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Archive for the ‘Bees’ Category

Ah, Spring…Clover growing underfoot, blissful 82 degree days with only mild humidity, the smell of orange blossoms lingering in the air, and bee stings. Then the mad rush for Benadryl and baking soda or toothpaste in a vain attempt to minimize swelling.

Every time I get stung, there are varying degrees of annoyance. I can usually tell within minutes if I’m going to swell or not. If the sting is intense, then I will puff up like an inflated latex glove, but if the sting is just annoying, the discomfort will wear off in less than an hour. My mentor and friend, JP the Beeman, is an excellent beekeeper, but he is, quite possibly, a bad influence for me. He’s been working with bees for years and rarely wears a suit and veil unless the bees prove to be angry. He doesn’t wear protective gear unless, “I get stung ten times.”

JP has a youtube channel with more than 100 videos, many of the swarms he’s caught in the last few seasons. Here’s my favorite, where he catches a swarm that landed on an SUV in a parking lot. He scoops through the bees with his bare hands searching for the queen, and even gets underneath the vehicle with a flashlight in his mouth, still scooping handfuls of bees and dropping them into the super with his bare hands!


http://www.youtube.com/user/JPthebeeman#p/u/42/DXDTwxxdrj4

(I’m not sure what is going on with wordpress here, but the video isn’t coming up on my blog, just the link, which isn’t as cool, but please visit it anyway)!

Here’s another video he took, this one in my backyard in October.

www.youtube.com/user/JPthebeeman#p/u/42/DXDTwxxdrj4

Although he doesn’t say anything, I think JP’s laughing at me when I even bother to put on gloves to work the bees in his presence. Actually in the video above, toward the end of our bee session where we combined a weak hive with a strong hive, JP edited out the last part of the video where I’m wearing the suit. I put it on because I got stung twice, but in all fairness it does make me look like I’m about to go clean up an oil spill or something.

So, bolstered by a few successful days without the encumbrance of the hot, visibility-restricting bee suit, I thought I could just be a regular bee wooer. You know, just me and the ladies, chatting about springtime, drones, and work. But of course, that vision fell flat again, as a bee got stuck in my hair and stung me on the head yet again. So, next time, I’ll start out wearing a hat, and then go from there.

But the good news is that this Spring, all the hives look healthy and poised for a good season of honey production. In the afternoon, when the light hits the hives, I can smell the warm wax, the honey and pollen as the bees fan their wings to cool the hive boxes. I’m lucky that the bees decided that they can live with my inexperienced pokings around in their business and I get some honey in return. Spring’s sweet bounty is definitely worth a few stings here and there.

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Dismantled beehive

Dismantled beehive

Sweat is rolling off my eyelids and there is nothing I can do about it. My hands are encased in rubber-lined gloves, there’s a hat and net covering my head and face, and my body is wrapped in its own personal sauna – a beekeeping suit. I may have actually sweat through two layers of clothes. Yes, it’s good to be back in New Orleans.

The weather isn’t even that hot right now (mid to high 80s), but nonetheless, in this humidity beekeeping is a sweaty affair. And there is a lot of bee work to do. Sadly, we lost one of the hives over the summer – they may have swarmed out and then moths took over. The moths lay eggs that turn into messy larvae that gorges on wax and honey, and nearly ruins anything the bees may have left behind. The process of taking apart a hive is hot and tedious and a little bit sad – like gutting a devastated house, it brings back memories of the life that once hummed inside, full of its own personal dramas.

Early last Spring, this hive lost its queen. A hive without a queen is purposeless. The angry bees have nothing to live for, so they sting anyone who comes near, almost without reason. I had been told that a queenless hive even sounds different: they buzz with a fury, a dull roar, and I paid attention to see if I could hear it for myself. And I did. Not only did I hear the angry roar of the bees, but I also felt nervous as they buzzed angrily near my face even though it was protected behind the veil of the beekeeping suit.

Once Albert, the baron of the bees, and Jeff, the bee expert, found a new queen and planted her in the angry hive, there was a noticeable change within a day. The bees had purpose again and hummed the contented hum of satisfied workers as they flew off to forage for the new queen. Through the next few months, the bees produced honey with abundance, enough for us to harvest once in May and then almost a gallon in June. Sometimes, when I could tell the bees were in a peaceable mood, I put my head right up to the side of the bee boxes to listen to the hum of 40,000 lives inside. It sounds like the rushing sound of the ocean you hear when you cup a shell to your ear, or the steady drumming of rain on a tin roof – if there are 40,000 bees inside, then there are 160,000 little feet pitter-pattering up and down the wooden frames, humming as they work.

Now the dismantled hive is totally silent.

Bees stealing honey back

Bees stealing honey back

There are still two more hives, working away, trying to stock up for the coming months, and each hive is full of its own stories, dramas and miracles. Just the other day, when I was processing honey in the yard on a cookie sheet, some bees approached, trying to steal back the honey I had just taken. One landed right on a sticky puddle and immediately began to get pulled under like quicksand, and they more she struggled, the faster she went. I grabbed a piece of mulch and used it as a lifeline for the bee to cling to. Once the bee latched on, I set the little stick with the honey-drenched bee on it right at the entrance to the hive. I just guessed which hive to take her back to – it could have been the wrong one and the guard bees would have killed her as an intruder. The sentry bees immediately came to inspect this honeyed worker, and after a few probes with long tongues, they decided to take her in, and immediately set to work, cleaning the honey off. The honeyed bee at first struggled against all their bathing efforts, but when I came back a few minutes later, she was surrounded by at least six busily cleaning bees, and she lifted each wing individually to let her helpers get the honey underneath. Then she tested both wings together and flew straight back into the hive, a regular worker again, just as she wanted to be. Innumerable miracles happen in a bee hive everyday.

