Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Best Part? This Time, No One Died.

We did not start out to become beekeepers. In the beginning it was an experiment in self-sufficiency more than anything else. Could we produce enough of our own food not to starve to death if the food system ran dry?  Gene and I both excel at paranoia, so the whole Y2K thing really got us thinking. Of course nothing would happen on 01-01-2000, and we knew that. But the general panic and paranoia made us ponder a lot of what if's. What if there were no more grocery stores. What if there were grocery stores, but everyone panicked and we couldn't safely get to one? What if you couldn't get romaine lettuce in a four pack in January any more? At the time it sounded like we had lost our minds, and many friends and family lost no time in saying so. Today, they're not so negative.

Two weeks ago some 550 million eggs were recalled for contamination with salmonella. The number of "bad eggs" is around half a billion now. In the wake of this I am hearing bits of information about sketchy management practices, but what's been most alarming is the number of articles and op ed pieces laying the blame on nature - rodents and wild birds nesting in the area - rather than on the unhealthy and dangerous management practices of our country's commercial farming system as it struggles against nature to produce vast and unnecessary quantities of cheap food. I have rodents here. And as for wild birds, well, they're everywhere here. You can't swing a cat without hitting one, and heaven knows that cat would love it if I'd swing him out there so he could catch a few. In one article I read a blurb about "bio-security" that made me think more of a military operation. But I digress.

Then there was the peanut butter recall, and the spinach e.coli outbreak, and on and on it goes; monthly, weekly, daily something happens that brings our attention, momentarily, to our food supply. We may sigh, search our cupboards and refrigerators in panic for potential offenders, then accept that the FDA and USDA know best and go back to our daily lives.
All of these things are developments that have arisen out of our alleged need to control nature to produce cheap food. It's a battle we won't ever win, but we keep trying.
Someone (Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin, Mark Twain or Rita Mae Brown, depending on who you ask) once said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. If that's true, then the food industry has reached all new levels of insanity.
When I set out to see just how much food I could wring out of our quarter acre in Northfield, MA, I may have looked a little crazy and definitely eccentric. Judged against the passage of time and the current manner in which the vast majority of us acquire food, I am beginning to look not just sane, but prescient and wise, too.
Back in the late 1990's when we'd begun focusing on self-sufficiency and food production, my daughter came to me with a great plan. Why, she said, could we not keep bees ourselves? It became her obsession.

