#onedaywith René Karwath

Working together: at his job and his hobby

Teamwork is René Karwath’s motto

At 7:30 on a Tuesday evening I open the door of the railway carriage and step on to the platform of Helmstedt train station. I left a sunny Berlin but am met here by cold temperatures, gray skies, and light rain. Not exactly a good omen for my appointment tomorrow with René Karwath and his bees, which live in a substation on the northern edge of the Harz mountain range, about an hour by car from Helmstedt.

But I awake the next morning to a pleasant surprise: radiant sunshine and blue skies, under which I walk from the hotel to the Avacon office where colleagues are lending me a company car for the day. I set off for René’s actual workplace a few kilometers outside Helmstedt. René’s main job—safety engineer and construction site coordinator—makes him responsible for safety at up to ten construction sites in the western region of Avacon’s high-voltage network. This region extends from south of Hanover to the Bavarian border southeast of Frankfurt. Most of the sites are substations that are being replaced? or expanded in response to the ongoing addition of wind and solar farms in Avacon’s grid territory.

René im Auto

“From the planning process onward, I ensure that the work done on our substations is not only technically sound but also safe.” says René, summarizing his job in a single sentence. “Different types of contractors work at these construction sites, and I’m an important contact for all of them when it comes to safety.” He gives me an example: “Some scaffolding won’t support a palette of stones. But at our construction sites it needs to so that different types of tradespeople can use the same scaffolding.“

Asked how he divides his time, René responds: “One third in the office, two thirds at the construction sites.” But he also has other tasks: “Together with the construction site project leaders I conduct health and safety workshops. 

We get a small taste of the workshops at the substation gate. René’s safety briefing is thorough, and Felix, our photographer for the day, and I are given helmets and safety shoes. We meet Hans-Dieter Bültemann, the project manager for this construction site, at the Helmstedt substation.

The briefing for our visit to the construction site begins with information about cordoned off areas, different colored warning chains, and safety clearances. "We’ll be walking by a 110 kV electrical panel, so we have to keep a safety clearance of at least three meters. We’re not allowed to get closer, because at a distance of 1.10 meters at the latest there could be an arc flash. And that can kill you," René says laconically. We learn that the black-and-yellow warning chain is the one we should respect most respect. “It should be treated like a wall, because electrical dangers almost always lurk behind it.”

As we walk around the construction site, René and Hans-Dieter carefully inspect the various work areas. Are all safety measures in place? Or is there perhaps still a minor lapse that might pose a threat? The two discuss technical matters: defective voltage regulators that have to be replaced, fiber optic cables that run from the control room building to the relay houses. Although René notices a couple little things during the inspection, he’s quick to emphasize that this is an “extremely safe construction site.”

Onedaywith René Karwath

After about two hours we leave the substation. With René leading the way in his car, our afternoon drive takes us through many small towns with their characteristic brick architecture that I know from fifteen years ago when I used to live outside Helmstedt. When we reach Wasserleben, René takes us up a dirt road where we reach our destination: the substation with the bees.

"I'll announce our visit,” René says and opens the green gate behind which we can already see the hives. The network control centre must be informed anytime someone enters or leaves a substation. And René does everything by the book. That, after all, is his job.

René discovered beekeeping in early 2018. So it’s still a relatively new hobby. “Almost two years ago, a beekeeper visited my youngest son’s school. My son came home and said he wanted to keep bees.” At the same time, Frank Aigner, Avacon’s Chief Human Resources Officer, wanted to promote beekeeping in the company’s grid territory. “So the idea came from two sides: family and work,” René explains. But not just anyone can set up hives in substations. It has to be an electrical technician or another authorized person.

“The idea stuck with me. I did a lot of googling, took a beekeeping course in nearby Wernigerode, and then got started," René says as he opens—after first spraying a mixture of clove oil and water to calm the bees-- one of the hives. He then conducts what he calls swarm control. He also checks the amount of honey in the honeycombs. They’re all quite full and can be removed and spun in a centrifuge in the next few days. The honey from the centrifuge passes through a double sieve, is stirred, and is later jarred. René has brought along a couple jars for us to sample.

Onedaywith René Karwath

But he also checks whether the worker bees have built queen cells. He must remove these cells within the first eight days. Otherwise, a swarm forms and, led by the former queen, looks for a new home. Another option is to insert new honeycombs, known as central walls, into the hives. This ensures that the worker bees always have enough work and are too busy to build queen cells.

A bee’s life span is only six weeks. “One third of the bees leave the hive to collect pollen and nectar. The other two thirds live full time in the hive," René explains. He looks after—always outside work time—seven bee colonies: four here at the substation, two on a piece of land in Wernigerode, and one outside his office in Salzgitter. We learn that the four colonies at the substation alone consist of around 120,000 bees.

After tending his bees for about an hour, René reassembles the hives and removes his protective clothing. Because here there’s not only the danger of high voltage and arcs flashes but also of a sting. "Species bred for beekeeping are usually quite peaceful," René emphasizes. We can confirm this: despite getting very close to the hives ourselves, neither of us got stung either.

René packs up his beekeeping equipment, asks us to step outside, and reports our departure to the control center. Then the substation gate closes, and an exciting day comes to an end for me and Felix. The weather gods were benevolent, and we learned a lot—above all about teamwork, among people and among bees. Perhaps this passion for teamwork is the common denominator of the two worlds of René Karwath, the man who keeps bees in a substation.

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