized cells. These cells are where the bees store nectar and honey, as well as where the queen bee lays her eggs. 

When we open the lid of the hive during the inspection, Josh puffs some smoke into the top to calm down the bees and mask any alarm pheromones. Suddenly, we are surrounded by buzzing as the bees fly into the air around us. Josh beckons me to come closer. With no suit on, I proceeded with caution. Josh explains that every hive has its own personality and this one is pretty docile. He pulls out a frame crawling with bees and points out a spot where the bees are clustering around a cell. He tells me that they will move if I gently push them out of the way, so I brushed some of the bees to one side with my bare hand for a better look. The bees feel soft, covered in little hairs all over their body to collect pollen, and didn’t seem to mind me handling them.

“It’s a little weird, thinking you’re going to be really close to these insects that you perceive as really dangerous.”

Later, I ask Josh if he’s worried about the bees dying over the winter. He tells me that he’s a little nervous for the docile bees that I scooped up. While they are gentler, they are also not as strong as the second hive of bees. When Josh first joined WU Beekeepers, their first hive didn’t survive the winter, which is common in Missouri. The hives the WU Beekeepers have now are new, so they’ve yet to experience any cold weather.

Purchasing the hives is reminiscent of a shady exchange of illegal goods. Josh tells me of an early morning last April when him and two other members of WU Beekeepers drove to purchase two nucleus colonies. Nucleus colonies are used to start a new hive and are typically made up of a small box filled with five frames, worker bees, eggs and larva also known as brood, and a queen. The deal happened in a half empty parking lot where the group first went up to a table and gave their information so they could pick their colonies. The sellers had set up boxes upon boxes in spaced out rows so buyers could inspect the goods. “We picked them up, weighed them, and tried to figure out which ones were the heaviest so we could get the best bees to bring back,” Josh explained. Afterwards, they loaded their chosen boxes of bees into their car where Josh sat next to them, guarding the precious cargo on the ride back.

As Josh has seen the colony grow, he’s become attached to the bees. “I know that might be a weird thing to say. Obviously it’s impossible to have an attachment to individual bees because you can’t really differentiate between them,” Josh explains. “But whenever I pass by the hives I make an effort to peek in and make sure they’re flying around.”

When the bees were being installed into their new home, they flew out of the box and “they stung us. So, the first time I got stung on the forehead and one got in my sleeve.” Yet, Josh remained undeterred. After allowing the bees to settle into their new environment, Josh returned to conduct a hive inspection and “I got over the fact that I was stung,” he laughs. “It was very surreal for me. To be at peace with nature… honeybees are just working as a collective to try and rebuild their own home, produce honey, and pollinate. I felt a sense of pride, helping foster life and promote the success of their environment.”

Words by Alexandria Moore
Photographed by Zachary Milewicz
Directed by Emily Hanson
Edited by Rachel Hellman

Published in Armour Magazine Issue 23: Armour & Co

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