adventures with apiarists

Burr comb is ugly.  Normal comb hangs in uniform sheets, 7-8 per super, and exudes the precision one would expect from a honeybee.  Segmented into uniform, bee-sized hexagons, built up with wax produced by the bees themselves, the comb holds nectar, pollen, honey, or young in varying stages of development–it’s colonial Tupperware.  Burr comb looks like pieces left in the microwave too long.

scraping away burr comb

scraping away burr comb

And burr comb can complicate things; it bulges off the frame, fusing to the wall of the hive,or if its close enough, to another frame.  It looks like mutated chaos.

“Shit,” says Brent as he shoves his putty knife between the frame and the wall and presses down “thing’s stuck.  Look at all that burr comb.”

It’s not the type of action your want to force; the frame he’s attempting to pull out is laden with bees, and I envision him jerking it free and launching the vibrating mass towards my face.

Brent is wearing his screened beekeeper’s hat; his father-in-law, who is allergic to bees, sports a full suit; I am wearing a thick coat of trust.  I stand in Brent’s Hamden, CT back yard in a long-sleeve shirt and a baseball hat, protected only by the extra two feet of berth I’m giving the hive and my faith in his knowledge of bee temperament.

As he pries again I tuck in my shirt.

Brent scrapes the sides and pulls the frame from the hive; the golden comb is thick with a coating of bees, busily tending to young or depositing food; the fact that they are rotating in the air for inspection doesn’t seem to phase them.  Inconvenienced more than annoyed, they hustle past us like we’re shopping carts in the middle of the cereal aisle.

“They’re pretty happy,” Brent says confidently “that means they’ve got lots of food; we came out here in late August last year and they were…not thrilled.”

How can you tell when they’re angry, I ask eagerly as bees perch on the brim of my hat.  “Bees don’t want to sting you.  They know if they do they die, so if you’re too close, they ram you a few times to warn you.  In August there really wasn’t food around, so they were coming straight for us.   No ramming.”


Inversion=not a problem.

Brent and his wife Shannon began keeping bees last year; they’d had good luck their first season, but had lost a hive to a swarm; one day, the bees just left.  To ask a beekeeper for a reason is to ask a fisherman why the a trout won’t bite.

They could have left because of a lack of space, a colony getting too large, or because the queen just felt like it (it’s the way hives propagate, Brent points out).  Wild hives regularly swarm, generally in the spring, sometimes following the queen fasting (so she’s light enough to fly) or just before the hatching of a new queen, which happens a few days after the old one has taken off.

For whatever reason, the bees that had been there all season were gone.

Anatomy of a beehive

As Brent pulled off the first super, we came into the hive body and into the brooding cells where new bees are grown.  Eggs laid into the open cells hatch and develop, and are then capped until they emerge as adults.  All worker bees are female, according to Brent, but the males–drones–were also in incubation, denoted by the cells that bulged out much farther than the others.

I had understood drones to be loafing males whose only purpose was to procreate with the queen, which is not entirely the case–the reproduction of the honeybee is far more interesting, and socialized, than that.

While the drone’s purpose is indeed to mate, it is not with his own queen, but with queens from other hives.  In this way, the increase in genetic diversity keeps the hive from becoming inbred and susceptible to the same diseases.

When a new queen is ready, she will fly to an area (how it’s identified is not really understood) where she will mate with several drones from other hives, storing their seed.

She then flies back to her own hive and uses the stores to fertilize the eggs that she will lay for the next year or two, after which, she will often times swarm with a better part of the hive to create a new one, leaving behind workers and that shiny new queen.  So in essence, the drones that each hive keeps are for the procreation of the species more than for the benefit of the hive itself.

Perfect hive anatomy; halos of young surrounded by nectar surrounded by honey.

Perfect hive anatomy; halos of young surrounded by nectar surrounded by honey.

