To Bee or Not to Bee: The Realities of Beekeeping

Beekeeping comes with sweet rewards, but how difficult is it to actually “keep” bees? It sounds a bit like herding kittens. Jenny Bubbs, a beekeeper and owner of Pemberton-based Bubbees Honey, welcomes me to her small farm with a smile and acknowledges the beautiful sunny day: “Better for bee watching,” she explains. As soon as she seals me in one of those nifty white suits it’s over to the hives for some up-close investigating.

 

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Mark Gribbon photo.

By Ace Mackay-Smith

After hibernating in a ball all winter, today her bees are hard at work. The hives look like little bee hotels and the bees are getting down to some serious housekeeping duties. The old saying ‘Busy as a bee’ seems pretty bang-on.

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“The cleaning is done by female worker bees,” Jenny explains. Sound familiar? Wait, it gets better.

“The male drones have only one job – to mate with the queen. Other than that, they just hang out in the hive and eat. In the fall the females kick them out.” Not so different from us perhaps, but sure enough, there are dead bodies of many drones scattered in front of each hive.

Lifting the lid, Jenny sends a small puff from her smoker to alert the hive of our intrusion before carefully pulling out one of the vertically hanging combs. The construction is so perfect, beautiful. “Besides housecleaning the female workers also build the cells, collect pollen, and feed the brood and the queen.”

The honey bee accounts for 80% of all pollination done by insects. Without the honey bee’s service, more than a third of the fruits & vegetables that humans consume would be lost.

The queen bee rules all. Her majesty’s main job is to make babies and she generally mates only once, but with a dozen or so partners – usually drones from other colonies. Bees do it at elevation, high up in the sky. The virgin queen becomes part of a multiple-partner “mile high” club and then spends the rest of her time laying up to 1500 eggs a day in the hive’s cells. She is the only female who lays eggs (the workers are sterile) and she stores the extra drone sperm in her abdomen for the following years. This is necessary because the drones die after sex; the queen literally rips off their barbed penises when she’s done.

The heirs to the throne “come from the same eggs as the workers,” Jenny explains, “but a select few of these larvae get fed royal jelly, secreted from the workers’ glands. Then the first-born heir usually kills off the others and becomes the new queen.”

“I’m talking your ear off,” Jenny worries. Are you kidding? The bee drama is better than the movies. I could stay for hours watching this play out.

Even within the working class, certain bees have very specific duties. We observe foraging workers returning with tiny yellow pollen sacs attached to their bees’ knees. There are maids, construction workers, nurses, royal attendants, nannies, air-conditioning technicians, undertakers, and even bouncers at the hive hotels. A wasp tries to sneak into a hive to steal some honey but the female bouncers boot him on his wasp ass – just another wannabee.

 

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The honey bee accounts for 80% of all pollination done by insects. Without the honey bee’s service, more than a third of the fruits & vegetables that humans consume would be lost. Mark Gribbon photo.

Bees worldwide have been dying from the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder but keeping bees alive has other challenges as well. “You have to watch for mites,” Jenny warns. “ Also bears, swarming…” Swarming! I’m suddenly very glad I’m wearing the suit.

Jenny explains: “Once a hive reaches a certain capacity, which is hard to predict, the bees send out a few workers to scout a new location, usually a nearby tree. If we want to keep those bees we have to cut those branches and manoeuvre the swarm into a box, and then into a new hive.” The old hive raises another queen and the story goes on.

“Eating local honey is also great for people with allergies.” Jenny tells me. “You’re essentially eating and building immunities to all your local pollens.”

“It’s great for our garden, to have the bees,” Jenny says; “guaranteed pollination.” Bees move from flower to flower, collecting pollen (protein), then return later to gather nectar which gets regurgitated as honey (carbohydrate) into the combs. The pollen/honey feeds the bees but honey also benefits humans in more ways than one.

“Eating local honey is also great for people with allergies.” Jenny tells me. “You’re essentially eating and building immunities to all your local pollens.”

Jenny keeps her bees happy, and only gets stung once a year or so. “We steal their honey, but we also leave them more than we take,” Jenny says. “It’s important in order to overwinter them properly and get them through the cold months.” Most large-scale beekeepers feed their bees sugar water to achieve the same effect but according to Jenny, “you can taste the difference.”

I unzip the suit and Jenny sends me off with a jar of Bubbees Honey and a totally new perspective. So many tiny mouthfuls regurgitated to make a whole jar of liquid gold. It might sound kind of disgusting but Jenny was right. This is the best honey I’ve ever tasted.

Jenny and her husband Kyle harvest their honey in the fall and it sells out pretty quickly. If you are interested in Bubbees Honey find them on Facebook or go to www.bubbeesfarm.com

 

 

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