We’re down from probably well over 100,000 to perhaps under 100 or so now. And with that a profound lesson of the struggles in life has been gained over these past few days. Complexities of a simple being and comparisons to one’s own existence have emerged. As I look upon this wonderful sunny, breezy early fall afternoon the odorous remnants of a final phase still drifts in the air. Dead and dying still litter the ground as individual combat slowly ceases.
I’ve finally taken refuge and while resting I contemplate the upheaval of the society I’ve just witnessed. As I gaze at the calm river below, my cat is happily jumping at the screen of the large sliding door attempting to catch one of the last little buggers. I hope she doesn’t actually catch one.
Last Saturday, Brian Daigle finally took a day off from his railroading job to practice the art of his hobby and help out his friends, my wife Cathy and myself. He lives on a small family farm in Schaghticoke, just over the Route 67 Hudson River Bridge that connects his world to ours in Mechanicville, NY. We live about a mile north of this small Saratoga County City in the town of Stillwater, along the banks of the Hudson. The scenic river view is now what I am enjoying from our third floor great room. “Precious”, our tortoise shell cat is still playing “leap at the bug.”
We contacted Brian because he keeps bees. And we inherited a colony we didn’t want. About two months ago I noticed a few swarming around the side of a back building we wanted to tear down and replace. Being summertime and in the midst of our flower gardens and tomato patch, I didn’t think much about seeing a few bees around and, of course, we needed them.
Through the next few weeks however, it did seem like there were more and more bees buzzing through the air. I didn’t know we had a full-fledged hive growing and prospering until I saw that they were breaking through a Celotex covered portion of a second story wall, That’s when we thought a solution was in need.
I had read about how the common honey bee, Apis Mellifera, was actually getting scarce. Armed with that knowledge I didn’t want to kill them off so I looked for a better way to solve the problem. Brian is one of Cathy’s income tax clients, had been one for years, and naturally we thought of him. The only difficulty was that he worked constantly. He kept hives on his farm and worked the bee keeping business as a hobby. One might say, “He bee workin’ alla time.” But when we called him about our little dilemma, he definitely wanted to take a look at the bees. Last Saturday about noon he managed to stop by.
When you think of bees, you think of bee stings. Probably, most people don’t particularly give them much thought at all – they usually just try to give them a lot of room – more the better. Remembering stories of African Killer Bees moving north from South and Central America, and movie hype of their attacks on people, it is no wonder folks generally stay away from bees. Especially if you’ve already experienced the pain of an attack by a yellow jacket. But bees and wasps are different animals and a little knowledge or personal experience may be quite beneficial here.
Yellow jackets, hornets and wasps are quite different from the five main species of worldwide honey bees. The Common Honey Bee is one of many types of sub-specie, which are also found throughout the world. There are four European and three Asian races. Twelve more races, or sub species can be found in Africa, others in India and the Americas
African bees are all very industrious and work longer hours than most others. They get out earlier and stay out later on their endless pursuits of pollen gathering. All that work and no play also makes it a bit irritable if you get in its way. Something akin to your boss’s disposition if you want to slack off for a while.
Back in the 1950’s someone in Brazil got the great idea of creating a better bee from the hard working African and one of more pleasant disposition. That occurred just in time while the movie industry was busy making sci-fi films. You know the rest; “Attack of the Mutant Killer Bees” was coming to a theater near you! They actually do exist but haven’t moved much further north than lower Texas, as yet.
The Russian and German bees are almost as industrious but not with as bad a temperament. But the Italian Bees, those easygoing, non-threatening, fairly industrious little Italiano Bees, they are the really nice ones to have around. And here in our little piece of the world next to Mechanicville which would I have making a home in my wall?
Later, but back to wasps. Some of these can be downright nasty. I can remember hosing down the side of the front porch I was enclosing with fibreboard and of the water hitting what appeared to be a tiny little hole. In a matter of seconds the tiny hole collapsed to a big one and exposed a yellow jacket hive. Almost instantly I was peppered with yellow, stinging missiles and I threw down the hose and escaped to the inside of the house, still pursued by heat-seeking projectiles of venom. A day seared in memory and pain.
