by Jennifer Sawyer
of Go Hive Yourself
I don’t like to refer to myself as a “beekeeper” nowadays as that description feels like it leans towards a keeper of bees using commercial management methods — which I did for a couple of years. My views have changed drastically since my days of ten frame Langstroth boxes with foundation (prefabricated comb) to aid in my maintenance and routine hive checks, regularly scraping off all of the hard work they put into building propolis. Speeding through my look-sees with very little gentility often leading to agitated and smashed bees. It would break my dark heart to hear the unavoidable crunch of their little bodies when moving at human speed. Don’t get me wrong, it is incredible to peek inside the workings of one of the world’s most fascinating super-organisms but I couldn’t stop the thought of how incredibly invasive it was and the exact opposite of the way nature intended. I needed to re-learn “beekeeping” this time with the bees as the teacher.
I have spent hours on hours over three years watching their communication techniques and flight patterns at the hive entrance, as well as swarm behavior pre, during and post. Even more hours observing their little bodies as they assist mating between the flora in my yard which lead to a full blown nerd-out obsession with all pollinators, all the insects and soil health. I have also done a bit of research on the what’s what of apis mellifera. I spent many nights awake obsessing over solutions to not just the issues facing honeybees, but for the entire umbrella of insects, which in return helps bird health and soil health. Their health is supported by availability of diverse forage-nectar and pollen sources free from topical and systemic pesticides, propolis production, less chance of stress and access to clean water and minerals. We also need to stop forcing them into managed boxes — which as it turns out is a very unpopular opinion. Too add: obtaining a hive in fact does not “save the bees”. Too many honeybees in one area can cause a strain on native pollinators per lack of diverse forage including native flora. With that being said, one needs enough genetically diverse colonies in an area to strengthen the gene pool. Balance.
I realize that backyard urban “beekeeping” is not the equivalent to running an apiary where my income is dependent on the buzz of thousands of hives that require commercial maintenance, thereby giving me the chutzpah to express the above opinion/findings. Then again, the very notion that we are forcing bees onto semis to be trucked around the country to ensure pollination because the biodiversity that sustains a healthy insect/native pollinator population has been wiped clean for mono-culture production of food should cause pause. This among many other environmental atrocities for the sake of industrial agriculture…I digress.
I have devoted my quarter acre urban property on the SE side of Bend (born and raised here) to revegetation using the methods, philosophy of balance encouraged by Sensei Masanobu Fukuoka and am now focused on convincing others to do the same whilst simultaneously growing their own food using his natural methods and mineralized soil. My yard is brimming with creatures via an abundance of diverse forage (including “weeds”) for all pollinators, a canopy for birds, debris for insect habitat to support the birds and balance, and a garden that has slowly been building soil and growing small crops over the years. No pesticides or fertilizers are used anywhere on the property and I have banned mowing and edging our now walkable meadow-esque turf. It’s incredibly peaceful. I am sometimes successful in hosting honeybees for more than two seasons. Some years they don’t make it and that is okay. On a good year, the gals gift me honey that is deeply flavored in floral notes. I harvest only in small quantities as to not stress my gals by taking too much of their reserves.
Swarming — the birth of the colony — is by far my favorite of the honeybee happenings. Swarm season can be April-June in these parts, starting 16 days (daughter queen metamorphosis) after several consecutive-warm-seventy-ish days. The Queen Mother leaves en masse with about two thirds of the colony as the hive has become swollen with bees. This swarm of bees will cluster around the queen to protect her, hanging just about anywhere while scout bees peruse and measure new dwellings. Each scout returns to the surface of the honeybee ball and has the job of convincing her fellow scouts to check out her proposed digs, and that hers is the best choice through exuberant dance. The more scouts she can convince the more votes she gets. This process can take several days or happen in a flash. Once the final votes are cast, the cluster moves as a unit to the winning location. This cluster looks like a cloud en route. Back inside the original hive a daughter is born and takes her rightful place as queen. She will conduct mating flights with 10-20 drones from neighboring colonies and fill her spermatheca with a lifetime worth of sperm. This process is conducted mid-air. Drones who are successful mating with the queen die a most unfortunate death. In a nutshell, upon ejaculation the penis is detached or ripped from his body sending him falling to the ground. Heads-up! Although highly unlikely to happen naturally in these parts, a colony can give birth or swarm up to 20 times. The queen cells remaining after the birth of the last daughter will be disposed of by her. The most swarms I’ve had birth off one hive was five.
If you happen to encounter a cluster don’t panic and don’t pester them. You can either call a bee person like myself to re-home it, or leave it be and it will eventually move on. If you are interested in revegetation I sure would love to help you set your wilds free.
photos courtesy of Go Hive Yourself