Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Magical Flight of the Honey Bee

With the desire to share my fascination with honey and honeybees, I've decided to do a two-three part series on the basics of beekeeping. In my childhood our family had a constant supply of honey on hand. It went into nearly everything buttered toast, cereal, fruit, chicken, yogurt...but mainly was scooped right from the jar and into our mouths. 

In my early teenage years I somehow found my way into the home of a local beekeeper and volunteered my scrawny pony-tailed self to help him with his bees. His wife was ailing and he was an elderly man, introduced to me by my father, who smelled of pipe tobacco and honey. Still today, the scent of a corn cob pipe burning brings back fond memories especially when paired with the sweet smell of honey. 

He taught me how to spin the honey out of the combs, gently pick out the random casualty, and pour into awaiting jars. Being constantly sticky became standard. I learned how to cut out the wax slabs filled with honey from their wooden frames and package into squares for customers who preferred honeycomb to spread onto their toast. As we worked he would feed me tidbits of information about bees and the health benefits of their honey. We would break for peanut butter and honey sandwiches with a glass of milk, then go back to work in the basement. I am not quite sure what the "contract" was but I know I worked a few hours here and there and came home with a handful of freshly cut honeycomb, jars of warm honey, and even more in knowledge. 

Now into my adulthood, and being incredibly proud of my father who is a beekeeper, I have embraced honey as nearly part of my DNA. I adore honey in all ways. I still put it on my cereal, on my toast, in my tea, and in vinaigrettes, but now I have many other uses for honey. As an ultra runner and endurance athlete I have been experimenting with my nutrition in relation to my training and racing. I am currently using a product called Liquid Gold by Glory Bee Foods which is pure honey mixed with molasses and sea salt. I have several reviews and information on it if you do a search under my sister blog. Similar to GU, it is used to fuel my runs and so far has proved to be very effective not to mention incredibly tasty. 

Lastly, for nearly a year now I have used honey as a face wash (and scrub if the honey crystalizes) followed by either Rosehip Seed Oil, Apricot Kernel Oil, or Unrefined Coconut Oil as a moisturizer. Honey is both a moisturizer and an anti-bacterial, working perfectly for my irritable combination/sensitive skin. I also hand make several of my own spa products such as lip balms, candles, body butters & balms, shaving creams, bath scrubs, face masks, and household cleaning agents. Many of these products have honey in them! 

So from me to you: here's a little bit of knowledge that is "buzz"worthy.

The Honeybee
-written by Victor Lipinski, certified beekeeper located in eastern North Carolina

Touching on History

    Honeybees have been functioning on this planet for millions of years, initially solitary bees eventually evolving into social insects.  Honeybees play such an important role in agriculture that the plant world expends a lot of energy attracting bees and other insects with brilliantly colored flowers and sweet nectar (nectar is produced solely to attract pollinating insects).

     The scientific classification of the Honeybee is Apis Mellifera: meaning “honey bearing bee”.  Honeybees, native to Africa, Asia, and Europe, were brought over to the New World by Spanish and English colonists.  American Indians called the Honeybee, “white man’s flies”.

     Feral, or wild bees, live in hollow spaces found frequently in tree cavities.  Early beekeepers in the Western World kept Honeybees in various containers such as woven skeps, logs or wooden containers and harvested the honey by crushing, then gravity- straining, the wax and honey.  The father of modern beekeeping, Lorenzo Langstroth of Pennsylvania, invented the modern Langsthroth hive in 1851 when he discovered “bee space” (3/8 inch space that bees naturally create in hives) and the present day beekeeping hive design has changed little in the past 150 years.  It features 3/8 inch space between moveable frames, interchangeable parts, hive bodies and supers (where the honey is stored by the Honeybees and then extracted by beekeepers).

Structure of the Hive  

left to right: worker, queen, drone

The Honeybee hive contains three types of bees:  one queen, many female workers and a few male drones.  The queen is the mother of the hive and lays about 1500 eggs a day that metamorphize into adult bees in 16 to 24 days.  The stages of metamorphosis are egg, larvae, pupae and adult bee.  The queen doesn’t actually “rule the hive” but it is her pheromone that is transferred from bee to bee within the hive that creates a sense of calm and security.  When something happens to the queen, thereby disrupting this pheromone, the Honeybees become agitated and dysfunctional.  They must create a new queen quickly in order to propagate the species.  

     The worker bees are all female and they are responsible for keeping the hive functioning.  They take care of the queen, build up the frame cells with wax they produce, clean and guard the hive, remove dead bees, feed the brood (larvae) and eventually forage to collect pollen and nectar and water for the hive.  They never sleep and wear themselves out in about six weeks—a brief but productive lifespan.

     The drone bee, or male of the hive, has mainly one job and that is to mate with a queen.  This sounds like an easy task, but the queen cannot be from his own hive.  Every day in the early afternoon, the drones from various hives fly within a mile of their hives and remain in a ‘drone congregation area’ approximately 50 feet up in the sky awaiting the arrival of a queen to fertilize.  Fertilization by a few lucky drones occurs in flight, after which the drone dies.  The queen mates over several days with many drones as this is her only opportunity to be fertilized for the rest of her life.  (If she returns home not having accomplished enough ‘matings’ her attendants will push her out of the hive for another day of mating.)  The queen flies to a ‘drone congregation area’ further than a mile from her hive to insure that she doesn’t mate with a drone from her own hive.

We beekeepers sometimes think that it is our expertise that keeps the Honeybees alive when actually we must just learn to listen to the bees, watch them function and discover how we may support them in doing what they have done for millions of years – survive.

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