016 – The Connection in Midtown

You can support the wellbeing of pollinators in a variety of ways.

I admire this: when a person wants to support a cause, but they don’t have the ability to engage it directly, so they offer what they do have in partnership, as a small piece of the puzzle, and find joy in it. Here is a person who wants to “Save the Bees,” but he doesn’t have the interest or ability to directly engage in an activity like beekeeping. But he has a yard, and would like to host bees and put up a sign and set an example for his neighbors. And he knows his package-delivery-person keeps honey bees. So he reaches out and makes a new connection.

This year, the connection yielded up a couple boxes full of light amber, fruity flavored honey in the middle of spring. It is exceptionally clear. Over a lipid, like butter on toast or full-fat yogurt, the flavor simply sparkles like all that urban sunshine.

Early Prunus on Providence Road

At this particular location, I am fortunate to keep bees without supplemental feeding of sugar syrup. In Charlotte, our summers have long hot months with next-to-no sources for nectar forage. It is hard to believe with all the green growth, but from July to October can be lean months for a honey bee colony. So most local beekeepers incorporate sugar syrup into their apiary management, just so they don’t stress their bees unnecessarily. Sugar syrup is not unhealthy for bees, but it is not very healthy either — imagine going four months a year with only foods from the snacks/chips aisle — you wouldn’t starve but you’d need a detox later. But the bees in this person’s yard have not been fed any sugar, and they don’t seem to be overstressed. So I am happy for his desire to help the bees and my bees are happy for his neighbors who desire to let their clovers and other weeds grow.

Wood sorrel in historic Cherry neighborhood.

If you let your dandelions, your clovers, and all the “little purple flowers” grow up and bloom in your yard, all the bees around you — native bees too! — will be as happy and healthy as my honey bees with no sugar. And you will Love Me Some Honey!

018 – Honoring the Bees with Charlie

I got a call from Charlie on Tuesday, would you like to come tomorrow to help with a cut-out?

Charlie Rivers rescues bees on a daily basis.

I’ve never done such a thing in my life. But I have the day off. I’ve said to him before that I’m curious about what he does. So, the answer is “sure, just tell me where and when and what to bring.”

After some clarifications, we met, and rode together to some friend-of-a-friend’s farm. The bees were in the back of the barn, a two-story board-and-batten sided structure with an open garage on one end and a closed storage on the end with the bees. We didn’t go inside; it is relatively easy to take off board and batten. It’s a typical barn, with “stuff” stashed along every edge — but in this case some of the stuff was useful: they had components for a scaffold and some boards and plywood. So Charlie build us a platform about four feet high, up to the bottom of the tall skinny beehive. Meanwhile, I got the smoker lit, and put on my long shirt and got my veil out of his truck.

That’s me with the service end of the bee-vac. The bees get pulled (fairly gently) into a standard hive box.

I climbed up on the platform and started to give the bees some smoke. Up close, I could see that there were multiple entrances at different heights and behind different battens. Judging by the buildup of propolis along some of the edges of the battens, and by the apparent age of some of the combs, Charlie guesses that colony of bees had been there for five years. They were a very vigorous and active colony, and Charlie wanted me to put on my veil. He had just set his bee-vac up on the platform and I didn’t quite understand his urgency about my veil until the crowbar came out.

Now I said that board and batten is easy to disassemble. That is true. But it requires some banging and some prying and some shaking and pulling. And honey bees are very sensitive to vibration. When the walls of their cavity start to have bangs and creaks from prying, they think a big old bear is after their brood, and they get very defensive. In this case, it is two smaller bears, and we really are on the side of the bees, but they don’t necessarily understand that. So Charlie told me with a little more urgency, “Might want to put on that veil now.”

Charlie said this is that largest cut-out he has ever done.

And so we deconstructed their hive, board by board, comb by comb. We used his vacuum to suck as many bees as we could into a standard hive body with some empty frames in it. Each comb we cut from its board, holding it to keep it from falling and slicing and scraping its attachment to the wood, vacuum the bees into the box, and put the comb gently into a bucket. Old comb got sorted to be melted down, honey comb got sorted to be crushed and strained out, and comb with brood in it was stacked with extra care to cause as little damage as possible.

Piece by piece we worked our way to the end of the bees’ nest. It was perhaps the largest colony I’ve ever seen. Healthy. Vigorous. Organized and intentional. To cut out a comb, I would reach in behind it with my left hand so to cut it with my right. Well there are lots of bees in there, even after the vacuum, and so I would have to be very touch-sensitive and gentle with my grabbing because I can’t see where the bees are; I can only feel them and try not to pinch one. They were gentle bees, but I still got stung more this day than in the two years previous, almost entirely on the fingers. I don’t react or swell up nearly so much as I used to, but sometimes when they get close to a nerve ending it sure does hurt!

I took about twenty stings by the end of the day, but my fingers still look like fingers.

Which is all to say just this: here is a very special batch of honey, not ever to be duplicated! These bees were feral, completely unmanaged for five-ish years, foraging in a largely undeveloped environment. The honey I got from them is all there will be from them, except that Charlie will reestablish them in a new location under direct management. But this chapter is over. Celebrate it! These bees were rescued from a situation where they were becoming pests, without undue harm or rough treatment, and certainly no insecticides. We hope to breed new queens from this stock and continue the line, but that’s another story … until then, Love Me Some Honey!