The wasps can sting you time and time again and then go about their business. Most are antisocial and quite territorial. Whereas when a bee gets ticked off and hurls its body towards you it is essentially a kamikaze – death awaits its strike. Not you, but it. When a bee stings, its abdomen, glands and poison sac are all ripped from its body and it dies. The stinger itself though has tiny barbs on it and the abdomen still pulsates it deeper into the victim thereby injecting more poison; one of the reasons you are better off getting that stinger out as quick as possible. So, a bee does not attack or sting without a dire consequence to all involved.
Bee stings for some people can be fatal if you have an allergic reaction to the venom. But that is quite rare. The other side of the spectrum is that some people actually sting themselves with bees. A natural cortisone is in the venom and it has been shown to help arthritis patients. The venom is also being studied for other benefits. An interesting observation I learned from Brian was that bees smell fear in humans. That is, they detect a pheromone given off by fearful people and it appears to agitate them and in turn have a tendency to sting. Another agitation is derived from cloudy, windy days when the weather seems to affect the bee in doing its job – gathering pollen and nectar – and in turn making it frustrated and angry. I can relate that same observation to some people I know. Sunny day, happy day; rainy day – look out!
But, I digress. Brian pulled up last Saturday in his pick-up with the side sign “Brian Daigle, Bee Keeper” and proceeded to unload his ladders for a little look-see. Not knowing what was in store and seeing just a small opening in the Celotex wall, he donned his special bee hat and climbed up for a closer inspection. He didn’t seem to be bothered too much by the buzzing all around him, checked things out that only bee keepers must know need to be checked, and climbed back down.
“Good,” he said, “Italian bees, that’s the good kind.” Not knowing a thing about a bee at the time I believe I said, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Then he proceeded with a little bee explanation while he readied some cutting tools and a smoker. He also took off his hat and had his own little smoke while he figured his next move.
“I’m gonna have to cut a piece of that board away to see what we’ve got,” Brian explained. “See how big that hive is.” I told him, “No problem, do what you have to do. The bees have to go. Do you want them?” I asked.
Brian did want them, especially being Italian Bees, as that is what his apiary was made up of. To those of you south of Riverside, an apiary is his group of hives. His next step was to uncover the hive. Up he went, this time without his netted hat, and proceeded to cut the soft board siding. He then removed the cut piece, which exposed black tar paper. Slowly, he pulled that off and found the honeycomb. As paper was peeled off, hundreds of bees buzzed his head - but he continued.
The honeycomb had filled two sections of wide wall separated by a vertical two by four stringer. Each section was about sixteen inches by two feet high. Then a third and final section was uncovered. Brian came down again.
“You’ve got one big hive there,” he said. “Fact is it’s about the biggest I’ve ever seen. Must be a hundred thousand bees in there.”
“How many does a hive generally have,” I asked. Most are between 30,000 to 50,000 but his hives have about 80,000 bees. So mine was a big hive. He also said the layers of honeycomb were four thick, double sided and loaded with honey, probably about eighty pounds or so. Also that parts of the hive had “brood” within the comb. Then he lit his smoker and set it on the ladder to keep the bees away a bit. He then fastened two brackets to the wall under the hive to be used to hold a large, wooden beehive he brought with him. By this time there were literally thousands of bees buzzing but neither of us was being bothered.
Then Brian set up the wooden hive on the brackets, minus its roof. His plan was to cut the honeycomb into sections, place those in containers for honey and wax salvage and place the “brood” comb into the open box. While accomplishing this slow and steady task he also would look for the queen and hopefully place her in the box. The Queen is about three times the normal bee size and fairly easy to spot.
So, I learned what a “brood” was. There are castes, or stations, among bees. They all live in a colony, or hive, and interact in a social order all with specific jobs or tasks. And the hive revolves around one all-important being – the Queen Bee. She is raised and pampered and has but one job, laying eggs for the continued growth and replenishment of the colony. When a Queen emerges, she spreads her wings and takes flight to a spot where drones are. About a dozen of these male bees then mate with the Queen and she returns to the hive to begin the egg laying process. She may live six to nine years. The drones die soon after mating. Must be one heck of a party! But we won’t go there.