She read everything she could get her hands on, subscribed to American Bee Journal, got a ton of catalogs, made lists of what she needed to get started. She explained to me over the years about varroa mites, Italians versus Russians, the benefits of a started nuc over a package of bees. She begged, wheedled, and saved. They would, she said, be her bees. She would manage them all on her own, we would need to do nothing. Anyone ever had a kid beg for a dog? They will, they swear and promise and vow, clean up after it, train it, walk it, feed it. But who ends up doing all of that, usually? We had four kids. We'd been down this road. We said no. No bees. We had visions of her entering the bee yard for the first time, getting stung, and deciding that beekeeping was not for her. We had no interest in keeping bees, although we both appreciated the dangers of Colony Collapse Disorder, chemical inhibition of bee development, ignorance and intolerance in the human population that led to the destruction of thriving natural hives and so on.
Shortly after we moved here she inherited a hive, devoid of bees, from a relative. She also inherited 2 cases of brand new honey jars. She spent some time cleaning up the hive parts in readiness for the bees she knew we'd let her get now - it had been ten or more years of relentless begging and we were ready to give. She and Gene attended bee classes. We ordered a nuc. When the bees arrived we were all excited. On her second or third trip into the bee yard, in a lousy veil that we have since thrown far, far away, ten or so bees got into her bonnet. The colony we now call Armageddon (as in "they will live through it") was beginning to show some of the aggressive attitude that gives it it's name. Being trapped inside a net with a bunch of angry bees centimeters from your face is an extremely unpleasant experience, as I personally can attest. It creates a sense of panic that is nearly impossible to avoid. Your panic creates smells and tension that the bees can sense, and they respond accordingly. You are, obviously, here to kill them and steal their honey and their babies, and they will show you exactly why that's not ok. By the time we got her out of the veil it was pretty clear that she was not, at least not right now, going to be the beekeeper. As I ran for Benedryl and her face flushed deep pink and puffy, and a huge welt rose up on her neck from one sting and developed a rock-hard nodule the size of a golf ball, I decided that really, that would probably be ok. She's allergic to everything. It was a risk we'd taken, and her body's reaction even with a ton of Benedryl on board proved what I'd suspected might be the case. While not allergic in the true sense, her sensitivity to bee venom is enough to make her a bad candidate for beekeeper of the year.
But now what? Now we had bees. And we had choices to make. We could certainly find someone to take them. There was no shortage, is no shortage of people wanting to get started with bees, or already started and wanting to expand. We could call Dan at Warm Colors and report our big fail, and beg for mercy. Or... Or we could take the reins, keep the pollinators, and become the beekeepers.
Mostly we did none of the above. We both thrive on denial and procrastination. Ask my editors. We ignored the hive. We added honey supers when they looked about to swarm. We never went down into the lower parts of the hive, ever. We never did anything you're supposed to do. We messed up everything. Occasionally we'd wander out to the hive and take a look, throwing a super on if they looked nudgy or crowded. That was about it. As the honey supers piled up on top of the hive, and summer stretched into fall, we decided we needed to grow up and try to make this bee thing work. We just made it worse. We took the honey all right. And almost lost the whole hive. Suddenly the balance shifted. Everything changed. I felt an attachment to them in a new way. A few hundred thousand tiny chickens? I think that they became that on that day. it was no longer about this burden of bees we'd been stuck with. It was about our failure, my failure to husband them in a manner that reflects who I am as a person, and who I want to be as a farmer. it was shameful. All of a sudden losing them seemed like the worst thing we could allow. I did what any rational and already overextended woman does in a situation like this.
 I convinced Gene to be the beekeeper. Really, he has the perfect personality for it. Just like a new puppy, or 140 chickens, or a new-used car; sometimes you have to just put a thing in front of him and wait for him to accept it. And he has accepted it.
So this year things are better. We have two hives, Armageddon and a second one that's struggling a bit as most new hives do - Armageddon's success in the first year is not typical, and let's remember that last year was a cold and rainy one. The hive we call New Hampshire (because that's where the package came from) is surviving, and growing. But Armageddon, who taught us so much about who we really are and how we really feel about bees takes my breath away regularly.
This year we harvested 52 pounds of honey. Not without incident, of course, because nothing here is ever simple or dull. Here's what you do on harvest weekend, if you're us:
In order to "steal" the honey from the bees, it's best to get the bees away from the honey. They seem to think it belongs to them (wonder why) and will be quite aggressive in protecting it. There are a few ways to move the bees. Some involve chemicals and fake smoke products, but my favorite involves the use of a bee escape or confuser which allows the bees to leave the supers as they normally would, but makes it very difficult for them to get back into them. The honey supers are lifted and moved to the side. Somewhere in there it's important to drop a full super, just for the effect of the air filled with angry bees. I do wish I had a picture of that. They do not like vibration or loud sound. Dropping part of their house counts as both.
The escape board is then placed between the honey supers and the lower part of the hive, where the queen resides.
In the full hive picture above, the escape board is the white band about halfway down. Everything above that we consider ours - the three honey supers they've been filling with goodness since spring. The duct tape is covering a crack at the base of one of the honey supers that we did not think was large enough to allow bees in and out. We covered it for harvest because they'd indeed been using it as a back door of sorts. Everything below that white escape board we consider theirs, and we continue to spend as little time in their as possible. I have suspicions about Colony Collapse and human interference, so I actively encourage the beekeeper man to let them do their own thing in their own way without rude interference. We can tell, roughly, what's going on by what happens above.
After 48 hours with the escape board in place (or 24 if you don't read the directions because you think you know everything) you return to the hive and remove the bee-free honey supers. If you read the directions. If you didn't, then you go out after 24 hours and discover more bees still in the honey than you'd expected. You spend a lot of time grumbling and insisting it wasn't like that last year, and your husband spends a lot of time shaking bees off of honey frames one at a time while you pop them into a bin under a wet towel to discourage bee interest. Repeat until all honey frames have been removed.Take off the empty supers and the escape board. They'll be ready for you to remove that, believe me.
They were doing everything in their combined and not frail intellectual power to get back into those honey supers.
Give them one super with some empty frames to keep them busy for the remainder of the summer.
Then take your ill-gotten gains, since really you deserve nothing for your two years of failures and mishaps and mishandlings and flubs, and run to the house - or roll in a wheel barrow at a leisurely pace, either will be effective.
Take the frames full of honey into the carefully prepared honey harvest space (as opposed to last years' very stupid garage-with-open-window technique).
Uncap the frames using an uncapping knife - an item which I have learned by negative experience is both very hot and sharper than you'd expect.
Place the frames into the extractor and get someone else to crank it so you can "take pictures". This part I thought was particularly effective.
 Wait. Watch. And wait some more.
Then cheer as you watch the golden-amber flow of honey from the extractor into the strainer and ultimately into the bucket below.
Repeat until all frames are empty of honey. Then take the now-empty frames back to the bee yard and put them on top of the hive. Within 24 or so hours, they will be clean and dry and ready for storage for next summer's hopeful bounty.
Yarn soon. I am still in the throes of book 3 and really don't feel like I can talk about knitting any more than I already eat-sleep-breathe it. For me, posting about bees is a break from work. Soon, when knitting is less like work and more like play it will take a more active role here.
If you're in the Atlanta, Georgia area over this Labor Day weekend, stop by the AJC Decatur Book Festival and say hello! I will be speaking at the Eddie's Attic Stage on Saturday at 12:30. There's also a lot of really wonderful things going on all weekend long; kids activities and readings, workshops, lectures and authors of all kinds. I am very excited to be a part of it, and can't wait to get there!


