The well furnished home food garden has always and still should include at least one hive of honeybees. But this is easier said than done, so learning that bees were part of Bills dowry may have been the thing that clinched the deal, back when we were courting.
Fast forward 16 honeyed years: Im writing a New York Times bee story and in the course of research discover -- who knew? -- that this little insect may well be the canary in the agricultural coal mine.
Honeybees dont get much press compared to, say, petroleum, but their pollination services are just as crucial as fuel and fertilizer to about 15 billion dollars a year in crops, from almonds and alfalfa to sunflower seeds. More bees are needed in each place than any one place could provide, so tens of thousands of hives get loaded on trucks, taken to fields or orchards in bloom, then packed up again and hauled elsewhere.
These migratory honeybees are essential to agribusiness monocropping, which could not exist if it had to depend on local pollinators. Thats why the bees have been getting their 15 minutes* of fame -- a mysterious affliction called CCD (colony collapse disorder) has destroyed so many colonies its threatening a major industry. Farmers are paying much higher prices for hive rental while also worrying there may be shortages that cant be overcome, even with expensive imports...
You can learn more, as Garrison Keiller says, than you really want to know by following the running updates at BeeCulture.com, but the very short version is:
-CCD probably isnt new; reports of similar, albeit far smaller, epidemics go back at least as far as 1898.
-CCD is almost surely not one disease or pest or insecticide, but rather a weakness in modern bees, which are stressed out by the profoundly unnatural ways they are raised and used. No study has yet revealed a single insult that is/was the tipping point. Each time a culprit is fingered, further study confirms that it is, at best, only part of the puzzle.
-Domestic honeybees are by definition livestock: living creatures raised and used by humans. What do we know about them compared to what we know about chickens and cows? Zilch. What are we likely to learn soon? Also zilch; there arent too many researches who want to study bees, and there is no massive bee industry to undertake its own research or lobby for public funds.
-The internet allows posts like this to go on at enormous length, but that doesnt mean they should, so here is the other chunk there was no room for in the print paper:
Home-Grown Honey Harvest
1. Bill checks to see if theres any honey in the frame (a pre-built foundation for the bees to start from).
2. I always thought smoke made the bees think the hive was on fire, so they were too busy worrying about the house to sting anybody. Beekeepers just say it calms them.
3. They dont stay calm long; you have to extract the honey someplace they cant get to, in this case the barn.
4. This is Bills extractor, a galvanized antique called the Root Novice. Modern extractors are steel or plastic, and this is probably the place to say that honey is so sweet bacteria cant grow on it and so low in water content yeasts wont grow either. The reason you cant give it to babies is that it can contain spores of anaerobic bacteria. The acid in human digestive systems that must process solid food prevents those spores from growing, but people who are still drinking their nourishment dont have that protection.
5. After each cell is filled with honey, the bees cap it with a wax lid. You have to slice off the lids (with a wicked sharp, thin-bladed knife) in order to get at it.
6. Bees gather honey from one source at a time. If you want to name the honey for its source -- hundreds are listed at HoneyLocator.com -- you have to harvest it before the bees move on. The dark patch looks like buckwheat but Im sure its not. Doesnt matter, whatever it is will just add complexity to this years vintage.
7. Frames are held upright by the arms of the extractor. Turn the crank and the arms whirl around, flinging the honey out by centrifugal force ( same as in a salad spinner).
8. Honey isnt the only thing that gets flung; the colander catches stray bits of wax and the occasional unfortunate bee that didnt respond to the smoke.
9. After collection, the honey is poured into sterilized jars. Over the next couple of weeks, any tiny impurities like bits of wax will rise and form a thin layer at the top. For gift-giving, we take the layer off. For us, we just leave it as extra sealant until we want to use the honey.
10. Before the equipment is washed and stored, its put outdoors for the bees to clean. They will retrieve almost all of the honey clinging to the tools.
*Fifteen minutes of fame seems to be about right, btw. Bees are as gone from the headlines as they are from all those dead hives. Tune in next February for a brief flare-up, when almond orchards will need a surge from an army so grievously depleted it may not have enough troops.
Check out the special report: The Daily Green Saves the Bees
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