Books by Christy Hemenway
The Thinking Beekeeper books by Christy Hemenway
Christy Hemenway became a beekeeper in Maine in 2007. As beginnings go, her path was pretty typical. She went to Bee School, she bought equipment, she worried about having all the things she needed, what they were called, how they were used, whether she would succeed as a beekeeper.
But once she had bought her beehives and tools and accessories, she had a question. In the two Langstroth hive setups she had purchased, and lovingly painted, and were stacked up in the living room waiting for bees to come, were sheets of wax-coated plastic with hexagons embossed on them, installed inside the frames inside the hives. What the heck, she thought?
On the last night of Bee School, she got the opportunity to ask her question… “What did bees do before we gave them this wax foundation stuff?” The response? Silence. A silence so loud in fact, it was alarming.
So, off to Google she went, searching for natural beekeeping, organic beekeeping, chemical-free beekeeping… and she was surprised at how little information was available on the subject at the time. Nevertheless, she persisted. Eventually some alternative ideas began to show up in her search results – most excitingly, the idea of top bar beehives. She read everything she could find – and this was when she connected with her earliest mentors, Phil Chandler, Michael Bush, Marty Hardison.
Her bees came on June 5th – two Langstroth nucs -- and were installed in her two hives. That’s when she realized how woefully unprepared she was to be a beekeeper. There was so much she didn’t know. So much that hadn’t been discussed in class. Inspections? Yes, those were important. But what to inspect for? What was she actually looking at when she lifted the frames from the hives? And what did bees do before we gave them this foundation stuff?
Then she got a call from a homeowner. There were bees living in the roofline of their home. Could they be removed? Yes! After a great deal of fuss and preparation, a few feet of fascia board was removed and there was the answer she'd been looking for. Bees living in a cavity that was not a beehive, and that did not provide sheets of foundation for bees to build on. These were bees living on their own natural wax, made by the bees themselves, from their own bodies, and made to their exacting specifications. This made more sense!
Bee season progressed, the Langstroth hives did not thrive, in fact the bees were dead and gone before November. But already the seeds for Gold Star Honeybees had been planted. This small enterprise began as a beekeeping service – where clients paid an annual fee to have top bar hives placed on their property, and the beekeeper – Christy Hemenway -- visited them on a regular basis to perform inspections and maintain the hives. While this started quite small, with 3 nearby clients, it soon progressed to 10 clients and a problem became evident. Maine is very rural, and her clients were quite far-flung. The distance between hives, combined with the increasing gas prices of the day, were creating an untenable situation. It was time to pivot.
And so it was that in 2009, Gold Star Honeybees began to commercially manufacture the top bar hive that had been the basis of the beekeeping service. It had been field-tested and proven to be a functional and versatile design, with many bee- and beekeeper-friendly features built in.
And as beekeepers often do – Christy talked about bees. A lot. To anyone who would listen. It became evident that there was a dearth of how-to information available about top bar hives. Christy found herself answering many of the same questions over and over again. Soon she began to offer a basic beginner’s class on top bar hive beekeeping. Crafted as a weekend-long, information-intensive class, this made it possible for people who weren’t local to travel to the area and attend the class. And people did.
In the wake of Colony Collapse Disorder, there was a new attitude arising about bees and beekeeping. It wasn’t as easy anymore to be a successful beekeeper simply by plopping a few hives down in the backyard and then going out later that summer to harvest honey. It became evident that this was no longer our grandfather’s beekeeping experience. Varroa mites, chemical treatments, and CCD was changing the beekeeping industry. Pollination became a household word. Researchers at major universities were getting involved. Albert Einstein was virally misquoted as having said that if there were no more honeybees, humankind would cease to exist in a mere four years. (He didn’t really say that. Still… it’s an important point about what honeybees mean to us.)
Then came the book. Approached by a publisher at a Mother Earth News Fair, the idea of writing a book was a little scary, but it was exciting too. After some discussion, Christy had a agreement to write a book about top bar hive beekeeping. In 2013, The Thinking Beekeeper was published. In concert with the rise in public awareness about the importance of bees, healthy bees, to our food system and therefore our own lives, the title of the book reached out to those beekeepers who were less steeped in the tradition of beekeeping for honey production, who were more curious and concerned about what was best for the bees. Aimed at corralling and organizing the details of how to get started keeping bees in top bar hives, it went step-by-step through the first year in the life of a top bar hive from start to finish. At the time, that was the most pressing need, information about how to get started.
But of course, as soon as that first book was published (and all oaths about never writing another book ever, ever again had been solemnly sworn) that need changed. Readers arrived at the beginning of Year 2 and said, “Now what? What about swarms? What about doing splits? How can I expand my apiary? My bees died; how do I start over?” The pain of book writing, much like childbirth, receded, and Advanced Top Bar Beekeeping became the next labor of love.
Years later… top bar hive beekeeping has become more mainstream. We know now that many of the miticides in use since the 1980’s have had some devastating consequences. They have contaminated the wax being recycled into new foundation, and the varroa mite has proven able to develop resistance to these strong chemicals - both bad news for bees. But there is no longer quite so profound a dearth of how-to information on using hives that promote the making of natural wax comb and eschew the use of foundation sheets. It’s gotten easier, and you get more results when you Google for natural or organic beekeeping.
We supplemented the books by creating an online class, thanks to a grant from the Eva Crane Trust, called The Thinking Beekeeper’s Top Bar Hive Beekeeping class on Vimeo. We appreciate the Eva Crane Foundation’s willingness to fund this project and we continue to make it available as part of The Thinking Beekeeper Education Series.
Then came COVID in early 2020. That put the cabosh on nearly everything that used to happen face-to-face, and we were all suddenly very alone, with only electronica to connect us. Live events were being cancelled left and right, falling like dominoes while the COVID numbers climbed. Christy's response was to teach the Weekend Intensive class we usually offered face to face, via live stream - with help from husband Geoff Keller, from the basement offices of Gold Star Honeybees. It was a little rough as we sorted out the tech issues, but it worked to put the class out there and make it available without all of us having to get in the same room together, which was suddenly a little frightening, and a lot challenging. Today that same class (usually a $125 tuition) is available through the Patreon Page for The Thinking Beekeeper, to patrons on the Student Tier, at $10/month. You can find it here.
Christy still likes to talk about bees. She is available to speak to your bee group about the important features of natural wax, and the How & Why of bee- and beekeeper-friendly top bar hive beekeeping. Zoom has provided a real cost savings when it comes to offering presentations as well as protection against continuing COVID issues. She can be reached at Gold Star Honeybees, by calling 207-449-1121 or emailing [email protected].