Growing up in the small town of Windsor, Mo., Mike McMillen lived beside a vacant lot that served as the neighborhood kids’ baseball field. On the other side of the vacant lot lived a master gardener, who kept a collection of neatly painted white bee hives under some shrubs. One summer day, a foul ball went near a hive, and McMillen went to retrieve it. He saw bees busy buzzing in and out of the hive.
The bees fascinated McMillen, and now that he’s retired — he’s the former owner of Buck Creek Barbecue Sauces — he’s turning that childhood fascination into a challenging new pursuit.
“I like learning new things, and honeybees have always intrigued me,” he says.
McMillen’s beekeeping venture began in the fall of 2012, when he found a wild hive of bees on family land near Windsor. After doing some research, he purchased a device to trap the bees when they began to swarm — or leave their hive to look for a new hive location. But when he went back to put his new trap up, he found the bees had gone!
McMillen decided he might as well attach the trap to a tree in that area, so he did, treating it with some queen pheromone to attract bees. A couple of weeks later, he came back and found a few bees going in and out of the swarm trap. Then a couple of weeks after that, he looked in the trap and saw that it was full of bees and they had started building up a wax comb.
Finally, it was time to move the bees from the swarm trap into a permanent hive. McMillen called a friend, Charlie DeVier, who gave him a list of things to purchase to build the new hive. McMillen got it all assembled, and then he and DeVier transferred the bees into their new home. McMillen went back five days later, and, once again, faced disappointment.
“The bees were all gone!” he says. “I’m still not sure what we did wrong. Charlie thought wax moths had gotten into the hive, and the bees swarmed and went someplace else. ‘That’s beekeeping,’ he said.”
McMillen knew then he needed more education. He’d taken several courses at the Columbia Area Career Center — everything from website design to welding — and just a month or so after losing the bees, McMillen saw the center was offering a course on beginning beekeeping.
“It’s a really wonderful resource for people who are interested in learning, and I am,” McMillen says of the center.
McMillen took the beekeeping course last November, and he learned all he needed to know to get started beekeeping, from how to protect his bees from their many enemies — which range from parasites to bears — to understanding the bee’s life cycle.
“Our instructors were awesome!” McMillen says. “They brought a lot of show-and-tell items to class.”
McMillen furthered his education online, watching more than 60 hours of YouTube videos on beekeeping.
“It’s really interesting to see how people approach the same issue differently,” he says.
Since the beekeeping course, McMillen has been busily assembling and painting hives. Instead of hoping to capture more wild bees, he has ordered two hive starter kits, each of which contains one queen and 12,000 to 15,000 bees. He expects those to arrive in April, just in time for the peak production time for honey.
“I’ll probably not take any honey the first year, focusing on trying to build up a strong hive,” McMillen says. “After that, I’ll share the bounty with friends and neighbors.”
Is beekeeping on your bucket list? The Columbia Area Career Center offers a one-day beginning beekeeping course on Sat., Feb. 8 from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Cost is $119. Call 573-214-3803.