I am spinning from this new information as Brent pulls a frame from the deep super.  The bees seem to have an even denser coating on this frame until I realize that the darker coloration is due to the covered larva and pupa cells that are not translucent in the sunlight.

The frame is a perfect example of what a brood chamber should look like—a series of expanding rings, the first circle contains new bees in each stage of incubation; some are eggs or larva opened to the hive, and others are sealed over as they pupate before emerging as adults.

The ring that encases this nursery consists of nectar filled cells for food, and the ring beyond abounds with honey.  This, I am told, is a beautiful example of hive anatomy.

(artist’s rendition)

Inspecting one of the frames Brent cries out—he’s spotted the queen, quite a feat in a hive this large.

“I’ve only ever seen her one other time last year,” he muses.  She’s markedly larger than the other bees, and lumbers over the cells dragging a brown, elongated abdomen.

Predictably, my camera is out of room for more pictures and I miss documenting it.

The tribe of beekeepers keeps odd habits when interacting with their stock. Despite having tens of thousands of bees in the hive, keepers take care not to crush any more of their “girls” than necessary during the constant shuffling of equipment.

Before entering the hive we had collected a bit of dry bark and shards of wood that Brent set alight in his smoker with a blowtorch.  Once smoldering, the fire produced sweet-smelling puffs of smoke—our means of getting bees out of the way.

Rather than knocking the bees out or drugging them as I thought it did, the smoke actually triggers a feeding reaction that distracts the bee long enough for you to work.  Brent’s explanation makes sense.

These bees evolved near hive-ending wildfires, so when a bee senses smoke it triggers a feeding reaction and she immediately heads into the hive and fills up on honey; if the fire destroys the hive the bees can swarm with enough food to find a new place to colonize.  So essentially we threaten to burn their house down every time we want to look around.  Stress may be why a honeybee only lives about 6 weeks.

The feeding reaction itself is instantaneous and fascinating to watch.  A few pumps on the bellows of the smoker and the bees on the top of the hive immediately scatter to the comb beneath, save a few who seems to sense trickery and ram me as I attempt to take video.

I’m emboldened as we begin restacking the supers and close up the hive—the docile nature of the bees captivates me and I hold my bare hand above the open top of the hive and allow a few bees to flit over and briefly land on it.

More fascinating, however, was the heat coming from the hive, painted white and attracting no heat on this cloudy day.

The movement and vibrations of the bees produces ample heat, which is actually what allows them to survive the winter—taking rotating shifts to the outer edges like penguins in the Antarctic, the bees lightly vibrate all winter long in a ball, protecting the queen and keeping the hive temperature just above 40 degrees.

We hit the hive with a few more blasts of smoke and put the hood on; with the additional super we’ve added it stands much higher than the vacant hive it neighbors.  We’ll see for how long; we’ll drive to New York in two days to pick up a new swarm for the empty hive.

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Well this is clearly the right place, I say to Brent as he parks his car in front of the blue house just over the border of New York.  “Why do you say that?” Because, I point, there are a bunch of bees flying out of the garage.

one section of the quarter million bee room.

one section of the half- million bee room.

While the ordinances of the city we’re in don’t allow for the keeping of bees, they don’t technically say anything about the vending of bees, so apiarists from all over the region are here to pick up their recent orders of bees to seed new hives.

When we walk up the driveway Brent and I are greeted by a short, bespectacled man, and are led into a garage literally humming with bees.

On every available surface there are screened wood cases of honeybees, each about the size of a shoebox, nailed together in 5s by two strips of wood on top.  Each case contains 3lbs of bees, which equates to about 10,000 per box; some quick math reveals we are standing in a garage with about half a million bees.

Brent pays his money and the man cuts two boxes off the pile with a saw, and they review the appropriate introduction methods for the queen.

This is because the queen isn’t actually a member of the colony she’s with—she’s come from a different stock.  When an egg hatches and gets fed, it’s with what keepers refer to as ‘royal jelly’, which is what the queen eats.

