Goodbye to the girls

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There was no harvest moon when I brought in my first crop, no farmhands to help, and there’ll be no earnings at all from the expense and labor involved in becoming a tender – certainly not a keeper – of honeybees.

The honey harvest, in its entirety, is a little less than a quart (honey is usually measured in pounds, but that liquid measure is easier to visualize). It’s light amber, not the pale blond that’s especially favored as premium, but sweet as you could want. It has an aroma that combines those of all the blossoms visited by “my girls” within bee range of the single sheltered hive I placed in a suburban backyard in late spring. I’ll hand out a few dribs to family, but will keep the rest for my own toast, biscuits, cornbread, melon and bananas.

Nothing, so far as I can tell, is wrong with my hive. It’s clear that the late date in establishing it missed a very significant month in nectar gathering and honey production. With the exception of getting stung 61 times during one visit, when I snooped where I shouldn’t have on a muggy day when the bees were cranky, God, I’m having fun. Peaceful, contemplative fun.

I can barely move the two large boxes that comprise the heart of the hive, a very good sign that the bees have stored plenty of honey to get themselves through the winter, as much as 80 pounds in each box. For insurance, because our winters can be severe enough to take even human life, I’ll add a deep plastic trough full of sugar water to the colony as extra food, with a small stick floating on the surface as a raft, so the bees don’t drown.

My honey came from the “super,” a shallower version of the two bottom boxes, placed on top once the hive was well established. It holds nine rectangular frames in which the bees build honeycomb from wax that exudes from their own undersides – an engineering marvel of uniform, perfectly abutting hexagonal cells that wastes no space. They empty their “honey stomachs” into most of these cells, cap each one and move on.

To get that honey, you have to chase bees out of the super. There are several rudimentary, time-consuming ways to do this. For the experience, I tried a quicker method favored by commercial beekeepers. A foul-smelling liquid is squirted on a piece of felt or burlap, laid over the top of the frames for a few minutes and removed. The stink, which I’ve seen most aptly described as that of baby vomit, chases the little critters into the lower boxes. Then it’s a simple matter of lifting off the super and carrying it away to an enclosed space to remove the honey.

First the wax caps have to be cut off to open the cells. Usually, honey extraction is done in a machine that spins the frames inside a metal drum and throws the honey out of the cells to collect at the bottom. With my small treasure, I used another method, ancient, artless but effective – crushing the filled cells and letting the honey drip out.

This I filtered through a fine-mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth, then a second time, then filled a few bottles with the entirely unique results.

On the next visit, I’ll set the empty frames near my beehive. The bees will cover them, scrupulously cleaning away the last drops of honey and any crud that may have collected (they’re impressively fastidious little creatures), and I’ll store them for reuse next spring.

While they’re busy at that, I’ll medicate the hive with Terramycin to prevent foulbrood, a disease that can turn a thriving hive into muck; menthol crystals to thwart tracheal mites, microscopic and potentially fatal pests that infest honeybees’ respiratory system; and Apistan, to kill the scourge of all bees and beekeepers – varroa mites.

Both types of mites came into the country from overseas in the mid-1980s and have caused havoc not only for beekeeping professionals and hobbyists, but also the feral bee population. In 1996, between varroa mites and a harsh winter, 90 percent of wild bees in parts of the country were wiped out. It’s a catastrophic problem, because many crops largely depend on bees for pollination, and in the case of almonds, only bees. It takes two hives per acre to do the job, and a migratory army of beekeepers has formed in the time since to get the job done. For them, honey production is no longer top priority; they rent out their colonies to keep the national almond crop going.

Once my hive is medicated, I’ll wrap it in tarpaper (the oily stuff both withstands wet weather and, because it’s black, absorbs the sun’s warmth), and that’s pretty much it for me until spring. The bees will gather into a ball in the core of the hive and vibrate their wing muscles to create their own heat, better than 90 degrees. Anytime the winter cold lets up a little, they’ll come out for a “cleansing flight,” to drop the bee doody that they may have held for weeks. They’re that insistent on not fouling their own nest.

Odd as it may sound to those who don’t know bees, I’ll miss them. I’ve seen many fascinating things in the past few months. During the harvest, for the first time, I watched two worker bees drag out a drone — the only males in the hive — beat the hell out of him and throw him off the porch. The literally bug-eyed drones are there only to service the prodigiously horny queen. Once done, because they’re a drain on the food supply and do nothing else to earn their place, they’re given a decisive boot.

The scant honey? It’s plenty for this bee season. Wait’ll next year.

Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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