Friday, July 18, 2008

The Wonderful World of Bees: Part 3

One of the most interesting parts of the beekeeping business was the extracurricular activities such as custom pollinating or catching swarms. Various people would call us up asking for bees to help pollinate various crops from fruit orchards to a field of Queen Anne's Lace that was used by a local pottery place. This meant going out one evening to plug up the openings to several hives and loading them onto a truck to be delivered. Occasionally, a fellow beekeeper would swing by our farm for the evening with a semi-load of bees heading out to the fruit orchards out west which always made me realize that no matter how big you are, there is always someone bigger.

By far the most common call was for help ridding a swarm of bees. We would load up a kit of gear that we kept ready and set out for the caller’s address but most of the time we were disappointed. If what they called a swarm was a true swarm of bees, we could find a cluster of bees on some branch of a tree or other resting point out in the open we would set up. This involved laying out a large white sheet, setting up a hive on the sheet and getting a smoker lit and smoking. We would smoke the bees which placates them and gently shake them loose from their perch onto the sheet in front of the hive or remove the cover and shake them directly into the hive if possible. Most of the times you never saw the queen which is really the key to capturing a swarm but if you got all the bees off their perch, the large majority of time they would adopt the spacious hive that we had set out as their new home. We would come back in the evening, plug up the entrance and haul them home where they were put to work producing honey.

More often than not however, the swarm turned out to be a colony that had already made a home in one of the various buildings of the caller’s residence. Most of the time there was nothing to be done but advice the owner what chemicals could be used to kill the bees. Occasionally though we would find one with a nice defined entrance that was accessible. When we found one of these, we would again set up the sheet and the hive and fashion a cone out of some fine wire mesh so that it had a small opening on one end and a large opening on the other. We would attach the cone with the large opening over the entrance the bees used and the small opening pointing away. Bees could easily escape from their hidden hive but couldn't get back inside. The scents that they followed were allowed to escape through the wire mesh but because their entrance had essentially been reduced and move back away from their old entrance by the depth of the cone, they couldn't find the hole to get back in. In theory, the bees would continue to collect on the outside until the queen came out to check where everyone had gone and got trapped on the outside as well. Then, they would spot the vacant hive nearby and call it home. But in practice, the success rate for doing this wasn't very high.

My parents are farmers and eventually their business of bees and their business of farming grew up to where they interfered with each other. Both required intensive amounts of work in the spring and fall months and something had to go. They put their hives up for sale in a trade publication and sold them. The fellow that bought them as fall wound into winter didn't want to move them until early spring. My parents agreed to those terms if he did any monitoring of them necessary over winter and a deal was struck. But also that fall, unbeknownst to us, the dreaded mites had gotten established in our hives and over winter, about 25% of them died. The buyer took what was left and we were out of the bee business.

Our extracting equipment was cleaned up and stored in a farm building about a mile from our house where a few years later it would all be stolen and no doubt sold on the scrap market. The one colony of bees that we kept behind for private honey reserves would flourish for a year or two before one day they swarmed and left a vacant hive behind. We kept the weeds mowed around it for a couple seasons waiting for new tenants and then eventually packed it away. Now all that remains of a once thriving 200-colony bee business are the memories and a few dusty bottles with our family name on the package label. Occasionally at some farmers market, I will see some beekeeper sitting behind a table of honey and with a few words, establish myself as someone who knows bees so that we can spend fifteen minutes gabbing. Royal jelly, drones, swarm cells, etc.

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