The brood is tended, developed into larvae and fed to emerge as female worker bees. Some of the young bees are assigned to house cleaning, then to building, then to gathering the pollen or as nurses or front door guard duty. Some of the brood is raised as drones, males with no stinger and for one purpose, to hang around in case a new Queen is needed.
The gatherers can fly up to three miles in search of a nice clover field or wild flowers. When found the bee returns and does a dance to point the distance and direction to other bees. The timing and positions the dancer emulates tells the other bees the relationship of the sun to the desired destination and precisely how far to fly. A whole science of dance study has evolved among bee keeping enthusiasts to discover different meanings of these dances.
When a colony becomes too big for its space a unique thing happens. Several of the brood being raised for workers are fed “royal jelly,” an excretion made specifically by the Queen and fed by the nurses to develop another Queen. More drones are also created and all of this is timed so that the drones emerge and a day later a new Queen emerges. She proceeds to sting the other developing ones to death and flies out to meet her mates.
At the same time the old Queen takes flight with about half of the colony in the form of a “swarm.” This swarm will land close by on a tree or other resting place and send out “scouts” to find a new home. When these scouts concur on a new place fitting for a Queen, off the swarm goes, perhaps past the three-mile limit, to start a new colony. That is probably why some young bee engineer found my cozy protected wall with a convenient little opening somewhere. And now we humans want to find them a nice, new home within Brian’s beehive and Schaghticoke apiary.
As I watched Brian cutting up the comb and depositing various portions to specific areas I wondered just how nuts he actually was. His clothes and arms and balding head were resting places for buzzing bombers. But he wasn’t getting stung. The job was taking well over four hours of tedious work amid skill and bravery. The fearlessness, calm and determined movements intertwined with the fast and furious flight of the bees. I did assist somewhat and received one sting. I really stung myself as I brushed a bee from my hair and stuck its stinger in my hand. Brian also managed to grab a bee accidentally with his hand and was stung. Mine required pulling the stinger and dousing the area with ammonia but Brian just plodded along, almost completely immune. Looking at him again, covered with bees, I wondered silently, ‘no sense, no feeling?’
This labor of love was proceeding nicely to a final calm conclusion and then the Russians came. And the wasps, and Bumble Bees and the yellow jackets. All of a sudden, it seems that every type of bee, or wasp in the area was now in a feeding – or rather stealing – frenzy. Brian called them “the robbers.”
With the smell of honey drifting on the wind for miles the attraction to little bee noses must have been unreal. “Free Honey” signs could not have drawn more bees. Brian picked up a few bees that were crawling on his arm, both soaked with dripping honey. One, with a very black underside, he told me was a Russian Bee. He showed me the outwardly different pattern of large black lines on the body of the Italian Bee. Then the much thinner lines of the Native Western Honey Bee, one fast becoming scarce in the country.
Bees don’t have many enemies in the natural world. The occasional honey-stealing bear can’t be classed as an enemy, more of a nuisance to the hive. Humans can spray a hive to death and a few wasps will do battle with them over food or territory but the bee generally lives its five or six weeks of life being industrious.
However, there is a parasite mite that has infected the Western Bee and is now a bane to beekeepers and wild bees alike. The Varroa Mite can decimate a beekeeper’s hive unless kept in check through various natural or other means. It has contributed to the demise of our native bees.
While cutting the comb much honey dripped down the side of the building wall and small portions of comb laden with the sweet nectar dropped to the ground. Bees were literally swimming in honey. There were thousands of bees in the air and hundreds littered the ground and roadway. Guard bees from the colony were still trying to protect the now, non-existent hive. I watched numerous small battles of hand-to-hand – rather butt-to-butt – combat being played out in the air and on the ground. I was thoroughly intrigued with the actions of one of our Italian Guard taking on a yellow jacket. They both curled upon each other on the ground beside me and then the yellow jacket broke free and fled. Amazing to watch.