IMG_1189

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On of the many benefits of being an urban farmer, as opposed to a rural farmer, is that I am constantly supported by a network of people interested in the animals and vegetables I’m caring for. These supporters are my neighbors and they generously offer to care for my animals and keep an eye on things when I go away. This summer, I’ll be gone for a total of two and a half months, escaping the heat. While I’m galavanting around the country on a road trip, visiting my family on the west coast, and traveling to Brazil, there’s a small army of people ensuring that the rabbits get fed and slaughtered, the bees have enough room to keep making honey, and the sweet potatoes get enough water to continue their takeover of the backyard. It’s like my community of substitute farmers.

One of my neighbors has been feeding the rabbits, and another neighbor is lined up to do the slaughter. In exchange, they get meat and rabbit skins. The chickens went to spend the summer in my friend’s large and grassy backyard, paying for their stay with fresh eggs. The bees are being checked on by Jeff Armstrong, the swarm catcher. And perhaps, most importantly, Miss Betty is there, quietly overseeing everyone from her kitchen window, making sure that the sweet potatoes don’t wilt and that only approved people are prowling around the backyard.

Which leaves me free to explore other front yard farming practices everywhere I go. And I’ve been surprised by the lack of urban farming in Brazil. I thought that in poor areas and developing countries, I would find small garden plots in average yards, at the very least a tomato plant tucked into a sunny courtyard – but no. Brazilians seem to be content with fruit trees, and I do admit that the variety of fruit trees is pretty amazing. But the only real urban farming I saw was the occasional city horse grazing beneath a billboard, or a donkey tethered on the median between very busy lanes of traffic.

Donkey in Feira Santana

Donkey in Feira Santana


Horses by a busy road in Bahia, Brazil.

Horses by a busy road in Bahia, Brazil.


So, now that I’m back in the US, visiting my California family, I’m stunned by all the other front yard farmers there are in this state. People here for the most part aren’t afraid of a little broccoli in the front-yard pansy bed, a few tomatoes and basil next to the lawn near the front door. And in this ridiculously temperate and un-challenging growing environment, tomatoes can reach unprecendented heights, with delicious results.

Gigantic tomato plant loaded with fruit - picture almost doesn't do it justice!

Gigantic tomato plant loaded with fruit - picture almost doesn't do it justice!

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For the last few months, I’ve only been writing about the ducks and I have been neglecting the other interesting aspects of the front and back yard. In fact, I’ve been entirely avoiding the backyard for the last few weeks because I think it was a much more interesting place with ducks in it. Anyway, the other day reminded me of the many reasons why I should still enjoy my backyard: I saw some of the 80,000 workers who live in a few small boxes in a corner of the yard.

Bees! Yes, bees. And we put them there on purpose. The other urban farmer in this household has been referred to before as the Disciplinarian of the Ducks, but really, his primary title is Baron of the Bees. After the first hive arrived last March, the Bee Baron got a call on a late Spring evening, asking if he was ready for a second hive and can he come meet in the Sam’s Club parking lot right now to pick them up? Well, the two hives have settled into our yard quite nicely since then and have spent all summer long working the city, pollinating flowers, and building up their numbers while storing honey for the short winter months. They are actually very agreeable for the most part (except that they hate dogs who invade their space – common theme here) and of the two urban farmers in this household both have only been stung through human error.

The bees when they first moved in last spring.

The bees when they first moved in last spring.

Sweet, sweet honeycomb.

Sweet, sweet honeycomb.


Waiting for the bees to leave the frame so we can eat the honey.

Waiting for the bees to leave the frame so we can eat the honey.


Shockingly enough, bees hate to die. When they sting, they die and they will warn you before they sting you, unless you accidentally crush one in your hand, get one caught in your hair, or bump the hive. They seem low maintenance – we’ve had them for 8 months and they’ve only been checked on a handful of times, and only fed once, when they were getting established. And now, they’re providing us with enough honey for a few months. They have produced well over enough to last them through the winter, and next year they can potentially produce hundreds of pounds of honey to harvest.
The Baron of the Bees at work processing honeycomb.

The Baron of the Bees at work processing honeycomb.

Honeycomb going into the strainer.

Honeycomb going into the strainer.

The best type of livestock animals work for you and these bees have no aversion to hard work. They pollinate all my flowers (even in winter, they love the orange blossoms), and they supposedly range for up to three miles from the hive. I like to think that I’m benefiting from all my neighbor’s flowers – they plant the flowers, the bees collect the nectar and pollen, then I get to sample the honey that results. I can honestly say that there is no honey like this in the world because it comes from a combination of different types of ornamental and native flowers that may be specific to my neighborhood – a true taste of the Broadmoor.

When the honey is heated, the wax rises to the top.

When the honey is heated, the wax rises to the top.

It is so satisfying to have a yard that continues to produce into December!

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