booksNyarn said...

Melissa - this is SO awesome. Wish I was closer to take advantage of honey, chicken and egg supply from the farm.

And now, of course, I want to go back to bee school next year. :)

Laura said...

So Completely Amazing! Gives me entirely new respect for the local honey I buy at our farmer's market. Congratulations on your evolving Bee Life. I am so awed by all the Stuff you DO!

tina said...

That was a completely fabulous post. As always, you amaze and inspire me. Really. I'm not kidding. Fab. U. Lous. Wild applause on the honey harvest, wilder applause at the self sufficiency farmer-ness. You're a groove thang!

Sarah Buttenwieser said...

I'm totally awed by your industry & your insights & the way you told this story. Truly wonderful & I hope you do some editing & place it elsewhere. People should be reading this story.

Anonymous said...

So Cool.

I would love to keep bees. Except for the whole epi-pen thing I'd need to carry around with me all the time.

Yarnhog said...

How cool! I never really thought about how honey is harvested before.

Is "uncapping" removing the wax? That's what it looks like, at least.

Mona said...

Your story reminded me of childhood memory. When I was growing up, my father was a beekeeper. We called one of his hives "The Terrorists". I swear there were sniper bees circling above the hollow where the hives were located, just waiting for an unsuspecting human to move into range. It was well worth the effort to enjoy the fruits of the bee labor, though. Did you know that if stored properly, honey doesn't spoil? I'm still working my way through a 2 gallon jar of my dad's last harvest several years ago. I hope you feel tremendous satisfaction and pride about your bounty, Melissa.