I didn’t research the bees at all before I got them. Not like I researched the chickens. Or the sheep, the cow and the horse, which I’m still researching. The bees I just bought. two hives of Russians from an apiary near Lake Champlain, about halfway down the Vermont coast. too late in the season, according to some beekeepers in the know.
But I was not in the know. I wanted bees. I wanted honey. and I didn’t want to wait.
I collected my hives on the first of July in a friends borrowed pick-up. I was told to bring the open bed truck so the bees wouldn’t come out and swarm me at stoplights, when the rocking motion of the truck stops, unlulling them for a moment.
My friend held the dog and I fumbled to put on my bee suit, guided by the man dispensing the hives. He was in a hurry, as the light was fading, and I was a total greenhorn. He transferred the frames to the brand new hive box I’d assembled the week before. I pulled the strings of the veil around my back and threaded them forward again and leaning over to see what he was doing, was promptly stung by a bee.
“That’s an extra dollar,” he laughed, telling me it was good luck.
Another bee forced its way into my head net and the man said, “get away from the hives or they’ll swarm you.”
Ask any two people a question about bees and you’ll get three answers. There’s a lot of knowledge out there, a lot of wisdom, and no shortage of opinions.
The honeybee is not native to North America. The first honeybees were shipped over from England to the new colony of Virginia in 1622. these bees, and the slowly developing technology to extract honey from the hives, spread first through the colonies of New England, and then throughout the rest of the settling country.
it wasn’t until 1852 when L.L. Langstroth, a minister from Pennsylvania, patented the movable frame hive, that modern beekeeping was born.
The settlers newly planted feed crops of clover were greatly improved by the cross pollination of the honey bee. As well as the important apple crop. The Champlain Valley, with its warmer air temperatures relative to the rest of Vermont, make this area the most prolific in the state. but beekeepers are everywhere, taking advantage of the huge diversity and population of wildflowers and farmlands. Although Vermont is known for its maple syrup, our little state is the largest producer of honey in New England, making between 400,000 and 1,000,000 pounds of honey a year.
I didn’t even open the hives to peek at my bees for close to a month after their arrival. I was afraid. I didn’t know what to do. so I left them alone.
“That’s the amateur beekeepers biggest problem. They’re always checking on the poor things. Cracking open the hive every day. it disrupts them horribly.”
This came from a grizzly bearded man in worn blue coveralls at the Vermont Beekeepers’ Association meeting in Waitsfield. This pronouncement erased my feelings of guilt at neglecting my hives and instantly made me confident. Then came the slideshows and lectures. Pictures of melted bees, oozing hive chambers, blackened burned out salvage hives, left me feeling more than uneasy. what did I know to keep a healthy hive? I hadn’t even seen the inside of my hive since the first days glimpse through my wind blown veil.
In the past several years, CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder has decimated the honey bee populations around the world. it has been attributed to cell phone tower radiation, pollution, especially crop chemicals, as well as increased susceptibility to invading insects that the bees previously fought off. Huge monocrop pollination efforts, like almonds in California, blueberries in Maine, and oranges in Florida cause millions of bees to be trucked enormous distances back and forth around the country to work exhaustively, further diminishing their immunity.
Huge corporate beekeepers were losing their hives and the very continuation of the honey bee and their immeasurable contribution to modern agriculture was threatened. The famously disputed quote from Albert Einstein that, “if the bee disappears from the surface of the Earth, man would have no more than four years left to live,” is still frightening to contemplate when you read that renowned apiculturist, S.E. McGregor said, “one-third of our total diet is dependent, directly or indirectly, upon insect-pollinated plants”
It was time to check on my bees.
I dressed in my veil, pulled on my gloves, filled my smoker with pine needles and newspaper, and turned off the electric fence. I lifted the cover, and banged off a good sized group of earwigs, before opening the inner hive. Lots of bees tumbling around over the tops of the frames. They looked like bees to me. Tons of them. but what is a healthy bee supposed to look like?
