Yesterday and today we are extracting the majority of the 2014 honey, gifted from the girls in our bee sanctuary. Beekeeper April ran 12 hives this year, most of which were started from new packages this spring. Last winter was hard on the hives and of the 8 that went into winter, only 4 came through. She introduced a number of new alternative holistic methods to her practices this year, including small cell and foundationless hives. Every year the tiny teachers have new life lessons to instill upon their keeper; patience and letting go of control, being some from this year. All in all this year will be remembered with fondness and seen as successful.
Nearly every Thursday afternoon, April heads out to the hives to work in the honey bee sanctuary. This year she installed 2 new packages that contained bees that had been retrained to build what is now referred to as “small cell” comb. Bees instinctively used to build their comb cells smaller than most of them do now. Humans trained the bees to build a larger honeycomb (with a theory that bigger bees make more honey). The smaller cell bees show signs of less Varroa mite issues. These mites are one of the most devastating parasites and issues that bees and their keepers face today. In the last 30 years or so, since the mites have become a problem, beekeepers have struggled to help their insect friends to deal with them successfully. Chemical treatments, whether natural or not, all come with a whole laundry list of issues that make them less than desirable. So, exploring a return to small cell, to help control mites with fewer or no treatments, seemed worth looking into. The real results will show themselves in a couple of years, being first year packages often times don’t have large mite issues anyway. So far, though, there are 2 happy healthy small cell hives.
Another practice that April started using this year, was to add in foundationless frames to the hives. Conventional beekeepers created a foundation that mapped out where the bees should build their comb in the hive. It helped to keep everything neat and tidy and exactly where the beekeeper wanted it. The foundation was traditionally made of beeswax, but many beekeepers today have shifted to the more durable, easier to work with, completely un-natural plastic foundation. April feels like using foundation, is kind of like telling a painter that they can only create, using paint by number. Although, it does seem to create more work for her, and sometimes, the bees need to be redirected, but she hopes to create a more holistic, loving, and peaceful home for her hives by shifted some of the frames over to foundationless. Over time, hives that build without foundation will start creating whatever honey comb cell size they want, instead of the size that humans tell them to build.
Each year, April, works to better understand the needs and true nature of these incredible creatures. She feels like they have called to her to become their keeper and in exchange have taught her countless life lessons. This year, letting go of control and trusting the hive have been important lessons. Sometimes the hive has a plan that is not revealed to the keeper. Action is not always necessary and observation will teach a lot.
Not all of the hives would be able to give honey this year, and April again is reminded that patience is an important part of this relationship. Pushing bees to produce honey leads to thoughtless and destructive practices for her bees. She needs to be in the moment and think about what the hive needs to be healthy during each inspection, not what the hive needs to produce lots of honey. Each years the girls (boy bees don’t produce honey) gave what extra they could. April asks for no more. Her bees get fresh foundation or, whenever possible, the opportunity to re-queen themselves rather than have a new queen chosen and placed for them. All of these actions may take energy away from honey production, but allows the hive to thrive and care for itself the way it knows best.
Extracting though is always a joyous celebration for April and the rest of the farm. Everyone gets excited about the rich golden sweetness that flows from the extractor. The 2 crew members that have been mentoring with April this year, help with the process and learn about why April uses bee escapes to coax the bees out of their honey boxes instead of fume boards or blowers. April feels this is more gentle and loving practice, although it takes two or three times longer than other options. Fume boards and blowers seem a violent practice that only serves the beekeeper. As the gifted honey fills the buckets, everyone gives thanks to the bees for their generosity and thoughtful lessons this year.