Tuesday, August 25, 2009

100 Mile Beekeeping

On Monday morning I met Mark McAlpine and his wife, Shelly. I met Mark when a friend of mine told me that he had raw, local honey for sale and thought I might be interested in getting my hands on some. Where there is honey, there are bees. Where there are bees, there must be a beekeeper.

I must admit that I knew absolutely nothing about bees but have always been fascinated by them (see Blog #1).So, I contacted Mark and asked if he wouldn't mind showing me his little backyard operation. He readily agreed and I found myself walking there on a nice sunny morning in the prime of honey harvesting time.

Mark and Shelly were instantly likeable. With a cute little house, built in the early 1900's, filled with books and animals, I felt instantly at home. The backyard was an abundance of green which smelt like a fragrant mixture of damp earth and sweet honey. Shelly pointed out where there used to be a compost heap. Now it was a mess of green leaves and giant orange flowers. Her compost heap was sprouting squash and pumpkins! Tomatoes of various shapes and colours grew everywhere. I love a garden with a natural feel. Further back were tables filled with a variety of bonsais in different stages of growth. Bonsais exude a magical presence. I always feel like I'm part of some special secret when I'm around one. Then I saw them, the beehives. The beehives, just to clarify, were not like the ones you see in the Berenstein Bear books or classic Winnie the Pooh tales. What they looked like was a stack of small, wooden sock drawers, piled one on top of the other, like a poorly contructed dresser. But inside those drawers (I think the proper term is 'frames') there were no socks... only honey. Sweet and delicious honey.

Before we could do anything, we had to dress properly for the occasion. I put on what looked like a safari hat, and then pulled over mesh netting which covered my face and shoulders. Apparently bees are drawn to small black dots, much like the pupil of your eye. This is probably because they look like the iris of a flower or an entrance to something. Although I felt no fear, which truly surprised me, I happily donned the beekeepers attire. Mark's bees are Caucasian or Russian bees, and Buckfast bees. There is an interesting Wikipedia article on Buckfast bees and their history, if anyone wants to learn more.
Because it was still early in the morning, the bees were just getting up and making their way out into the world in search of nectar. For this reason, we had to smoke them out. The smoke makes them relax, which makes them easier to handle. With enough of the bees smoked out, it was safe to take a closer look.
Mark held up a plastic tray, called a super, which looks like a prototype of honeycomb. The bees use the super to build small wax cavities called honeycomb. They store their honey in the individual cavities and then seal them off. This is called capping. When a super is fully capped the bees will move up in the hive and fill more. The beekeeper has to be very careful that he does not allow the bees to fill everything, otherwise they will feel cramped and, eventually, they will swarm. Swarming occurs when the hive splits in two to begin another hive. In order to curb this swarming mentality, Mark removes frames from the hive, and replaces them with fresh ones for the bees to fill. This keeps the bees busy and us in honey.
Bees have an extremely interesting social order which, I will admit, I don't completely understand. The bees are reigned over by a queen. The queen is twice the size of the other bees and is the only one in the hive to reproduce. Drone bees (the males) are basically sperm sacks. They are there merely to mate with the queen. Come winter, they are not even allowed in the hive. Females are the worker bees. These are the bees which pollinate our flowers and make honey. They are protected by guard bees (I never asked their sex), who protect them from wasps and invading bees. Bees from other hives will invade if they sense that the hive is vulnerable. A queen bee typically rules the hive for 2-3 years, after which she is switched out for a younger queen by the beekeeper. Worker bees cannot work up to the status of a queen. A queen is simply born a queen. Near the end of her reign, a beekeeper will notice changes in the hive, one being an overproduction of drone bees (those useless sperm sacks!), as well as the underproduction of the valuable worker bees. Since the hive is a working unit which relies heavily on its workers, an overabundance of drones can be detrimental to the survival of the hive. In the winter, bees do not hibernate, but do stay inside the hive. They stay awake, keeping themselves warm by constantly moving. The bees on the outside of the hive will move into the middle, while those in the middle will move outwards, much like the penguins in March of the Penguins. Being innately neat creatures, bees' excrement will not be found in the hive, even after a long winter. The bees will wait until spring to relieve themselves outdoors. A sure sign of spring can be found in the yellow excrement in the snow on a warm spring day.
Bees are fascinating insects and, like many of Mother Earth's creature, they are in danger. Bee populations are under strain due to pesticide use, as well as cell phone towers. I have not read enough on the subject to confidently continue, but will certainly do some reading when I get a chance. Mark did tell me about a bee-related epidemic which occured some 5 years ago, now referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder. There are some interesting articles on Colony Collapse Disorder online, if anyone is interested.
After having a peek in the hive and holding up a super for close inspection, we let the bees get back to work and headed to the screened in porch for the second part of the operation. On the porch there were frames full of supers, fully capped and full of honey. Mark asked me to remove one, which was surprisingly heavy. He took what looked like a cat comb, and gently scraped the top of the caps off. Once the caps were removed, we put the super into a hand-powered honey extractor. I spun the handle, watched the honey fly out of the combs and run down the walls. Next, we poured the honey through a strainer into a large plastic container with a spigot attached to it. The honey was strained one last time through cheesecloth before it slowly filled the 1 L mason jar beneath it.
This was a fascinating and educational morning. I learned a lot from Mark and for this I am extremely grateful. I left with a litre of delicious honey, a container of honeycomb, and a big smile on my face. Mark's bees, for my curious 100 mile diet fans, collect nectar from a 3 mile radius. They're about as local as you can get!

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