Today is a good day to think about bees. This is the coldest winter I’ve seen in Indiana as yet. So far we’ve had at least ten nights of temperatures below zero, the coldest being -12 locally. I’ve been without running water for two weeks this time because a pipe burst and it has been too cold to fix it, but I’m getting by on rainwater and snow and some drinking water I buy at Walmart. I’ve had to spend the coldest nights on the futon in the living room, sleeping under my Romanian Army Greatcoat so I can get up to tend the fire when the house gets too cold. I’ve been washing my face in the snow in the mornings and letting my beard grow.
When I look out the front window, I see how poorly the willows grew this past summer, because this coldest of all winters came after the worst drought I’ve seen here. Willow production is down by sixty percent, from the look of it, and I probably only got a third of the usual amount of hay from my little field here. So of course, I picked this past spring to start my natural beekeeping project, the worst of all years for bees.
Although I’ve never had an apiary before, I do have a lot of experience with bees. In the Ozarks one of my favorite things to do was to hunt bee trees. Bee trees aren’t all that common now, but in pioneer days they were thick. Since the old growth forests were all cut, the older trees with the appropriate hollow spaces are in short supply now. Probably most feral swarms wind up in buildings, in attics or in walls, rather than in trees. Bee hunting is pretty simple, you just find a spot where bees are working the blossoms and watch the sky. Bees with a full load of nectar or pollen head straight back to the hive, this is where the term beeline comes from. So with a little patience and a simple compass you can mark the direction of the hive. It be over thar, within two or three mile! So you head off in that direction and keep an eye out for likely trees. That’s bee hunting, you spend a lot of time looking for knotholes.
You would think that it would take a pretty big tree to house a swarm of bees, but I’ve found hives in trees no more than a foot and a half in diameter. To look at the tree, you wouldn’t think it had room for a hive, but bees will take advantage of whatever they find. When they fill the cavity with honey, they start making more bees. A swarm led by the old queen departs the hive and a new queen hatches out to take over the old hive. Smaller quarters means more frequent swarms, but that’s not all there is to it, and beekeeping is very much about manipulating the space the bees occupy, to keep them excited about making honey instead of about making bees.
Most of the bees I tracked led back to hives owned by my neighbors, but some led me into wilder areas and over the years I located altogether about a dozen bee trees. Some I found by persistence and skill, but most of them I found by just spending time in the woods, watching and listening to things around me. Once when I was out squirrel hunting I squatted down under a small hickory of that 18″ diameter size I mentioned, and I would never have thought to look for bees in it. On the ground between my feet I noticed what looked like black honeycomb. Brood comb turns black because the larvae poop in it, and the bees either abandon the comb or as they did in this case, chew it up and throw it out the front door. I looked up and twenty feet up the trunk was a knothole with a steady stream of bees coming and going.
Sometimes you can find a bee tree by sound, if it’s a busy honey day and all the bees are out. You can hear the buzz of a foraging swarm from about 75 feet away, sometimes more. You have to move quietly and pay attention or the noise of your own passage blots out what the bees are doing.
Although I found all these bee trees, including one on my own little five acre woodlot, in an ash tree just down the slope from where I grew forest herbs, I never cut one down. It seemed unnecessary, and the bee trees were kind of rare. I did enjoy keeping tabs on the bees, and the one in my own woods prospered for about seven years. Then the Varroa mites hit, and it seemed like all the wild hives died out, plus most of the domestic hives. That was the first year I never saw even one single honeybee, and I remembered what Einstein said about this, that when the honeybees are gone we will follow.
Einstein was obviously a brilliant man, but he knew nothing about bees or agriculture. Maybe he grew almonds, without bees trucked in for pollination the California almond orchards would definitely fail. Honeybees were introduced to North America along with the white people. They prospered here but they are not a native species. They are an invader that causes no trouble. North America did just fine without them, because we have many species of native bees. We have bumblebees of all sorts; we have mason bees; we have carpenter bees; and we have many other small insects including yellow jackets that do a wonderful job of pollinating crops. Well, yellow jackets are not easy to live with, but they do the same things honeybees do except they don’t make honey and they ruin picnics. They make lots and lots of yellow jackets, though, and people in the old days used to dig up their nests at night to harvest the brood. High in protein and high in fat, the grubs make a good stew, or so I’ve heard. I’ve always thought of trying this myself but I have not. Maybe the next time I stumble across a nest, I will put on my bee suit and see what happens when I stick a shovel into the ground at night. I’ve been chased out of fields by yellow jackets too many times to mess with them just for fun.
In that first year without bees, I considered starting a couple of my own hives, but the price of bees had gone way up due to all the dying hives. The Extension Service actually rated my county as the worst in the state of Arkansas for honey production, and even the neighbors I knew who kept bees did not expect to make any money at it. At the average price of $2 a pound for honey, that works out to about $2 an hour in a good year, even if you don’t count expenses. If you use the modern Langstroth box hives and the scientific methods, you often lose money if you depend on honey for profit. If you can make your own equipment and catch your own bees, you have a chance. The real money comes from renting hives out for pollination, which is also the reason the modern box hive was developed. It does not favor the bees. It was built so it would fit on a forklift and ride on a flatbed truck. One of my uncles had a pollination business and every year tried to get me to come get hives at the end of the season. He never expected them to survive the Ohio winter and just bought new bees annually. Again, I passed up that idea.
Took me a long time to get interested in beekeeping again, because every time I got curious I did the math. Last winter, however, I came across an old Russian method, and the concept of natural beekeeping. I spent my spring and summer getting started.
So far, so good. Both hives were out to get some sunshine today when it got up to 44 and bright, and there were only a few casualties who got into the snow and couldn’t get out again. Nearly everyone made it back to the hives safely when the clouds returned.