Monday, January 31, 2011

To Bee or Not To Bee

A few weeks ago, I was out photographing the process of grafting an apple tree for this blog.  Trudging along through the snow I spied something out of the ordinary (I'm always on the outlook for unusual natural phenomenon and occurrences). There on the ground, pretty much covered in snow was a very large wasp nest.  I had nearly stepped on it.  Not that, that would have been an issue this time of year, because any live bees would have been too sleepy and sluggish to defend their territory anyway.

The other reason I'm glad I didn't trample it was the fact that we are rapidly losing our wild bee populations, supposedly due to our cell phone habit - you can google that one for all the lurid details.

I got to thinking ( I know I write that phrase a lot - really it doesn't happen that frequently) about bees, and how much our existence relies on these little fellows (actually nearly all of them are lasses).  Without bees, our crops would not be pollinated, most regularly cultivated species would quickly die out, except dandelions which wind-pollinate.  So I guess we would have to find new and inventive ways to serve dandelions as our main food stock.  I know my front lawn could feed most of the community, if we could discover a way to make them palatable.  Yes I am aware that young dandelion greens are edible, the flower buds make great jelly and wine, but again hardly mainstays of the human food chain.

But back to bees.  For several years I was the keeper of three or four bee hives.  I had studied them in college and thought they would be something interesting to try.  I was able to find a couple of supers and frames and I ordered my nucleus of bees from a supplier.  It's all fine and dandy to learn in class, and read books, but actually having the little critters is a different story.

My grandfather was a apiarist ( a fancy term for a beekeeper) many long years ago, but this was many years prior to my birth, and he was long dead, before I decided to pursue his hobby.  So obviously I could not rely on family members to educate me in my newest pastime.

Grandpa with a captured swarm of bees

There are family stories of Grandpa and his bees.  Apparently Grandma was deathly allergic to bees, but that did not deter Grandpa in any way.  And to make matters worse, he used to bring the supers (boxes and frames, complete with brood, honey and bees) and store them in the basement over winter.  Charming man!  Of course this is the same man, who made Grandma let his dog out in the middle of the night to do its business.  Did I mention that Grandma had a wooden leg and their bedroom was upstairs?  And this was the same man who forgot to come out from the hunting camp for his 50th wedding celebration.

But back to my bees.  They were fascinating creatures to watch.  I loved to sit at the entrance to their hives and just watch their comings and goings.  They were so organized and cooperative.  One thing I could never figure out though, was why such clever little beeings (huh is that punny or what!) could find their way home from a three mile flight, but if you moved the hive in their absence, even a few feet, they could not locate it.  They would huddle in a frightened mass where the hive had been, completely and utterless confused, abject, and homeless.

If a hive gets crowded, which happens if the beekeeper is not vigilant, or somewhat bee savvy (both applied to yours truly) the queen bee will lay a few eggs in specially constructed cells.  From these cells, one new baby queen hatches.  She is not a pleasant little perosn, as she immediately goes around and stings all her embryonic rivals to death.  This newly minted matriarch takes to the air on her maiden voyage, copulates with the most handsome drone (a male bee), kills him in the process, takes half the worker bees from the existing hive and flies off in a swarm, to a nearby branch or tree to sit and contemplate life for a few hours.  This swarming process, reduces the original hive to the point, that there is once again plenty of room and food supplies to begin the whole replenishing process.

Back to the swarm in the tree.  Several worker bees, have been sent out as scouts to scour the area for a suitable permanent home.  This may be a hollow tree, the side of a building or, if you are well organized, a super and frames that you have preordained to be home to a rogue swarm, should it happen.

Yours truly capturing a swarm on a branch

While the swarm is clinging in a large ball, to a branch, a good beekeeper can cut the branch, carefully carry it over to the waiting receptacle, tap the bees gently into the waiting home, check to make sure the queen is there and happy, put a lid on the whole shebang and voila you have a second beehive.

Just about to the new home.

Several times I was able to capture swarms and thus increase my inventory.  However, hard, cold winters can quickly reduce any increase you might make.

And then there was the process of extraction (getting the honey out of the frames into jars). This was a sticky, gooey endeavour, best done out of doors (if you could keep the bees from finding your spot).  Done indoors,the centrifugal force of the extractor, spun fine webs of stickiness throughout the house.  Most people, with any quantity of bees, have a separate extraction building.

The other story that comes to mind when extracting was of a certain kitten.  We had extracted all the crop for the fall and left the last big roasting pan full of honey, waiting for any wax or impurities to rise to the top.  Said kitten disappeared and then a while later could be heard, but not immediately found.  My missus finally located the plaintive mews.  Just a tiny nose was sticking out of the bucket of honey.  Plucked from a certain sugary death, the kitten did survive to adulthood, but never really developed much of a sweet tooth.

And that is about all I have to say for today.

Musings and meanderings from the Musical Gardener.


  1. Mmm, interesting. Didn't a virus kill your hives?

  2. You do have some great stories! Kitten in a bucket of honey. :) I really enjoyed this post (I have been keeping bees for two years now.) You have such wonderful old family photos.


Much appreciated comments from my friends: