Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Honey Do

I forgot to mention that I got my first look inside the hive last weekend.

Despite my hopes and promises to share "all things bee" here, I neither immersed nor versed myself in bee culture this season, which by most accounts flew by all too quickly.  However, I did spend a fair amount of time just hanging out with the bees, in close proximity, which I found to be a stimulating, fascinating, relaxing and peaceful pastime. Having no allergy or other aversion to "bee-ing" in close range, I felt comfortable and un-threatened within just a few feet of the hive even when standing in their line of flight, a pleasantly energizing experience.  On a couple visits a single guard gave me a buzz, just to check things out, but only once did I feel the need to flee, and that was more than likely unwarranted.  I'm really not afraid to get stung--I have on occasion even welcomed bee stings, odd as that might sound--but I'm very not interested in finding out what it feels like to raise the ire of an entire hive.

As I understand it, this particular breed of bee, the Minnesota Hygienic, has been specifically selected for it's docile and tidy nature as well as its resistance to disease and pathogens, including the Varroa mite which has wreaked havoc on colonies around the world for decades or longer.  I'm not sure whether or not this breed has also demonstrated strength against the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder which has presented a more recent, and more disturbing, threat to the global bee population.  It is not really clear to me whether or not CCD might be a form of strike by these long-depended-on (as in we humans smoking hives from the time we could climb trees) and sometime-abused (as in commercial beekeepers trucking colonies all year round like so many migrant workers) and unarguably invaluable pollinators who its estimated by the UDSA are at least partly responsible for one out of three mouthfuls eaten by us persons, as their sort of way of saying "Fuck you" to the Man, in solidarity with all the other insect species that humans have eradicated from this life-loving planet in our subconsciously genocidal way.  Likewise, while I do indeed feel that this vanishing is yet another proverbial canary (only hoping its song might be missed) I have no sense of the degree to which any or all bees might be aware of this, although I have to say that they seem to be pretty on top of their game.  (Also, I am still in the dark as to what relationship any of this might have to alien-human relations or Moulder and Scully's lovechild.)

Anyway, the little complex in my backyard has been under the dedicated care of a colleague of mine, who took up beekeeping last year with two hives, adding a dozen or so more this year.  I've learned any number of fascinating facts from her, most of which I cannot recall with any eptitude (and yes I know that's not a wurd) but all of which have contributed to my feeling that we humans could learn a lot from bees.  Take, for one, following a Queen, not of the Elizabeth or Mary sort but more like one big giant mama.  It's a pretty good idea that a lot of sensible people have endorsed.  Caring for the brood, placing the hive's health above individual ambitions, spending all day flying around and being gingerly attentive to the sexual organs of other living beings, making sweet and wildly delicious food in abundant amounts, constructing magnificent architecture to house every member of the community, sharing information through dancing, knowing the way home without fail... These are all things I can get behind.

So, seeing the hive with the lid off was pretty cool.  Basically a "traditional" hive consists of a stack of boxes which are open to each other, each containing a number of frames upon which the bees construct their comb, which is made of wax that's extruded by the female workers and then carefully manipulated into near-perfect geometry.  (Imagine doing that with your mouth!)  Incidentally, the male drones don't lift a leg to help; they're just there to produce the brood.  The comb is built and filled from the top down, with some of it being used to house babies and some to store food.  As the comb fills up, more boxes are added, maybe once or twice during the summer, to give the bees room to expand their operation.  My hive turned out to be a pretty productive one, and ended up consisting of two large boxes and three smaller ones.  A large box might hold 100 lbs of honey, a smaller one might hold 80 lbs, full.  My whole hive wasn't full of honey, but I think the estimated take was around 200 lbs.  I'm looking forward to getting a taste... oddly, I haven't really had any honey for the past year or so, having not bought a jar since I moved into this house.  (This wasn't exactly intentional and actually strikes me as a little strange; although I've been relying on agave syrup as my go-to tea amendment and occasional cooking companion for some time, I've always loved honey and have in the past relied rather heavily on it as a source of sweetness, as well as beauty.)

The keeper used a smoker to keep the bees calm, but it seemed to me (as an onlooker) that they were relatively unconcerned by her, or my, presence.  She wore a hat with face netting, as a matter of course, but I stood nearly as close and was not at all bothered by bees in the nose (could have had something to do with the sedative effect of the Fall weather).  She set the boxes on the ground, one by one and loosely stacked, freeing frames with a small prybar (honey is sticky stuff) so that they could be removed and examined.  After disassembling and evaluating the hive, she took away two of the boxes along with a good portion of the honeyed comb, leaving behind the original three-box stack, with enough food stores to see 30-40 thousand bees through the Winter.  Even so, the hive is likely to incur a few losses before Spring, when they'll be provided supplemental food to get them through the days between their stirring and there being an adequate supply of nectar in the neighborhood.  Until then, they'll still be active, just in a low-energy mode.

What else?  I've left out a lot.  Like how gorgeous they are: beautiful soft-haired and almond-eyed stripey wonders who move in patterns barely discernible to my naked eye (as evidenced by several photos I've captured of their seemingly synchronized movement) and with a grace that's both light as flight and heavy as honey, if I might put it that way.  Also, the way they smell--and by this I don't mean their incredible olfactory sensibilities but the stink of their stack, which is not entirely unlike a not entirely unclean and yet totally funktasticly soiled sock, dipped in fairy piss and kissed by a horny toad, or something like that.  (It's the kind of thing that makes some people sick, if that gives you a clue.)  Or the sound of them, cutting through the sky, with a mind on the sun, every moving moment.  And that they have helped root me to this place, as if it's not only possible but pretty much imperative to find a route home, from just about damn near anywhere, and once you get there, to spread the ancient and ever-present wurd by dancing yr ass off.

I schmokes mine pipe und I vatches dose bees,
Und I laughs till mine schtomack goes schplit,
Ven I see dem go schtrait for Hans Brinkerhoff’s flow’rs
Und nefer suck Yakob’s vone bit.

Eugene Secor, Songs of Beedom
(Cited by Ribbands, 1953, P. 184)

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