After scraping a bit of excess comb from one of my frames, I peeled it apart to discover a dead bee still in its brood chamber, and a small mite climbing over its dead body.
My bees were threatened!
They say every hive has mites. Recently the mites have been blamed for CCD. When they become too plentiful for the bees to fight off, the hive collapses. Sort of like when your sore throat becomes a full blown flu. there are ways to test how many mites your hive has by putting a layer of sticky paper on the bottom board. When the mites drop off the bees, you count them, and calculate per square inch then extrapolate how many must be in the hive.
But I was not going to wait to see if I had enough to be an epidemic. I needed to act right away. I passed over the books, my neighbors, and my mentors, and went directly to the internet. Trying to raise bees as naturally as possible I found an apiarist who was experimenting with coconut oil. You put a small pad soaked in oil over the brood frames and the bees roll in it. The mites, then, are unable to grab a hold of the bee’s body. They literally slide off their backs. I pulled out a jar of coconut oil and grabbed my veil.
Bees are the only creature that actually improves their environment. They leave the landscape better off, by doing the incredibly detailed work of cross pollinating flowers to allow for biodiversity. They also make their own food with the pollen they collect, a food prized for its sweetness as well as its antibacterial, antifungal properties and trace minerals.
Pollen is collected by the ‘crop’ bees, all female, who carry the nectar back to the hives in little pockets on their legs called, crops. she mixes this with enzymes from her mouth to start to break down the simple sugars. When she gets back to the hive, the honey gets passed to the ‘hive’ bees, who put it into the comb. At this point the honey is almost 70% water. The bees reduce the moisture content to 18% by fanning their wings. Then the honey is capped, and stored for use in the winter, when the bees hover around, keeping each other warm, and eating honey, waiting for spring and the next season of flowers. all of the worker bees are females. The male bee, called a drone, has only one purpose – to mate with the queen. This he does, in the spring, on the fly. He has no stinger, no ability to feed himself, and no other job. once he mates, he dies. in the fall, any drones still hanging around, are usually forced out of the hive. Nature is a brutal place.
The bees store the honey and raise more workers, moving steadily and slowly upward. ‘Supers’ – new hive boxes, are added on the original deep box for them to work. in a good year, when there’s a lot of flowers, pollen and hot weather, a single hive can produce 200 pounds of honey. in a bad year, like this one, cold, rainy, wind blowing the pollen away before the bees can get to it – it’s a different story. Many beekeepers I know are extracting little, if any, honey at all.
My goal this year, was simply to make my hives strong enough to last through the winter. each hive needs about 70 pounds of honey for its own consumption. so I cheated.
I hate to write this here, as my organic mentor and staunch non-interventionist is likely to read this and be disappointed in me. but I took my three different answers to my one question, and decided to feed my bees.
I reasoned that I’d rather add a little non-traditional food supply, than come to my hive in February to a starvation death annihilation of my hives.
So I mixed up a batch of organic sugar water and put it out. within a week I noticed a marked increase in bee activity. I finally put on my first ‘super.’ and then I found that mite.
Now it’s October. I’ve found a handful of dead bees. Lots of earwigs and ants. I’m told that the bees will kill them and remove them from the hive and that takes more energy.
In the old days, beekeepers would wrap their hives in tarpaper, or put them in the basement for the winter. but I’m simply going to insulate the cover and let them stay outside.
When I moved into my new house, the late fall flowers were abuzz with bees not my own. As the leaves start to turn and the ground hardens, I’ll sit by and hope the honey bees know more than I do about how to survive. I’ll pray a bear won’t smell the sweetness and break through my electric fence.
I’ll pore over my seed catalogues by the woodstove, like every good farmer in winter, and wait for the first wisp of spring air. by the time the sugaring is done, the first pollen-full flower is about to open.
I’ll get back to you then, with reports of the first bee sighting of the season, and the health of my new hives.
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