Where the bees are

Jun 1, 2005 at 12:00 am

Back when I wrote here about rare tupelo honey and its unique story and flavor, something happened. I went goofy for bees.

Unless you’re part of the sprawl, we don’t live in an especially good environment for beekeeping, but I’m going to give it a shot. Whatever the results, it seems that tending to a colony of honeybees holds endless fascination. I’m reading everything I can find on the subject, and one of the constants that runs through the literature is an affection that builds between bees and beekeeper, in spite of the fact that the keeper’s main reason for doing it is to rob the bees of their hard-earned treasure.

After centuries of trial and error in most cultures on earth, the modern beekeeper’s hive is simple, efficient and largely unchanged since a Pennsylvania preacher named Lorenzo Langstroth came up with the design about 150 years ago. It’s quite unlike the skep, a woven-straw igloo that was abandoned long ago because it’s difficult to harvest the honey inside. The entire bee colony either had to be drowned or persuaded to move to another hive, which it’s not inclined to do. Skeps are still used, however, as a universal symbol for beehives, and for decorative garden accents.

The Langstroth hive is a simple set of stacked wooden boxes, each holding 10 honey "frames" positioned exactly 3/8" apart. The bottom box is the nursery, where wax honeycomb is constructed by the bees. The gravid queen comes waddling along and lays a tiny egg in each of the comb’s octagonal cells, the eggs are tended by worker bees, and in roughly two to three weeks, adult bees chew their way out of their cells and immediately join the workforce.

Stacked atop the brood box is a second one, the pantry where the colony stores most of its honey and pollen, including a stash to get it through the cold months. The stuff that can be robbed from them without harm is produced in a third, shallower box called a "super." It’s the beekeeper’s honey, which can be removed from the hive, frame by frame, released from the comb, bottled and kept or sold.

I’m going to make my own hive, buy some bees and a queen next spring, and let nature take its course — with a little help from the keeper.

You probably want to know about the fear factor, especially if you’ve ever been stung. The likelihood is that you weren’t stung by a honeybee at all, but by a yellow-jacket wasp or a hornet, both of which are just plain ornery and, unlike the honeybee, can sting more than once without gutting themselves and dying.

Honeybees are, fittingly, sweet creatures who are far too busy to be distracted by anything but threats. Treat them kindly, using common sense and a few skills, and they’ll go about their work as they have since prehistory, producing a delicious syrup that happens to have many health benefits and an almost endless shelf life (honey is the only natural food that doesn’t spoil) and, in the process, inadvertently pollinating plants that produce fully a third of the world’s natural food supply — tomatoes, all citrus, melons, apples, cherries, berries, sweet clover for deer and other foragers, and on and on.

Like so many other species, the honeybee is increasingly threatened by farm pesticides and other noxious stuff. When news occasionally comes out about threats to this part of the ecosystem, the most common reaction seems to be, "Hey, it’s only honey."

Besides being a ridiculous statement in itself, it’s not only honey. The decimation of these honey makers and pollinators has a direct effect on the lives of trees and ground cover (hunters, whether you like honey or not, think about that), lakes, streams, ponds and rivers (fishermen, listen up), and plenty more devastation. And don’t forget wildflowers and your well-tended garden. You don’t do it alone.

So I’m going to tend my bees, try to keep mites and other pests away from them, make sure they’re otherwise healthy and unimpeded in their work, and watch. I’ll follow their flight as far as I can see and study the language of their flight patterns, which has been decoded by science and is the means by which bees direct others to good nectar-sipping grounds, among an array of other info bits. I’ll watch them return, bellies heavy with nectar and the little saddlebags on their rear legs stuffed with pollen they’ve compacted into dense pellets for the flight home.

With study and luck, I won’t be stung often, and will enjoy the benefits of a serene pastime.

At the end of each season, maybe I’ll get enough honey to share and to eat, drizzled on toasted coarse bread, or tasted from the finger of a soft companion.

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