Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Farmer's New Bees

Very delicately, and while getting stung only twice, Leigh Hauter this week started 10 new bee hives on Bull Run Farm.

Leigh is acquainted with a man who travels the country with his bees, pollinating crops, and also sells bees on the side. Even though the thermometer barely registered 40 degrees, the bees Leigh ordered had arrived and it was time to transfer them to their boxes in the fields.

The process works something like this:

The bees are sold in cages--one cage for workers, a separate cage for the queen. First a queen is lowered into the box in her cage, then a group of workers--about three pounds of them--are released around her. At one end of the queen's cage is a stopper made of sugar. The worker bees begin to gnaw on the sugar. It takes them about three days to eat the sugar, during which the queen releases all kinds of pheromones that bond the bees to the queen and to each other. When the sugar is gone, a hole is revealed in the cage allowing the queen to escape and join her hive.

Leigh first got involved with bees about 20 years ago when he received a bee hive as a wedding present from his farmer father-in-law. "I didn't know the difference between a bee and wasp. I only knew they stung and I was terrified," Leigh says. But the father-in-law promised that if Leigh learned to care for that hive, he'd get another 100 hives plus the farm. Leigh did eventually inherit the farm, but now his hives number only between 20 and 30, enough to produce about 600 pounds of honey each year that he distributes to his CSA subscribers.

Bees are fascinating creatures, much more organized, sociable and responsible than humans. Raising them used to be a cinch, but times have changed. "The bees are so stressed out from what’s happening to our environment," said Leigh. "When I started out 20 years ago it was easy keeping bees. It was called being a 'bee haver.' Now you have to do a lot of work."

When he first started tending bees, Leigh said he might lose five hives out of 100 in any given year. "Now I lose half of them. It’s pretty typical even for a professional bee keeper to lose 40 or 50 percent of her hives," he says.

We've all heard of the "colony collapse" syndrome that has been devastating bee populations around the world for reasons that aren't entirely clear. Leigh said the deaths in his hives are caused mostly by tiny mites that infect the bees. One type of mite invades the bee's trachea and is considered life-shortening, but not devastating. It first appeared in the U.S. around 1984. Some bee varieties, he said, have been bread to resist the trachea mite. A second type of parasite, the vorroa mite, sucks the blood from bees and can wipe out a hive. It also appeared in the '80s and although they can be treated chemically, Leigh decided not to risk the chemicals getting into his honey.

And then there are bears.

"I lost seven hives to bears last fall," said Leigh. "They just took them out and ate them before I put up electric fences. We had a lot of bears move in through our valley last year. I saw one the night before last."

The bees do not become active until the temperature reaches around 50 degrees, and then they will be gathering most of their pollen for only a brief period, from late April to to early June when the tulip trees are in bloom. "Virginia is not really a great place to raise bees," he said.

So what do the bees do the rest of the summer? "The bees fight with each other," said Leigh. "All those worker bees become soldier bees and go and attack the weaker hives."

For the farmer, bees are work, but also a great source of pleasure. "I could sit there on a nice summer afternoon and just watch them come and go," said Leigh. "Especially if they’re nice, gentle bees."

10 comments:

Diana Dyer said...

I just finished reading Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the coming agricultural crisis. It is such an informative but depressing book and surely makes me want to seek out organic honey plus increase our efforts at providing habitat for the other pollinators, too (such as our homemade bee box that is in our community garden).

Come to think of it, in addition, to bee hives, perhaps the Obamas can add some bee boxes to their garden, too.

Ed Bruske said...

Diana, great to hear that you have a bee box in your community garden. Do you have a place to hang a bat box as well? Besides our flowing vegetables, we should all plant lots of flowers that pollinators love. And don't forget to put out some water for beneficials insects, birds, toads. The more we can make our gardens complete little ecosystem the more everybody thrives.

Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener said...

Bees are indeed incredibly fascinating (I also recommend the book Robbing the Bees besides Fruitless Fall). Anyway, we started to keep bees last year - just two hives - and cross our fingers, the creek not rising and the bear not coming - we should be able to harvest our first honey crop in a few weeks. I love watching the girls (they are pretty much all girls!).

Bees are another reason to be gentle in the garden (no pesticide, herbicide, or other poisons) and - as you say, Ed - to try to create some little ecosystems.

Ed Bruske said...

Sylvie, I thought it was interesting to see that Michelle Obama was planning on bees in the White House garden as beekeeping technically is not permitted in the District of Columbia (just like chickens). But apparently people are doing it anyway--good for them. My father when he was a boy raised bees in the family garage. We are thinking it would be awfully cool to have a hive or too here on our very urban property (where they won't be too close to the neighbors).

Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener said...

Actually when you take a bee keeping class they tell you about what you should do if you are planning to bee keep in an urban environnment: where to place the hive, how tp plan for the flight path (!!) of bees, what NOT to do about the neighbor's swimming pool etc...

In the country, we worry about raccoon (they eat the bees), mice (they wreck havoc in the hive) and bears (they destruct everything!)

Ed Bruske said...

Sylvie, great intel. Where do I find a bee keeping class like that?

Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener said...

Beekeeping clubs. Might bee too late to register for this year as many of the classes take place in winter (Feb/March) so that the students is ready to go in April.

Try http://www.virginiabeekeepers.org/
and go to the class page.
(my husband will tell you that a lot of the 8-week sessions could be condensed in a quarter of the time) but I still think they are useful classes (he is also a very quick study, and had read some books on bees before the class)

Ed Bruske said...

Sylvie, great link. Maybe some of our readers will be inspired to sign up.

Tessa said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Ruth

http://muffinsnow.com

Ed Bruske said...

Ruth, glad to have you aboard. Feel free to comment any time.