08 September 2011

The Bees' Knees

A highlight of our recent trip to Boulder was seeing my aunt Patti and uncle Robin's new pets -- 40,000 honeybees! (Is "pets" the right term? Perhaps "livestock" is more fitting. Or "fleet.") Patti and Robin decided earlier this year to become beekeepers in order to do their part to help combat the colony collapse crisis, which is threatening the world's food supply (since many crops are pollinated by bees). So earlier this summer they set up these bee boxes in anticipation of housing 20,000 bees in each one (they call them "hives," but I just can't...they're boxes):

Their neighborhood is on the outskirts of town, and their large lot has a ton of space for the bees, which they keep at the far end of the side of their lot behind their vegetable garden:

They got the bees earlier this summer, so they're still learning and like to check on them a lot -- which they did while we were visiting, and I got to help. (Sort of like a child "helps" with chores, I think....) Anyway, we started by putting on our beekeeper suits:

I didn't have bee-proof pants, but neoprene bands around the bottom of my jeans created a seal between my pants and socks so bees couldn't go exploring.

It was getting close to harvest time (which is usually around Labor Day), so Patti and Robin wanted to be sure the bees had enough honey for themselves to get through the winter. These three-tier boxes have one layer where the bees stockpile their own honey, and everything in the other two boxes is harvested. I'm amazed that the bees make the honey and then turn around and eat it all winter, although that's really no different from humans growing food all summer in order to feed themselves over the winter...except that the crops don't come from our own bodies. But I digress....

The boxes have two lids -- the metal one, then the wood one inside, and they're configured with gaps so that the bees can come out through the hole in the wood lid and then escape through gaps under the metal lid.

There's a main entry at the bottom of the box, with a ledge so bees can land and then mozey in. A bunch of bees are charged with the task of guarding that entry, and you're not supposed to hang out on that side of the box (as I was informed after boldly stomping around in that area).

Each bee has a job, actually. In addition to those that guard the box, some make the honeycomb, some go out searching for pollen and then come back and deposit it in each little cell, some "cap" the cells of the honeycomb,.... (I don't know what all of the jobs are. Some of them probably paint the queen's fingernails, make her tiny little roast beef sandwiches, etc.)

Anyway, removing the inner wood lid reveals a row of frames. That's where the bees do their thing.

Removing them seems like a dangerous business.

The frames are made with a white plastic honeycomb texture on both sides. Bees build up the honeycomb to the proper depth with wax, and then other bees can start packing them with pollen. (I don't know how the pollen turns into honey. But the process keeps enough of the pollen intact to act like allergy shots. That's why you sometimes hear that local honey -- local to the area that makes you all sneezy -- can alleviate allergies.)

On the far right side of this frame, you can see some of the plastic honeycomb under the bees' own honeycomb, many of which are filled with beautiful, golden honey.

And on the far left side of the frame, you can see all of the honey-filled cells that have already been capped.

Sometimes the honeycomber bees get carried away and start honeycombing everything in sight.

If the bees could talk, I wonder if they would tell us to mind our own beeswax.

But on a more serious note...the queen. Each colony has a queen, and everything revolves around her. I don't have pictures of either of the queens because they are kept hidden away in the boxes. The two queens were packed separately from the other 39,998 bees Patti and Robin ordered, and they were each packed in a little capsule with a marshmallow that they had to eat through to get out into the box. (Bees love sweets.) Once there, they're relegated to the lower levels so they can't escape (which would mean disaster for the colony). Since the queens are larger than the other bees (a result of being specially fed by bees whose job is to raise a queen), they can't pass through these metal bars separating the top compartment from the lower levels of the box (yes, those are busy bees on the supers along both sides of the picture):

There's a whole lot more to beekeeping -- what to do if the queen dies? How do you harvest the honey? Etc. -- but we enjoyed our introduction to beekeeping. And we look forward to some homemade honey. Especially after learning that their harvest last week yielded two and a half gallons (29 pounds!) of honey.

Mmmm, honey.


  1. Awesome. For a girl who doesn't care for bugs, I have always sort of liked bees. Probably because I never got stung as a kid and never developed an aversion to them. (I did get attacked once as an adult... funny story involving someone who used to be nicknamed The Love Muscle if you ever want to hear it).

    My preferred variety of bee is the giant fuzzy kind, but these guys are neat too.

  2. I actually have been stung (more than once, I think) and was allergic as a kid (went through the allergy shots thing...never got retested at the end, so I'm pretty much going on faith that I'm no longer allergic). But everything about beekeeping fascinates me anyway. (Lone bees harassing me while I'm minding my own business is a different matter.)

    Yes, I will require the Love Muscle's story. And the story of why he is no longer called that. (Beyond the fact that he is no longer the only dude in a college of 600 women. That would be way too simple an explanation.)