After a few days, the majority (or all) of these hatchlings will switch over to a different jelly that will establish them as workers—if they continue with the royal jelly, they will become queens.  So when a commercial keeper is selling stock, he’ll take 3lbs of bees from a larger hive, combine them with a queen from the hive he keeps producing queens, and ships them out in a what feels like a half-million bee truck homage to a Loony Tunes cartoon.

Only half paying attention to the conversation I walk around the buzzing piles.  Bees without homes are counter-intuitively docile, and these bees hum with a casualness that’s almost soothing—there are no hard feeling about being stuffed in a tiny box with and unfamiliar queen.  They cluster around the center, one hanging off the other, forming a large vibrating ball that sways like wet cobweb when I lightly shake a box.

The clustering around the queen is an important part of the process; because the bees don’t know her, they’d likely kill her.  To get around this, she’s kept in a separate box inside the larger box.  About the size of half a Snickers Bar, the queen’s housing, which she shares with 4-6 of her workers, is mesh on one side.  During her cross-state journey she is in close contact with her new hive, though not close enough to be killed thanks to the mesh.

Her own workers feed her as her new workers get used to her, and when she finally gets placed in the new hive she’ll be put there in her box, taped to one of the honey frames.

On one end of the box a queen-sized hole has been drilled through, which has been blocked with a piece of candy.  Over the course of the next few days, the rest of the hive will eat through this candy to free the queen, at which point she will have been in the hive long enough to be accepted and should start laying when she’s finally out.

The queens cannot be seen as they are obstructed by 10,000 bee balls, so I walk back to a conversation on how to best orient the queen box.  As Brent and BeeMan talk, they intermittently pause mid-sentence as one of the dozens of loose bees lands on their faces, flies away, and is replaced by another.

It’s the mark of a true apiarist—to brush a bee away is to potentially harm it; it’s best just to simply wait until the bee moves away from your cheek and goes about its business.  In the presence of loose stock, keepers speak like William Shatner.

“I was thinking about…taking the feeder out so I could…add a few more frames.”

“That could work but…don’t forget you’ll…want to have food…for the new arrivals.”

“Yeah, I…was thinking of adding another deep super to…keep the colony from…swarming.”

The scene dissolves when a bee lands on my temple and I jerk and wave my hand at it.  Brent and BeeMan glance at me for a moment and then back at each other.  They don’t say anything, but it’s clear: outsider.  Acting the apprentice I help bring the bees back to the car, watch as Brent secures them—safely—in the trunk, and ride away as the next customer rolls up.

The drive is a little over an hour, I learn from Brent–who now has several bees on his shoulder and crawling over his hat.

A glance back reveals that half a dozen loose bees are now buzzing the inside of the car, displaced from the boxes that displaced them from their hives.  With an hour of drive time left I can only hope that a homeless bee truly is a patient bee.

it was cramped in there--cool if I ride out here with you?

it was cramped in there–cool if I ride out here with you?

*                                                                       *                                                                        *

Brent doesn’t use gloves; he feels that his bare hands will sense bees he’d otherwise crush while working.

After opening the empty hive and selecting a frame in the deep super, he carefully pries staples out of a piece of wood on top of the transport box; beneath is a large metal circle—the top of a perforated can of sugar-syrup—and a smaller one, which he slips his putty knife under, pries up, and pulls out.

The queen capsule slides out from the protective bee ball, and the honeybees pour out of the open cut in the box until Brent recovers it with the piece of wood.  Inside the tiny box is a queen—alive— and several of her workers.  “The queen is viable!”  Brent says ceremoniously.

Removing the metal disk and exposing the candy, he then uses a specialized adhesive known as “duct tape” to secure the little box to the upper corner of the frame.  Once it’s snug, the frame is reinserted into the super.

removing the queen capsule prior to introduction.

removing the queen capsule prior to introduction.

