I had the best day on Monday. I was lucky enough to know someone who, not only owned an extra bee suit for me to wear, but also allowed me to tag along on his beekeeping rounds. And I didn't die! So all is good. Plus I learned a bunch of stuff. So I wanted to share.
My buddy Jamie is a part-time beekeeper and full-time firefighter. He's cut people out of cars after horrific car accidents and dragged people to safety from house fires. Pretty neat dude....although matching the title of "beekeeper" and Jamie seemed a bit, well, odd. I always pictured bee keepers to be older, slighter gentlemen that wore glasses and always had their noses in books. I guess I'm WAY off with that perception.
I arrived at Jamie's house at 9 am sharp, having no idea what I'd be getting myself into. He threw me a big white paint suit-looking thing and some really long gloves and told me to suit up. Sweet! I've ALWAYS wanted to wear a bee suit. However, once on, I felt I looked more like an oompa loompa than an actual "bee keepers assistant". That's what I decided to call myself for the day. Bonnie, Beekeepers Assistant. I think I should get a name tag made up. Or a placard outside my office.
So we jump in Jamie's truck (which was packed with boxes and frames and all sorts of other stuff). And of course the questions just come flooding out of my mouth.
How did he become a part-time bee keeper? His answer was such a typical Kiwi one - he said he knew an older guy who had some hives, but was having back trouble and couldn't lift the boxes anymore (honey weighs A LOT, people), and thought Jamie might be interested in taking over for him. "He was just going to set fire to all the hives, and I hate seeing things go to waste." I LOVE that!
Setting fire. Interesting. Why is lighting a hive on fire the most ideal way of releasing oneself from beekeeping duties - can't you just...let them go? He laughed. "No. You can't just 'let them go.'" Oh.
He told me that there are no wild beehives left in existence, at least not in New Zealand. So, in essence, all bees are now "kept". Well, all honeybees that is.
And...what are we doing to these kept bees today? He said this was his first time checking the hives since the cold winter - there is a chance some of the hives may have died. He also wanted to check for and treat any signs of the Varroa mite and American Foulbrood. The Varroa mite is the reason for all of the "wild" bee colonies dying out. And if we find American Foulbrood in any hive, we have to kill all the bees so it doesn't spread. American Foulbrood is being heavily combatted here in New Zealand - it is a very aggressive bacterial disease that kills bee larva, and will basically wipe out any bee colony it touches. It's spread to bees in New Zealand could quickly wipe out the small amount of bees we have left. Freaky stuff.
So we arrive to the first site, some guy's farm. It still weird to me that people allow other people full use of their property. The level of trust in New Zealand is amazing. Does this guy know you have bees on his property? Jamie just laughed. "No, I just snuck the hives on his land and hoped he wouldn't notice." Ok, sarcasm, I like it! So how do you approach someone about putting beehives on their property. See, this is where I'm still not accustomed to New Zealand culture. He said he just called in one day and talked about the benefits of hives for farmers - bees help to polinate flowers and clover - the latter helps to provide feed for livestock (because all our livestock here is grass fed. How awesome?) And the guy agreed. He has 3 different locations with up to 4 hives at each spot.
The minute we drove up to the first set of hives, I got a bit nervous. I could see bees surrounding two of the three hives, the third one looked, well, a bit sad. Jamie guessed the colony had died. I was about to ask him why we parked so far away from the hive and had to lug all of our gear over about 10 yards, and then remembered that it's best to try as hard as possible not to disrupt like 100,000 potentially angry guys with stingers on their butts.
Well, girls, actually. ALL honeybees we see are female. They only allow a few males in their colony, called drones, and their only job is to mate with the queen. Then basically they freeload (I'm not making this up!) and eat honey and hang out until they are either thrown out by the females (seriously!) OR they get to mate with the queen and once she's had them she doesn't let them go...so they are forced to fly off with their junk being ripped off. And then die. Wow, human guys, you have it so much better!
Jamie hands me this oil can looking thing - it's the "smoker". Smoke makes bees a little dopey. It's like weed for bees. He put some newspaper and dry pine needles in and set it alight, then closed the lid. It had this awesome accordian like thing on the side and when I squeezed that in, the smoke came out through the little hole in the top. My job was to go and smoke out the bees so we'd have a less chance of getting stung. I had a bit too much fun with this thing. I think I ended up blowing more smoke into Jamie's face than I did into the beehives. But it seemed to work well.
