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Busy beekeeper: Michael Jaross shares experiences, healthy hive tips

Mar 4th, 2018 | Category: Community

by Mary Vermillion

Michael Jaross loves bees with all the charming earnestness the statement implies. His love affair with the industrious insects began when he was a teenager, yet he didn’t get his first beehives until he was in his 50s. That’s a long time to carry a torch, and Jaross is making up for lost time by diving deep into the hobby.

Michael Jaross (middle) provides consulting through Whatcom Bee Help, and is leading a beginning beekeper class at the Chuckanut Center starting this month. COURTESY PHOTO

Michael Jaross (middle) provides consulting through Whatcom Bee Help, and is leading a beginning beekeper class at the Chuckanut Center starting this month. COURTESY PHOTO

Jaross said he was a “nerdy, college-track kid” growing up in Forest Grove, Ore., just outside of Portland. His parents were teachers, and young Michael was always in the library. Roaming the stacks in his early teens, he discovered the magazine Gleanings in Bee Culture and devoured it like contemporary kids read the Harry Potter series. “I was interested in keeping bees, but I was a town kid,” he says. “I liked beekeeping because it was a complex venture. They were alien creatures. Not like dogs, cats or horses. They might as well be from Planet Zork.”

Fast forward to the year 2000. After 25 years as a successful glass artist in Seattle, Jaross sold his studio and moved to Bellingham. Five years later, he realized his apiary dream by buying a starter colony of bees – what Jaross calls the 3-pound “Betty Crocker box” of 15,000 bees and a queen. It was a match made in heaven. Jaross is a natural at beekeeping. Notably, he’s been able to sustain his colony year to year. During summer, he has as many as 30 hive stacks strategically triangulated in three locations – some at Western Washington University’s Outback Farm, the foot of Galbraith Mountain, and a third group adjacent to Chuckanut Falls.

Jaross is not alone as a late-blooming beekeeper. “Many beekeepers are gray hairs because that’s when you have the time and money,” he said. In addition to his long-standing affection for bees, Jaross also turned to the hobby to supplement his homestead lifestyle.

As he began considering beekeeping, he remembered the books he read as a teen and thought: this will be easy. “It’s not easy at all,” he said, noting the climate in our northwest corner as well as impacts on flower bloom and depleting bees’ food resources, and parasites and diseases for which bees have no natural immunity.

Undaunted, Jaross dedicated himself to bees. He has apprentice and journeyman beekeeping certificates and earned a bee master certification at the University of British Columbia. A firm believer in the apprentice system, he began looking for a mentor among local bee masters. Jaross found his hive in local beekeeping icons Jo Miller, a master bee educator and one of Washington’s last state beekeeping inspectors; Russell Deptuch, who has 100-plus hives and sells his honey as Bees Choice; and Pete Sallee, who according to Jaross, is the most technically proficient local beekeeper.

“I learned my Whatcom County beekeeping chops from them,” he said. He also started teaching classes himself at Western’s Outback bee project.

As his skills progressed, Jaross decided he could breed a bee suited for Whatcom County’s climate. He began sourcing queen bees from local beekeepers and selectively breeding, aiming in the general direction of a subspecies adept at overwintering in the northwest corner of Washington state. He selected the Carniolan bee (Apis mellifera karnica) because it can handle colder weather. Among its attractive qualities, by instinct, the Carniolan dramatically reduces its hive population before temperatures drop. A typical hive has 40,000 bees. Timed to winter’s arrival, the Carniolan reduces its hive population to 10,000 or less. With fewer mouths to feed, the honeybees survive winter on stored honey. Once the weather is right, the tiny remaining colony rapidly reproduces, restoring the hive to full strength in time for summer.

Overcoming human perceptions is part of the puzzle of successful beekeeping. “The prevailing paradigm is that grandpa keeps bees in hives behind the barn and some time in the summer he gets honey,” Jaross said, explaining that most “wanna-bees” think beekeeping will be easy. “With that attitude, colonies of bees die regularly. It’s largely not understood how much time is needed.”

The misperceptions and challenges became especially apparent to Jaross when he was president of the Mt. Baker Beekeepers Association. “A lot of people were losing hives for no good reason other than lack of experience,” he recalled. The problem grew as colony collapse made headlines and well-intended urban dwellers established hives to “save the bees.” “It’s difficult enough (to successfully keep bees) in the county,” Jaross said. “It’s challenging and often defeating to keep bees in town.”

In response, Jaross launched Whatcom Bee Help, a consulting service for beekeepers. His services include getting people started with bees, hive inspections, vacation care for hives, queen introduction and marking, and custom apiary maintenance.

“Bees are the penultimate illustration for an organized life,” he said, noting there may be trials and tribulations, however they have a real positive economic impact on the area. “Whatcom County is still an agricultural county. Berries are all pollinated by bees. Crops and all backyard gardens would be much diminished without the honeybee.”


Bee-ginner tips

Master Beekeeper Michael Jaross recommends four key skills for successful hive management. “If you can master these four things, everything else is small potatoes,” he said.

Understand honeybee biology. You can turn to a veterinarian for help with other pets or livestock, but that’s not the case with bees. Know the basics of the bees’ reproductive cycle before you get them. “Bees are livestock and deserve the best treatment you can provide,” Jaross said. There are several good beekeeping books to begin your studies.

Strive to keep bees sustainably. Raise your own bees or source them locally.  Determine how many hives your location can handle and keep them alive, healthy and productive year after year. Avoid out-of-state imported bees if you can. When it comes to healthy, productive bees, local is best.

Anticipate swarms, which Jaross calls “the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, Rose Bowl parade and Inauguration Day parade rolled into one. It’s the big dramatic bee event of the year.” Swarms are difficult to retrieve and represent about 50 percent of your hard work and bee power disappearing into the trees. Most beekeepers don’t know how to identify preparations for swarming and how to prevent them. Jaross shares a time-honored method with his clients. “It’s an English system from the ‘30s for people keeping bees on a small property,” he said. “You can prevent the swarm and make a new queen to replace your old one, all on the same hive stack at the same time.”

Optimize bee nutrition. “Honeybees are not native to North America, and Whatcom County is the last place that God in her heaven would put them,” Jaross said, though he’s happy they’re here. Successful beekeepers understand honeybees’ nutritional needs and supplement natural foraging, when needed. “If you can’t keep bees, plant bee-friendly flowers,” he said. “The bees will thank you.”

Ready to keep bees? Jaross said new beekeepers can expect to spend $600 to $800 on equipment and set up, including two hives, protective gear, and bees.

To learn more and to meet fellow beekeepers, attend the Mt. Baker Beekeepers Association monthly meeting. The club gathers 7 p.m. the third Wednesday of each month at the Gateway Centre Executive Suites, 1313 E. Maple, third floor, Bellingham. A “bee-ginners” session starts at 6 p.m. Jaross offers one-on-one consulting services for beekeepers. 

“Successful Beekeeping with Michael Jaross: A Beginning Beekeeping Class for 2018” will be held on Tuesdays, starting March 13. The course includes eight classroom sessions, plus field trips as weather permits, and meets 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Chuckanut Center, 103 Chuckanut Drive N, Bellingham. The cost is $175.

For more information, see http://whatcombeehelp.com. 

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