Next it’s time to introduce the bees to the hive, which involves the somewhat-undignified process of a light bouncing of the container on the ground to shake the bees down before removing the can of syrup, which blocks their means of egress.

This was our second run at this—the first set of bees, placed in Brent’s father-in-law’s hive—did not go in so smoothly.  We’d forgotten to remove the can, had upended the box onto the hive, and were left with a bee-coated can of sugar sitting on the supers, which Brent removed, again, with bare hands.

Once the can was removed, we flipped the box on the frames above the queen, and began to cover up the hive when Brent caught our missed step—we needed to place the inner cover between the frames and the transportation box.

The queen and the hive would be fragile for the first week or so, and any disturbance could be harmful; while the bees would leave the transport box on their own, it was important to be able to remove it without disrupting the newly established queen.  By placing the inner cover under the transport box, it ensured that Brent would later remove it with minimal upset to the new hive.

We replace the outer cover, walk back to Brent’s porch, and take off our hoods.  On the far side of his yard stand the two hives—the new one quiet and tentative, the other, several feet taller and bustling with activity.

Brent and Shannon are avid gardeners, but honeybees fly up to five miles for food, and Brent had an idea of where most of his honey was coming from.

A mile up the road was an apple orchard starting to blossom; a shorter distance away was a large field overgrown with autumn olive, an invasive plant that is a favorite of honeybees, and then there was the nursery down the road that had just started opening its flowering greenhouses to the air.

Bees hustled in and out of the active hive, lifting up into the air and taking off in different directions; soon the other hive would be doing the same and it was amusing to think that these far-off places could be benefiting to from one couple with a few hives in their back yard 20 minutes away.

The long commutes seemed so inefficient, disorganized.  Far more satisfying would be if bees worked close to home, on your own plants, where you needed them.  Instead, Brent and Shannon’s bees gallivanted through every nook and cranny within five miles, fertilizing exotics, seeking out a neighbor’s garden here, blooms from an abandoned orchard there.  It was almost inconsiderate.  But in reality it is what they need to do—and what we need them to do.

Much of our food comes from organized, standing monocultures—rows neat and uniform like frames of honeycomb.  While that may be a more pleasing honey source to the mind’s eye than a forgotten orchard, the problem is that while species bloom together, they also stop blooming together—and when this happens a colony starves.

Commercial beekeepers truck in hives during flowering time for this reason; fields may look full of life, but they’re actually devoid of an interdependent ecosystem—there are no pollinators because there is often no pollen—and the bees are temporary visitors rather than permanent residents.  They cannot survive where there is only intermittent food.

So this disorganized, piecemeal system of scavenging keeps the bees alive.

They collect what’s blooming; take a little from the apple trees when they flower, and then a little from the autumn olive when the apple blooms die off.  Then on to sweet peas.  Or your cucumbers.  And through this organized disorder they sustain an existence and allow humanity’s experiment in agriculture to continue.

It’s easy to get lost in a mindset where nature is a finely tuned system with everything working in perfect unison.  When looking at the marvel of symmetrical comb, or the intricacies of the dance a bee uses to direct others to food, it’s not hard to forget these bits of perfection came through millions of mutations and iterations of trial and error, propagated success and catastrophic failure.

And these mutations, these sometimes-ugly aberrations, have helped species survive where the collective lack of diversity would have snuffed them out.  It’s tempting to dismiss that which we find unattractive, but all too often, it seems, that very thing can save the whole.

And it turns out that despite its lack of uniformity, burr comb stores honey, houses young, and functions like regular comb in the hive.  It serves the same purpose along with all the other cells, and it may be the food that it stores that allows the bees to survive through the winter—or even harbor the future queen.

As I look inside to Brent and Shannon’s countertop, with the dozen jars of honey stacked on it, next to the new super that will house even more bees, I think that maybe I’ve unfairly judged those warped blobs of Tupperware.  The system works.  Burr comb, it seems, isn’t so bad.

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