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Hives Alive!

BY KRISTIN COURTEMANCHE

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That buzzing sound you hear may be the economy finally getting
under way, but more likely it is the collective cacophony of bees
around the Bay as apiarists open their hives to see how they have fared
through winter. Honeybees, winged producers of the golden elixir
historically revered for both its medicinal properties and sheer sticky
goodness, emerge in early spring ready to rebuild their colonies and begin
the work of collecting nectar—a not insignificant task, considering
that bees are responsible for pollinating a sizable portion of the world’s
food crops.

Humanity’s relationship to honey dates back thousands of years,
evidenced by Mesolithic cave drawings of women gathering wild honey,
and vessels of honey found entombed in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.
References to honey are found in the Old Testament, the Qu’ran and
Buddhist texts; and the Mayans were one of the first civilizations known
to have practiced bee husbandry, occasionally imbibing a drink of fermented,
hallucinogenic honey in ritual practices as well.

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Even non-hallucinogenic honey has somewhat mystical properties.
Long used as a topical healing agent for wounds and burns, and as a
balm for sore throats, honey is now known to possess antibacterial and
antiseptic attributes. One variety, manuka honey, is actually thought to
be beneficial in treating “superbugs” like MRSA (methicillin resistant
staphylococcus aureus). There is also anecdotal evidence that consuming
local, raw honey can mitigate hay fever symptoms in some sufferers
by introducing pollen into the body in such low quantities that the
immune system becomes acclimated to its presence and “unlearns” its
histamine response.

trouble in the hive

Sadly, our honey stores—and their winged manufacturers—are disappearing: since 2006, a phenomenon
called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been troubling scientists and beekeepers alike. CCD is a syndrome
in which thousands of bees mysteriously vanish from their hives
during a winter, around 50 percent of the entire population by some counts,
and many of the remaining population are found to be sick or dying.

Theories explaining CCD abound, ranging from poor nutrition to cell
phone towers, but the most widely accepted is that of stressed immune
systems due to environmental factors
such as the agricultural industry’s widespread use of pesticides.
Many commercial beekeepers believe a particular group of pesticides called
neonicotinoid chemicals are largely
responsible for CCD, and in fact France and Germany have gone so far
as to ban their use entirely, citing devastating losses to their bee populations
as the reason. In the meantime, significant losses to food crops are
beginning to be seen as a result of CCD, most notably to the almond harvest here in California last year.

Honey Hobbyist

Backyard beekeepers, though, are a quietly ubiquitous bunch. Bill
Thompson, resident of Canyon (the wee, unincorporated hamlet just
east of the Oakland hills), says, “You’d be surprised how many people
have one or two hives in their back yard.” Bill himself has kept bees for
the last 10 years or so, beginning when a wild swarm showed up in the
base of a cherry tree in his yard. He had a young son toddling around at
the time, and like most anyone would, freaked out and wanted the bees
gone. He called a neighbor he knew who used to keep bees and asked
for help getting rid of them. The neighbor said, “No, no, I’ll bring you
down a box—you’re a beekeeper now.”

The neighbor showed up with the box and began very gently rooting
around in the big ball of swarming bees with a shovel, until he found the
queen. “He scooped up the queen and stuck her in the box,” remembers
Bill, “and the rest of the bees just got up and calmly walked into the hive
after her, like robots. And that was it—I was hooked.”

That night he went out and bought some books, and the next day
began beekeeping in earnest. “It’s actually pretty lackadaisical work, as
a hobbyist, anyway,” he says, though he does check in on the hives every
week or two. “Springtime is the most labor intensive; there’s a certain
amount of hive management that needs to happen then,” such as rotating
boxes between hives or swapping frames of honeycomb or even bees, if some hives aren’t producing as well as
others and need some bolstering. “But in the summer, you just basically watch
them, make sure they have enough room in the hive so they don’t swarm,”
which is accomplished by adding additional boxes, or supers, as they’re
called, on top of the hive.

