Friday, February 5, 2010


Nothing makes you feel like Spring is here than to see and hear bees buzzing in the soft blossoms of a fruit tree. There is so much hope and energy in that tiny body and the hive they all work so hard to sustain. There are thousands of books on the shelves from ancient times right up to today on the subject of bees and their culture—apiculture. None of them capture the reality and mystery of a living hive. These tiny insects draw us from our libraries into the garden to listen and wonder as they feed, clean, nurse, and defend their queen and coming generations, and, finally, die of exhaustion.

It was my privilege to work in Africa with traditional beekeepers and their iconic log beehives hung from a tree on a forked stick. Recently many Africans have found the top bar hive less destructive of hives and a shift in apiculture across the continent has occurred in the last century. They work their bees just like we do with a little narcotic smoke and no shirts or screens or gloves. African bees are anything but gentle, but they are tough. We may need to see some of that toughness bred into our very gentle but weak strains of bees. American forests still hold strong bees that are disease resistant and yet gentle, so we may yet find improved varieties that will overcome the onslaught of disease and environmental compromises that trouble American bees these days.

If bees are in the plan for your homestead, the best advice is to read everything you can find and then attach yourself to a local beekeeper with a good long history of not just commercial beekeeping but a love of bees for their own sake. They yield their secrets to love, and that may be why they are dying in this age when everything is turned to productivity and profit. I actually think they are the “canaries” in the economic mine-shaft of contemporary capitalism run amok. Their stress and immune failure and compromised health from environmental toxins parallels the human condition perfectly. Stop the gentle rain of coal fired mercury and cadmium, arsenic, nitrous oxide as well as the benzene and chlorine by-products from other industries and we may find that we and our bees are feeling better. Unfortunately, profits will trump health every time in our current economic system.

But we must go on with life and so will the bees. If you are lucky to find a hopeful beekeeper, he will surely begin his instruction by revealing the hives division of labor. Let’s assume you have figured out the bee hive structure itself from a diagram. You’ll confirm this knowledge as you go along anyway.

He will pull off the top, and using his hive tool, wedge open a brooder frame to show you his queen who is very shy and very busy—diving into cells and depositing her eggs as fast as she can. She’ll be longer than the others as you can see in the picture. She will almost always be covered by her attendant bees who feed her and clean her. There will only be one queen, although others will be nursed and ready to take over from her in a process called supersedure. If she weakens, she may be killed or have to kill a rival to continue the right to propel her genetics into the future. She manages the hive by her pheromones (scents that she emits) to signal work to do or conditions to be achieved—its too hot y’all, cool this place down etc.

The worker bees are short and have wings that do not reach their stingers, which are immature mating apparatus. They have two distinct composite eyes. They are all female, and they number in the thousands, changing their diet and work roles as needed by the hive.

The other type of bee in a hive is a drone—yup, the males, who number only a few hundred at most. Drones are bigger around and hairy compared to workers, and their wings are longer, reaching past their abdomen. They can also be recognized in the melee of a hive by their massive eyes which seem to cover their heads like helmets.

These guys, like male elephants, are sent off to a holding area where virgin queens fly to find mates of different genetics. Several drones can mate with one queen, and she holds their sperm in a vesicle in her body with which to later fertilize her eggs.

How does Nature ensure that the genetics of all these bees don’t get mixed up and weaken the entire species? It just so happens that after every drone mates, he loses his “stinger” and dies. Thus, he is unable to mate with his own progeny.

It isn’t true that without bees there would be no pollination, but they are such a pleasure to have on the property. The honey isn’t such a fantastic health food as it is high on the glycemic index, but hey it isn’t worse than sugar and far better than the toxic waste of artificial sweeteners.

But I think bees, above all, are important as a symbol of ecological health. Like hawks and owls, they signal health and the absence of toxins and pollutants in the food chain. The bees are far more sensitive and are in fact the early warning system of environmental stress. They are also a living feedback system to its caretakers, telling them how well they are doing with the bees and thus their entire ecosystem.

This pictures a friend from Africa handling his beehives, created from logs.

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