Brian finished cutting the last piece of honeycomb from the wall and laid it into his now, nearly full box. Inside the box were nine vertical louvers containing empty honeycomb. The colony was actually working within their new hive filling the comb with salvaged honey and stationing guards at the long narrow entrance on the bottom of the box. Other bees were gathering in bunches still within the old wall hive and Brian used a small, long bristle brush and dust pan to scoop them up and dropped them into the box. At times he simply scooped up a bunch with his hand and again literally dropped them into the new hive.
By six o’clock the job was over. Brian placed the roof on the box allowing a little room for bees to pass to and fro and climbed down for a well-earned rest. He had about half the honeycomb and all of the brood comb in his new hive and had several large plastic buckets full for me. There was also quite a lot that he scooped up from the ground and discarded.
He would leave the anchored hive on the wall till the next day so the remainder of the buzzing battery of bees could also find their way into the new hive. We never actually saw the Queen but Brian assumed he got her into the new hive by the reaction of the bees in their new work. Many bees were still flying about – including the many robbers – after all the spilled honey, but the job was basically done. Now we would just wait and let the area relax and the new hive rebuild.
Brian took half the honey and the brood in order to start a viable new colony. Starting a new hive in September is risky. The pollen and nectar are now getting harder to find for the bees and they must put up a fairly large supply to last them through the coming winter. Bees don’t hibernate, they live through the winter and the colony lives on the honey they store. For a normal size 60,000-bee colony they will need about sixty to eighty pounds of stored honey. Our bees have a lot of work ahead for a viable and survivable future. Many bee colonies perish between March and April from starvation unless they have ample honey reserves.
I’ve grown fond of these little animals in the past few days. Sounds strange but by going through this experience with these bees – my hive – I have learned quite a bit about the wondrous little creatures. Just one more natural thing people seem to take for granted.
The reason all those bees are still buzzing my windows is they still detect the odor from my honey processing. For the past three days I’ve strained batches of honeycomb drippings through cheesecloth and then deposited the comb in a pot and placed the strained honey into sterilized jelly jars. It’s just a slow process but it was wonderful to see my own light golden nectar in jars. I tried to speed it up with a little extra heat but the honey turned a darker color. Should have gone to the Internet on honey processing first. I got over fifty pounds of honey from that hive and Brian took about the same amount. If you add that and the waste involved with the cutting and dropping, there must have been about 110 pounds or so. That is a lot of honey for one wild hive. A pound is about 16 ounces of liquid honey. The other pot was heated to melt the wax and residual honey, then left to cool. I just separated the wax from the remainder of the honey this morning, hence the attractive odor. I was quite surprised by the small amount of actual bees wax I ended up with. In weight it is about four to five pounds. The wax will be handy for various things in the future.
As for the honey, I think I’ll give a lot of it away along with a copy of my little personal story. The pair should make an interesting and really sweet gift. I kept some of the capped honeycomb in several small bars that I cut up for my grand kids. This is part of the comb that is undamaged and the caps that the bees place over the honey are still in place, basically sealed till broken. I can’t describe the wondrous taste of biting into fresh honeycomb. But I can say it is sweeter than candy.
Once the honey is processed and sealed it will last indefinitely. Brian told me he still has some of his father’s honey made thirty years ago. In time natural honey will crystallize, or granulate because there are no chemical additions to keep it from doing so. To bring it back to its original liquid simply place the jar in hot water, presto, honey.
Cathy just brought me a cup of tea with the first use of our honey cache. And I think “Precious” may have finally caught a bee so I gotta go. But remember this, those seemingly unnoticeable little busy bees buzzing your Begonias are a crucial part of our Natural World. If you discover a hive on your property, call Brian or another beekeeper instead of grabbing the can of Raid. Bees are becoming an endangered life form and we can’t easily survive without them.
If you want to add some of this delicious honey to tea and serve with Cathy's delectable Hoska, or Christmas Bread, see her recipe and my new story on "Who Will Make the Hoska?" Enjoy!
Copyright September 30, 2004
To contact the author: David Petronis
16 River Road, Mechanicville, NY 12118
A photo of the beginning of our problem.
Brian Daigle getting started with setting the new hive.