Thursday, July 23, 2009

Beautiful Bees

This morning I had the privilege of learning about bees first-hand.

When we arrived at Tara Firma Farms, Allen Larson, owner of, aka rawhoneyguy on twitter, was already there. I could see the bee boxes, belted in and wrapped with a bright orange tie-down, on the passenger seat of his vehicle.

The weather was perfect. Cloudy and cool compared to last Sunday's mid-90's. Tara greeted us and we met Allen. Then we walked out past the barns to the old milking shed to get started. Allen handed around bee suits and Tara, Elijah and I suited up in full costume. Mr. Green just wore a jacket with hood so he could take pictures. . . I have no idea what the bee-keeping vocabulary is for these get-ups, but they are interesting. The hood with hat that protects the face zips to the collar of the jumpsuit so there's no chance of upset bees getting in underneath. Which is a good thing. Then there are the elbow-length industrial strength gloves. Once dressed, I felt safe. . . and wondered briefly about my tennis shoes, figuring if I was going to get stung, the netting over the toe box would provide good access to the tops of my feet. Ouch.

I didn't need to worry. The bees were well-behaved the whole time we played with them. You can hear when they are agitated. The volume and intensity of the buzzing sound increases quickly and dramatically. When this happened, Allen would just give them a few puffs from the little smoker which was filled with dry grass and they would calm right down. The smoke blocks their sense of smell so they can't smell the pheromone that is released when they are feeling threatened.

Allen carried the two bee boxes, still strapped together, to their new home at the edge of the vegetable garden. He removed the tie-down and then he peeled the duct tape off the bottom of the hive. As he peeled it off, giving the bees access to the outside world, he pumped smoke along the opening. I was expecting bees to come boiling out, but they didn't. A few came out and crawled around on the edge of the box. They he opened the lid. There were a lot of bees crawling around on the lid, going about their bee business. He set it aside.

Then he removed a new frame from the box and showed us that the bees were just starting to build it up with wax. The frames come with the cells already established on them. That way the bees build cells the size that will produce worker bees. Sometimes the bees make bigger cells. These cells produce drones. The queen decides to lay either a fertilized egg (which produces a worker) or an unfertilized egg (which produces a drone) by sticking her head into the cell to see what size it is.

The queen is a very busy woman. She lays between 1,500 and 2,000 eggs per day. When she flies out to mate, all the drones are waiting 100 feet up in the air. This is all the drones do. Once they leave the hive, they are not allowed back in. They fly around at 100 feet waiting for a female. Once they mate, they die. If they don't mate, they die. That's it. A drone's life is short and to the point.

The queen mates about 20 times a day for up to three days and then goes back to the hive to lay eggs. That's what she does. She can't feed herself, so the other bees feed her as long as she is laying well. If her egg laying slows, the bees will create another queen from a larvae by feeding it royal jelly and then will kill the current queen as soon as the new queen is ready.

The workers? Well, they work, work, work. Worker bee life is driven and four months long.

One gets to enjoy twenty to thirty pounds of honey from a hive in a year. It takes 2 million flowers to make a pound of honey. Bees fly over 55,000 miles to make that pound of honey. Each bee visits 50 to 100 flowers on a trip from the hive and makes 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in their lifetime.

There are 50,000 to 80,000 bees in a hive. Once it starts to get over-populated the bees will make a new queen and stop feeding the old queen so she slims down. When she is ready, she will fly out, taking about half the bees with her. They will swarm to a new location.

We spent some time looking at the frames full of bees. I was sharing one with Elijah and I asked if he thought there were three hundred bees on the frame. He said, "No, at least five hundred." It was about 2/3 covered on one side. The bees are beautiful. We saw one do the bee dance, letting the other workers know what was needed in the area where she was working.

We held a frame that was already full of honey. It was heavy. It weighed at least 5 pounds probably more like seven.

I only had one bee hit the front of my hood. They were calm the whole time we played with them. Allen told us that if we ever ended up in a swarm of angry bees to run and swat, don't stand and swat. Bees are territorial and if you run you will get to the edge of their territory and they will leave you alone. Same with wasps or yellow jackets. If you do get stung by a bee, scrape the stinger out with your fingernail as quickly as possible. Don't bother looking for a credit card.

Allen tried to find the queen, but she was illusive. She is pretty easy to spot if she is on a frame. She's twice as big as a worker bee and has a shiny upper back. No fuzz. We didn't see her.

The sun came out and things started to heat up. Allen put the frames back in the hive and we left the bees to get used to their new home. Back at the old milking barn, Allen got out four jars of honey and let us taste them. Each one was completely different. He had raspberry honey, which was light in color and did taste slightly of raspberry. Spring flower had a little citrus to it. Wildflower was darker and richer tasting with just a hint of molasses. And alfalfa, which is the most common type, reminded me of home. When I was in grade school we used to get alfalfa honey every once in a while from a bee grower in Rupert. I liked the wildflower the best. Yum.

Being with the bees was peaceful. Their hum is calming and pleasant. It was an amazing experience to see them working, learn about them and enjoy the morning with new friends. There is a lot of thistle blooming on the farm right now. And vegetables and blackberries. It will be interesting to see, next summer,what Tara Firma Farms tastes like. I'm looking forward to it.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Allen will be maintaining the hive over the course of the year. There will be bee parties each time he comes to the farm. If you are interested in knowing when these bee parties are happening, send Tara Firma Farms an email. Tara and Craig would love for you to come out and experience the bees.

If you'd like to see the rest of my Bee pictures there they are.

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