Jamie went to work looking in each hive at each frame, checking each hive's activity. A hive is made up of a wodden box which is filled with frames, where the bees make their waxy octagonal shaped things which becomes honeycomb. But they're not only used to store honey - the queen bee lays her eggs in them, the store pollen in them that feeds the baby bees - so when you're beekeeping you have to make sure you first, save the bees enough honey for themselves, but also make sure you don't harvest honey that is in the same frame as eggs and pollen. So Jamie puts a metal grate in between some of the boxes so the queen can't get to the top to lay her eggs.
I'm watching Jamie work and make the mistake of looking down at my own bee suit. I am literally COVERED in bees. And so is Jamie. The weird thing is, they aren't trying to sting me, they're just hanging out, kinda wandering around. Jamie says these are the guard bees - they are checking us out to see if we pose a threat to their hive. God I hope they don't think that! Jamie reminds me to stay calm - bees really can smell fear and this can signal an attack.
I keep thinking of Thomas J in My Girl when he goes into the woods to get Vada's mood ring. And the bee's nest...poor Thomas J. I loved that movie. But I don't want to be Thomas J. I don't want to die out in some farmer's paddock.
Of course I start to get a bit fidgety and my nose starts to itch, so I figure I'll just unzip just enough of my mesh helmet thing to slip a finger in to rub my nose. But I get wrapped up in what Jamie is doing and forget to zip up that little bit. Of COURSE I look down and see a stupid bee RIGHT at the entrance of the unzipped bit of my helmet and before I can put my finger down to cover it, she goes right on inside.
A bee inside my helmet. An ANGRY bee inside my helmet. I'm panicking. I'm super panicking. I start walking away slowly, well, kinda slowly, and am trying to find the zips to unzip my helmet from my head so I can get this stupid thing out back where it belongs - hopefully without stinging my face. Hey, think of the bright side, my brain says, bees can only sting once. So not helpful, brain. But thanks.
Jamie comes over to see what I've done. Luckily we convince the bee to fly out and then I get a finger wag in my face for not zipping up my suit all the way. Tail between my legs, I promise I'll be more careful. Then back to our task.
I help Jamie put some Varroa mite strips in between the frames in each bee box. When the bees crawl through the frames to move to another frame or another level, they will come in contact with the mite treatment and it will hopefully keep the mites at bay.
Onto the next hives - same jobs. The first hive seems to be the strongest, so Jamie thinks he will split it and get some of the bees to join the other hive. The crazy thing is, bees know where they live! They can see color and know, for example, that their hive is 3 boxes high and has a yellow box at the bottom - which is why bee boxes are often brightly colored. The beekeepers vary the design of each hive so the bees can figure out which is home. If you change out a box, it has to be the same color otherwise you'll have thousands of lost bees.
It was also weird to see that some of the hives reacted differently to our intrusion than others. Most were pretty mellow - smoking the bee weed - but one was just nuts. Jamie said that there have been times where he has to just pack up and leave because they're just ready to attack. It's funny actually - you can tell when a bee is pissed off if they're kind throwing themselves at you. You'll fill a little "plink" and hear some angry buzzing. And then, of course, they'll sting you. And then they die. But to them, it's for the good of the hive. Jamie says you have to think of a hive as an individual, and the bees all make up that individual. It's so cut throat. And romantic in a way. He blames the queen for this aggressive hive. "If you have a bitchy queen you'll have a bitchy hive. She's gotta go."
We did our rounds and I was so surprised I hadn't been stung once, and neither had Jamie. He told me hard core beekeepers don't even bother with a suit. And they really don't get stung that often, or if they do, it doesn't seem to bother them. I think I'd be bothered, so I'm pretty grateful for the extra suit.
It's a tough job - we carted a lot of boxes and frames back and forth all day. But it was so much fun, and also crazy to see these little bee societies and how they work. The craziest thing is we need them so much and they are dying out. So we need more people like Jamie. Bees thrive in urban cities because of the concentrated amounts of flowers. Think about it. You could have tens of thousands of little bets that will supply you with your own stash of honey!
Oh! And my payment for the day? A jar of wild honey from Jamie's own beehives. Amazing.
Here are some links for more info on urban beekeeping: