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Saturday, May 11, 2013

Bringing Home the Bees…

The Beez Neez“The thing I like most about beekeepers is they’re such interesting people,”remarked  Jim Tunnell, proprietor of The Beez Neez Apiary Supply in Snohomish. That’s one of the reasons I’m here at Jim’s store helping to distribute 480 packages of Italian honeybees. Jim’s right about beekeepers: in their interesting lives they are gardeners, orchardists, tenders of poultry and ducks, sheep, goats, so I guess it’s not unusual they have added beekeeping to their other interests.

This mid-April ritual is one I’m always excited about…the chance to meet other beekeepers and the “newbies” who have answered the calling. With the former it’s the opportunity, especially in these challenging times for us keepers of bees, to mourn our winter losses-- brothers and sisters in bereavement (I lost four of my five colonies this year)-- support each other, scratch our heads and lament the deceased. With the newcomers to the avocation, it’s a chance for you to showboat a bit, share your beekeeping knowledge with them, demonstrate how to install their packages of bees, encourage and wish them the best, for it’s just folks like these who will sustain the industry, help “save the bees.” They have taken classes, read Beekeeping for Dummies, purchased the equipment (hopefully not having to take out second mortgages), are ready to put all that theory into practice. They quiver with excitement when you present their packages. (But they’re only too happy to let you handle the cages, carry their new bees to their cars.)480 packages

In my nearly five decades of beekeeping, the wonder a clustering “swarm”of bees creates never wanes. These packages? Each is a swarm in a box, between 10,000 to 12,000 bees, plus one: the newly crowned queen. Being in the presence of 480 packages—some quarter million bees—is awe inspiring. People passing by on the street slow to stare. Others afoot approach to get an up close and personal with this multitude of bees, even pose themselves in front of the stacks of cages for a photo op. In the fifty years I’ve kept bees,  I learn something new about the enigmatic honeybee each bee season. Last summer I had a colony that issued a swarm twice—the same swarm, I’m certain (A Swarm in July, 7/14/’12). Past experience taught me a swarm, once it has settled, stays put overnight at least. Not, so I discovered last year. Both swarms settled in our walnut tree, the second within five feet of the first. The first swarm, I’m certain, returned to the hive the evening it issued. The second took wing a brief four hours after it had settled and departed for parts unknown…a new experience for this seasoned beekeeper. Apis mellifera, the domesticated honeybee, is just a mere wing beat away from being a feral creature, a wild thing.

I always come away with some new knowledge when I hand out the bees…those interesting people, you know. Not all knowhow, however, has to do with bees because those interesting beekeepers are a font of interesting facts. I carried two packages to the trunk of one patron. He covered his packages with some gossamer cloth. I asked him if the material was “row cover,” cloth, a protective fabric that serves as a barrier against ravaging insect pests. I was told “yes,” which led me to pose the question about radishes and the plague of worms. That’s when I was informed about “companion planting,” a way of seeding a desired crop along with other plants that discourage pests. “If you mix your radish seeds with cilantro and dill,” I learned, “the radish fly will take his business elsewhere.” (Plan to do so; nothing ventured…). One fellow had six bags of chemical fertilizer in the back of his truck. “Those aren’t bomb making materials you have there?” I joked. “No, I think that’s ammonium nitrate you’re thinking of,” he replied, pointing out the calcium nitrate on the bags. “I’m putting the grandkids to work fertilizing the apple orchard.” As I loaded two packages in the back of a Subaru, I noticed two large bales of seedling potting soil. “I see you’ve been to Steubers, haven’t you?” This lady beekeeper worked with a Seattle volunteer group who supplied urban gardeners with plant starts for their pea patches and backyard gardens. I tell her I need to visit Steuber’s myself for some label stakes. “Oh, I’m glad you mentioned that,” she exclaimed as she shut the hatchback. “Back to Steuber’s, I guess.”

