My First Act As Bee Keeper
I suspect bee keeping may just be my coolest hobby to date. I’m not sure just yet if it tops the belly dancing I did in my early 20s, but it’s pretty darn close and a good bit more practical (in most settings at least). After just one afternoon of working with the hives, I’m hooked. All I can think about since is “BEES!”
Actually, my first act as bee keeper was to deconstruct a hive that had died over the winter. I was fortunate enough to get the help of Matt, a current coworker who has some very applicable experience (he took care of the same hives just a few years back), otherwise I wouldn’t have had a clue what to do. We started by taking apart the “supers”, which are the stack of boxes that provide the exterior framework for the hives; in other words the outside walls. Then we wiggled out the comb frames, some of which were filled with dead bees, some that were just plain empty, and, most importantly, some that still had lots of honey in them.
Since this hive was dead, we didn’t have to worry about getting stung for this part of the process. Later we did add a new “super” to the living hive and checked out its status. Working with the live bees required the classic bee keeper’s gear (netted hat) and an old-fashioned smoker to control the buzz factor. Watching the bees when the smoke hit them was pretty interesting…as Matt described it they dive for the combs of honey, jam their heads right in there and drink themselves silly, trying to take as much honey with them since they think the hive is on fire. However, since they drink so much honey that their bellies are literally bulging, they can’t fly straight, and thus they become much less of a threat to the bee keeper.
The living hive was doing quite well from the looks of the inside of it: plenty of bees and plenty of honey. We left the honey in there though since taking honey from live bees is a bit messier than taking it from the dead ones. So back to the task of deconstructing the dead hive. I had a lot of questions about why the hive was dead, what with the recent scourge of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in the bee world. As we deconstructed it, we could rule out some answers and possibly support others.
The bees had not starved to death since there was a decent amount of honey in the combs still. It is unlikely that there was a disease that wiped them out since the other living hive was only two feet away and it’s very healthy. It is also unlikely that the queen abandoned ship and thus took the rest of the bees with her since there were a few dozen dead bees in the hive itself among the combs. So, Matt’s theory at least and the one I’m going along with since I don’t know much myself and it makes sense: the bees froze in the winter. Normally a hive will generate enough heat to keep the temperature inside above freezing. However, if the numbers in the hive dwindled for some reason (mites are known offenders for raiding hives), they might not have had enough body heat to keep the rest of them alive.
I have so much research I want to do now on bee keeping and how hives thrive and how hives die. But for the time being I had to content myself with cleaning up the combs of the dead hive (we reused some in the new “super” added to the living hive) and harvesting the honey. Typically honey is harvested once or twice a year and in very large quantities that require a fair amount of large equipment and time. This harvest, my very first, was not typical. Instead of fancy equipment, I used a knife to cut off the wax cap of the combs and to scrape out the honey into a cake pan. Then I used a mesh strainer set over a soup pot to strain out the comb bits. It was a sticky job, but a fun one!
All told, I got about a quart and one half pint of honey from five or six combs. And what wonderfully sweet and floral honey it is! Some of the best I’ve had, aside from that which I got in northern Portugal this past spring. Besides just licking it off my fingers, I’m debating what to do with it to really showcase its flavor and silky texture. Vanilla honey ice cream maybe? Do you have any good ideas? It seems almost a shame to melt this beautiful liquid amber into a cup of tea, although it’ll be quite good for that too, I’m sure.