Humming Trees

mapleflower
My left foot is still encased in a fiberglass cast. April has been magnificent so far and I am determined to get outside to play in the garden. I stump around for awhile, then flop into the outdoor recliner and lean back. This takes the weight off my foot and tilts me toward the sky, where I gaze at the blooming maple tree. All those brilliant yellow-green tassels are flowers. What you can’t tell from looking at this photo is that the canopy of the tree is gently humming. It’s a low soft sound, which might be mistaken for something else. Lying on my back, listening, my eyes focus and then I can see the tiny shapes silhouetted–lots and lots of insects. They’re hover flies, and a few honeybees.

My honey bees have been quite active on these warm days, and male rufous hummingbirds zing through the garden as they establish territories. Butterflies and moths are starting to appear. Pollinators have been much on my mind since someone at work mentioned a website where you can submit photos of bumblebees for identification. It’s called bumblebeewatch.org. While checking that out, I visited the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation where I learned about the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. Why not? I registered my garden, since it appears to be providing lots of pollinator habitat right now.

The arrival of honeybees in my life six years ago has been an experience in witnessing how connected all things are. As a beekeeper, I still have much to learn. They are alien and mysterious, but I’ve fallen in love with them anyway. All I have to do is provide flowers and water in the summer, and some sugar candy in winter. The hive is located in a place that receives morning sun, afternoon shade, and is somewhat sheltered from the wind. It’s tucked out of travel paths, but near enough that I can keep an eye on it. Henry, my big gray cat, spends hot afternoons in the shade behind the hive. My approach to beekeeping is pretty hands off. I figure they know what they’re doing better than I do. I don’t have any particular need to open the hive and look for the queen or see how much brood there is. Knowing how chemically sensitive honeybees and other beneficial insects are, I garden as organically as possible. By creating healthy soil and choosing climate-adapted plants, I rarely have problems that require chemical intervention. Diatomaceous earth takes care of the dreaded earwigs that devour my zinnia seedlings. Slugs are trapped with beer and aphids can be sprayed away with the water hose.

People who don’t keep bees can still do a lot to help pollinators. Avoid monoculture, both in your own outdoor environment and in your food choices. Plant a diversity of shrubs and flowers (including natives), minimize lawns, let some of the vegetation be wild and less-tended. Avoid pesticides and other garden chemicals. Do your homework. If you purchase plants from nurseries, make sure they are grown without the use of neonicotinoids. These are a group of systemic insecticides which remain in plant tissues, including pollen. Very bad for bees. Neonicotinoids are also sometimes used on hay. There have been reports of composted horse manure containing neonic residue, which contaminates gardens. (See, everything is connected!) Pollinators require water. I’ve seen bees landing on plants after I’ve turned off the sprinkler. They will also drink at puddles, bird baths, and swimming pools.

Lying there on my back listening to the maple tree hum, I am able to put aside all these concerns and worries about the messed-up world. I will do all I can in my small way to help these creatures thrive. But it is also necessary to marvel at the sheer wonder of flowering plants and pollen and how plant success is made possible by flying insects. (And birds and bats.) Amazement is a counterbalance to the uncomfortable knowledge of just how fragile the web of life is. Which leads me to the most important thing I have learned from bees so far…when I squat down in front of the hive and watch them coming and going, each of them doing her job, I know that their business has nothing to do with me at all. Or any other human, or any of our works. How marvelous to not be as important as I think I am.

Learning

Last weekend I winterized the beehive. When I took the top off to look inside, I noticed that they had built some free-form comb between two frames where I had left some space. It was full of honey. I put the top back on, but I got to thinking about that honey. Would it cause any harm to pry out some of that comb? I went back out with my hive tool, and after a little jiggling around, I had honeycomb in my hand. The bees were nestled deep in the hive and it was too cold for them to want to come out.

What to do with the comb? How to get the honey out? My beekeeping operation is minimal. I don’t have fancy equipment or a honey house. I did some internet research, and learned that there is an extraction method called “crush and strain”. So I smashed the honeycomb on a plate with the back of a wooden spoon, then scraped the gooey mass into the screen of a sprouter lid that I had placed on top of a wide mouth jar. It works–light amber honey drips into the jar. After more reading, I learned that honey should be harvested when the weather is warm because it’s more liquid then. November honey is thick and slow. I learned that the free-form comb is called burr comb, and bees build it where they have space. Beekeepers inspect their hives frequently, and scrape the burr comb off. It’s very orderly and geometric inside a beehive. Giving bees rectangular frames to draw comb on and store honey makes harvest easier. Also inspection–the beekeeper can lift the frames out to look for brood, which are the developing larvae of new bees. I learned that I need to keep a better eye on things inside my hive–proper frame spacing, removal of burr comb, scraping of propolis (the glue that bees make to plug holes and stick things together). The bees seem healthy, but I watch for mites and individuals that appear sick. They can get infections of the gut and trachea, and that can wipe out the whole colony.

Seems that I learn best by doing. I have a couple of beekeeping books, and have studied them. But curiosity about a particular situation and actual experience ensures that what I learn goes into long-term memory. Next spring I will have to invest in some more bee gear, like a hat and veil, gloves, and a straining bucket. More learning ahead! My fingers are crossed that the bees get through winter in great shape.

In the meantime, I’ve got a bowl full of sticky burr comb that I squish and let drip in small batches. Then I get to learn how to melt the wax and figure out how to turn it into something useful.

Because of the learning and joy beekeeping has brought to me, I’m going to take advantage of an opportunity to share. By making a donation to Heifer International, I can help a family somewhere in the world obtain bees, supplies and training so that they can raise and sell bee products. There are many domestic animals to choose from which help people be more self-sufficient but since I can’t donate for everything, I choose bees. This is not an advertisement–the catalog showed up in my mailbox, and when I saw the bees I thought of a world-wide community of beekeepers. Pretty darn cool to be able to pass on the learning and sweetness.