Monday, June 26, 2017

The Grand Gallivant: Covered in Bees

On our first day at Willow Creek, Kate and Billy told us that the guy who keeps their bees, Jeff, would be stopping by sometime when we were here, and that if we liked, we could go out with him to learn more about beekeeping. This opportunity finally came on the solstice when Jeff, a quiet middle-aged guy, drove down the driveway and invited us to suit up.

My name is Darth Vader! I am an extraterrestrial from the planet Vulcan!

We zipped ourselves into Billy and Kate’s bee suits, which look exactly like space-age sci-fi costumes, then tromped out to the row of hives along the back of their property, where Jeff was feeding sagebrush twigs into a large can with a funnel top and a small set of bellows attached to it. This smoker would help calm the bees and move them out of the way when we were working.

Jeff wore protective headgear, but worked with bare hands because it made it easier for him to move the parts of the hive more easily (he only got stung once). He lifted the lid of the first hive, Zach pumped some smoke onto it, and we looked down into a box filled with vertical frames hanging by little lips on either edge. Between the frames, chunks of honeycomb and bees swarmed. Jeff used a small pry bar, called a hive tool, to loosen the frame, then carefully pulled it out, crawling with bees, to show us. We saw the perfect hexagons built up all over the frame, some filled with shimmering nectar that would later be capped and become honey, some already capped with a matte white coating, others covered with a porous tan coating that held the “brood.” With the mesh over our eyes it was hard to process the swarming mass in front of us.

Zach loosening a frame so we can lift it out
The frames get heavy when they're full of honey! (Note Jeff's bare hands)

Looking for eggs

Jeff taught us how to look for larvae— little white curls— in the cells, and how to spot the rice-shaped eggs, which are much smaller than a pinhead, by holding the frame up so the sun shines directly in the bottom of the cells. Even then, it was hard to spot, and  took us both several tries to get good at. He pointed out the difference in coloration between younger bees and older bees (younger ones are lighter), and showed us how to identify drones. He found a queen on one of the frames and pointed out the way she moved and how the other workers responded to her. “You can tell she’s the boss,” he said. “But if a queen doesn’t do her job, the workers will kill her and hatch another queen to take her place.”

We inspected each of the frames, looking for eggs in the cells to indicate that the queen was laying. Then we scraped off extra beeswax and comb from the tops and bottoms of the frames, dumping the honeycomb into a bowl so the clear nectar could drain out. Zach and I moved clumsily, our hands encumbered by gloves, nervous of dropping the frames and losing track of which frames went in which box in which order. Jeff was incredibly patient.

After an hour or so, Jeff had us get a hive tool, and we inspected the hives by ourselves, although he still coached us through a lot of it. He had us repeat back what we were learning and explain what we were looking for. Our gloves got sticky with wax and propolis, and the bees became annoyed with us, crawling around our headnets, buzzing angrily. But at last we finished up the last hive, and with our heads swarming with the crash-course knowledge, we thanked Jeff and said goodbye.

Before that day, I couldn’t understand why vegans wouldn’t eat honey— what do the bees care? I thought. After that day, I understood. The sheer amount of bee-squishing was disturbing— we tried very hard not to kill any of the workers, but many of them got crushed as we moved the frames around and scraped off honeycomb. Jeff also taught us to destroy cells that were incubating drones, since they do literally nothing for the colony except mate with the queen, and I felt a little sick to my stomach as I scraped the hive tool along the drone cells and watched the larvae’s bodies burst into white liquid that streamed down into the grass. I have an emotional attachment to honeybees— I think they’re cute, and their collective intelligence is breathtaking— but is that a reason enough not to kill them? 

Most people swat flies and mosquitoes without a thought, and drive through river bottomlands in summer when nearly thousands of bugs are splatted across our windshield. Eating plain kale from my own garden came at the cost of hundreds of cabbage worms’ lives. A normal vegan diet means taking part in the deaths of millions of insects and even rodents and amphibians caught up in heavy farming equipment. But in our modern society of detachment from death, we lose sight of the sacrifice that is required for us to eat food. After working with the bees, I have a much more sensory feeling for that sacrifice.

That night, I poured the clear honey we’d collected through a strainer into a jar, and stirred it into a jug with some lemon to make honey-water. I felt a sense of solemnity as I drank.

A few days later, Jeff invited us to look at his hives down the road, and we eagerly agreed. This second time, I had a much better feel for what I was doing and what I was looking for; Zach and I worked together in a comfortable rhythm, and Jeff showed us some techniques for mixing up the frames in a way that encourages the bees to put away more honey and expand into other boxes. Sweaty in the sun, we were surprised when Jeff invited us to town for a cold beer, and we eagerly agreed to that as well. 

I’m not sure if beekeeping is feasible with the yard size we have (if we intend to keep chickens as well), but the experience definitely piqued my interest. But most of all, working with the bees helped me to appreciate them even more than before— and to be respectful of the sacrifice that brings me the sweet golden liquid to drizzle on my toast.


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