Last spring I began keeping honey bees. I built a stout set of hive boxes, ordered a colony of italian honey bees, and waited anxiously for their arrival. Clad in a beekeeper's veil and gloves, I installed them into the waiting hive boxes, and watched excitedly throughout the spring and summer as the colony thrived and expanded. I added another hive box, then topped the stack off with two "supers" -- shallow boxes which the bees filled with honeycomb -- honeycomb filled with honey. I left all that honey for them last fall, hoping it would give them the needed foodstores they required to emerge strong and healthy in the spring.
Beekeeping has been part of human activity for thousands of years. Jars of honey, sealed in wax, were found among the grave stuffs of the pharoahs (Tutunkhamen!). Like other agricultural practices it has been scaled up and modernized, with mechanized transport of bees from crop to crop across the continent, and even across oceans. Where once every agrigultural community would have been involved in bee keeping it is now a highly specialized function, performed largely out of the public perception. Bees are worked hard, transported from crop to crop and state to state all year long. Perhaps not surprisingly, bee populations are showing signs of degradation.
Sometime during the winter my colony died -- the whole colony. I wasn't alone in my losses. Last year there was an overall mortality rate of 40% for US honey bee hives. This is a startling number, far above historically observed mortality rates. Collectively, we (human beings) ought to be pretty anxious about this rate of loss, given our incredible and mostly invisible dependence on honey bees in the production of our food.
Rather than purchase a new colony this year, I decided instead to try to capture a swarm of honey bees. Honey bees swarm when a colony has become overcrowded. With thousands of bees in close proximity to a queen, they take to the skies in a dark, buzzing cloud, looking for a safe spot to move in and start a new hive. I hoped to attract a passing swarm by offering an ideal place for a wandering colony to move in -- a gently used hive box, complete with some waxy old frames. So I separated the old hive boxes in order to clean them up and set up a swarm trap.
That's when I found the honey. Last year's colony had apparently met its demise early in the season, leaving untouched frames full of honey. Sealed in uniform wax-capped chambers, the honey was safely stored all winter.
I removed the clean honeycomb, making a large sticky pile in a sack of cheesecloth. I twisted up the sack, crushing its contents, and watched the honey drain out of the honeycomb. Not the most efficient way to get honey out of its comb, but it worked alright.
I got a gallon and a half of honey! And what honey -- it has a great flavor, which is built up from all of the pollen sources in my neighborhood. Honey is a bit of a super food, offering a bundle of health benefits wrapped up in a tasty, syrupy package. It's a bounty I'm incredibly grateful for, and intend to use generously.
With the frames cleaned, I placed an empty hive box on the roof of my little shop, hoping to attract a passing swarm. To sweeten the deal I spread a little bit of honey on the front step of the hive. Though the stores of last year's bees were unable to benefit them, perhaps they'll be the path for a new colony of bees to find their way to their next home.
Keeping honey bees is an attractive way to engage with domestic animals. They don't require much space, making them a good match for small urban lots. They are fascinating and soothing to watch, flying their tireless routes from pollen source to hive. They produce a valuable foodstuff, and perhaps by supporting bee populations hobby beekeepers can contribute in some positive way to the future of honey bees. I sure hope that swarm trap works!