I set aside two nice packages for a quiet-mannered gentleman who afterwards just hung around on the fringes of the action. He was a man of many questions, and when one of us answered a query, he would appear to be satisfied and fade into the background again. Just when you thought you’d seen the last of him, there he’d be at your elbow with another question. He seemed to want answers on how to manage his colonies during the winter: how much surplus honey to leave for stores; how was the best way to shelter his hives from the winter elements; how to provide the best ventilation when snow covered the hive entrances. As it turned out, the fellow lived at Stehekin, the head of Lake Chelan. When I learned this, it was my turn to ask questions. “Tarpaper,” he told me…”I wrap my hives in tarpaper to insulate against the cold and wind.” I discovered he winters his bees with a full super of honey, an amount that would be an excess here in our Pacific Northwest maritime climate. “How many colonies do you have?” I wanted to know. Five, he told me. “How many survived the winter?” I asked tentatively. “Five.” If my jawed dropped, the Stehekinite was courteous enough to disregard it. My thoughts: “And I had an eighty percent mortality rate with my five colonies this winter.” I thought about Stehekin—52 miles of inland fjord: that’s a lot of water to put between the industrious honeybee and the destructive varroa mite, the bees’ anathema here in the Valley. I looked at this reserved fellow and gave him the best advice I could muster: “Whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it! I wouldn’t change a thing!” He smiled and then requested I dislodge the two or three hitchhikers on the OUTSIDE of the cages. “I don’t want passengers jumping overboard on the way uplake,” he laughs as he loads his two packages in his station wagon, and with a smile and a wave—and no more questions--off he drove.three pounds of bees

This old dog  learned two more things that day: one practical, the other…well, should I say gourmet? A regular came into the shop toting a plastic tote. For some strange reason the box prompted the appearance of paper plates and forks. Not unusual, I thought…it’s lunchtime. I’m hoping for barbecue—some oven fresh pastry or baked bread, perhaps--but when this business-like fellow popped the plastic lid, I saw the bottom of the tote was filled with brood comb, all of it drone, larger cells filled and capped with plump male honeybee larvae. larval delightPractical application? This hunk of larvae-filled comb, I learned, was the byproduct of just one management technique a beekeeper can use with his colonies to control the number of varroa mites, the previously mentioned nasty little arachnids that parasitize the honeybee. Knowledge of mite and honeybee behavior work in a beekeeper’s favor in helping reduce dangerous infestations of mites. Studies show that Varroa destructor, the varroa mite, prefers drone brood comb because the drone’s longer incubation period allows the female mites two additional egg laying cycles. By using shallower, removable frames in his colonies, the beekeeper can encourage the bees to build drone comb and attract the mites. This comb can then be scraped away and discarded, destroying the mites in the process. The drone comb in the tote was the discarded mite-infested comb.

And now it’s time for a taste test.come and get 'em Friends have urged Jim, an interesting fellow in his own right, to taste a drone or two. He tells me about a book that’s been written on the subject of edible bugs. “There’s one recipe in there,” he chuckles, “called ‘Three Bee Salad.’” Using a cappings scratcher, Jim breaks off a promising chunk of juicy larvae and plops it on a paper plate. Next he pries through the encased larvae looking for the presence of mites (no extra mite protein for Jim if he can help it!). Mites are indeed present in the sample. (Note  the dark dot at the seven o’clock position in the photo below.)picking at your lunch

Now the moment of truth. Jim spears a plump larva morsel, brings it to his mouth, and chews tentatively. “You know,” he nods and comments, “given the larval bee’s honey-rich diet, I thought it would be sweeter than that.” take your pickI’m not one to be outdone when it comes to sampling exotic fare (when I was a kid, I once downed a couple of live grasshoppers; I had read ‘hoppers were a staple in the diets of Native Americans…). I select and separate a couple big-eyed morsels from their dwelling and, one at a time, place them in my mouth, chew thoughtfully. The texture is creamy, chalky, like eating plain yogurt blended with strings of fiber. The taste? I can’t quite pin it down. The Ripple, as you know, strives to bring the best investigative reporting to its pages, and to sustain that high level of journalism, I take a second bite, roll the pulp around on my tongue, subject it to all my taste buds, search my gustatory memory for some analogous food. Nothing registers. Jim says a friend of his, a fan of bee larvae, told him they taste like creamed corn. I, for one, have never eaten creamed corn that tasted like what I forked into my mouth. taste test

So I learn a second thing: what it’s like to eat honeybee larva. What does bee larvae taste like? I can’t tell you. One thing’s for sure…it doesn’t taste like chicken.

At the end of the day I bring two packages of bees back to Death Valley,for that seems to be their fate here the past several years. They will do well this summer; they always do. It’s Valley winters that are deadly to my bees. You know, I'm considering booking fall passage for them to Stehekin on the boat. Of course, I’ll pay the extra freight for a roll of tarpaper.

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1 comment:

  1. Very interesting!! You know, they sell flavored crickets at the Burke Museum. Sour cream & onion and cheddar cheese. I'll get your order later.