He may be downplaying the amount of work, if only slightly: In
the early winter, bees usually need to be medicated for mites, the timing of
which is more complicated than the actual administration. Placing the
Apistan strips in the hives is a relatively quick process, but determining
when to do it can make all the difference in terms of the honey harvest.
Because the Apistan is beneficial to bees but harmful to humans, none of
the honey produced when the strips are in the hive can be consumed,
usually a period of 45 to 52 days. When
spring comes early, as it did a couple of years ago
for Bill, all the fruit trees blossom and “the bees go crazy,
making tons and tons of honey, but I couldn’t use any of it.” By the time
he could take out the medication, the
honey was largely gone.

Bill has definitely noticed that the
years when his bees, or “the Grrlzz,”
as he fondly calls them, do have plenty
of time with the cherry and plum
blossoms in his garden, the honey itself is
decidedly sweeter. “The eucalyptus and bay trees give
it a bit of a nice tang, but yeah, all the stone fruit blossoms
make it incredibly sweet. The years when the timing isn’t right,
the honey is much flatter, just not as good.” It’s reciprocal, too: having
so many bees (he keeps four hives currently) on his property means everything
gets industriously cross-pollinated and produces very well. “In
May we typically have so many cherries we harvest them just by cutting
branches off,” Bill says. “We have people over every weekend, picking
all day long and going home with pounds and pounds of cherries.”

Bee Whispering

What is it like to be up close and personal with thousands of bees? Every
hive is different, Bill says, “some are angry all the time, some are really
calm. Every time I open up the hive, I have to be conscious of their
mood that day. Sometimes I’ll crack it open and they’ll crawl right out
on my arm. Other times discretion really is the better part of valor—
they’ll come buzzing out mad and I’ll have to leave it for another day.”

He confirms the truth in every mother’s wisdom: don’t bother the
bees and they won’t bother you. Of course, a beekeeper by default has
to bother the bees sometimes, and that’s why most wear their protective
suits when working with the hives. As well as external protective gear,
the beekeeper needs to be prepared mentally and have an internal sense
of calm and purpose. Planning the operation in advance, laying the tools
out within reach, and making every move deliberate and slow are all
vital techniques for painless beekeeping. “Sometimes you get stung anyway,
but don’t get upset and start swatting, because they’re kind of like
Hell’s Angels: if one bee gets in a fight, all bees must get in the fight,”
Bill jokes. He also points out that harvesting honey is really just stealing,
and he doesn’t fault the bees for getting annoyed.

Bill confesses that at first, he thought he would have a companionable
relationship with the bees, that he’d sing to them, read poetry to
them; they would become his friends. But the Grrlzz aren’t really aware
of him, unless he’s in their way or mucking about with the hives. He
does talk to them when he’s working with them, because he wants them
to be used to the sound of his voice. But as far as a kinship or camaraderie,
they’re simply far too busy and focused to register his presence. Still,
he finds hanging out with the bees a uniquely enjoyable experience. “It’s
truly fascinating. Sometimes I’ll go out there in the morning with a cup
of coffee and just watch them work.” And at an annual yield of around
130 pints of honey, they truly are as busy as, well, bees.

Become a Backyard Beekeeper

Bill Thompson encourages doing the research first, and he recommends
these books as a good place to start.

The Art & Adventure of Beekeeping by Ormond & Harry Aebi
The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture: An Encyclopedia of Beekeeping by
Roger Morse

He also suggests joining a local bee association; see honeybee.com/
beeclubs.htm for a list of local clubs. “If you can, find a mentor,” Bill
says, “learning about it hands-on is really the best. And if you do take up
beekeeping, start with two hives. That way you have a reference; if one
isn’t doing well you can tell by comparing it to the other.” Beekeeping
supply shops also can provide a wealth of beekeeping tips and tricks. Bill
likes the multi-generation, family-run Sacramento Beekeeping for his
supplies: sacramentobeekeeping.com.

Finally, to see Bill himself at work with the bees, watch his video
“Hiving the Noobees” at youtube.com/watch?v=gWdBrE8VGg0.

Kristin Courtemanche, a freelance writer with a passion for health,
has written numerous articles on the future of healthcare, including an
interview with Senator Bill Frist for the HIMSS Daily Insider about his
views on national healthcare policy.

 

 

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