May 052011

Colony Collapse Disorder is another metaphor of our time as our civilization speeds toward the brink, pedal to the metal. Like Thelma and Louise, we are apparently going out at full speed. The bee population is failing at an alarming rate. There are lots of theories as to why. My guess is that it’s like anything else—an accumulation of things over time leading to chronic problems that have their own momentum.

There are some things we could live without: cable news, Coke, running shoes, Netflix and Facebook, blogs, V-8 engines, Spud Puppies. There are certain things we cannot do without. Specifically, food (and water). Spud Puppies have their place, I suppose, and they do resemble food, which reminds us that food is important and that bees are crucial to food production. So, Colony Collapse Disorder is something that we need to be mindful of and try to do something about.

There is a lot of momentum to the backyard beekeeping movement, hobbyists who keep bees to aid in pollination. There is also traction for “natural beekeeping” that is using more natural forms of hives—the Top Bar or Warre Hive or even using open frames in the traditional Langstroth hive. The loss of bees clearly can affect human survival so it seems important that we do whatever we can to propagate bee colonies.

I am five days into being a beekeeper and could be the cover boy for Beekeeping For Dummies. But I can already answer one question that everyone asks,” Will the little fuckers sting you?” The answer is, they will if you screw up.

I went into this deal expecting to get stung, looking forward to it even. Of course, I had conditions. I didn’t want to get stung on the face, didn’t want bees to get under my clothing. Let’s be honest. I was ready to be stung on the hands only and limited my exposure. I’m pretty certain that if you know what you are doing and understand hive behavior better than I do that you could go a very long time without getting stung. Stinging is defensive behavior. The guard bees will sting you when they think the hive is being threatened. You can work in the garden all day along with foraging bees and not have a worry about being stung. You’d have to go out of your way to provoke a foraging bee. Most of my stings over the years have come from stepping on a bee (and I’m only talking honeybees in this stinging disquisition. Your wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, etc. are another cup of bee).

So I wanted to make sure the queen was out of her little cage and remove that cage so that the bees wouldn’t draw comb around it. I read that you should hold the queen cage low in the hive so she’d stay in there and pull or cut the little screen that covers her cage. I pulled the cage loose, brushed off a bunch of bees clustered on the cage and lowered her down where I started to cut with a knife when bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. They hit me fast. I dropped the queen cage, turned my back on the hive and walked away scraping stingers off the back of my hand and went and got a pair of thick gloves.

The stinger on a bee is an interesting mechanism. It’s got three parts. There are two barb-like structures that work their way into the skin and a central groove that allows the venom to flow from the sting gland. I recall scraping several of these off as I moved away from the hive. Only one percent of the population is allergic to bee stings. As it happens, most of us can take quite a bit of bee venom. One source I read said ten stings per pound of body weight. The little bee makes the ultimate sacrifice when going for the sting. She will die in a few days having left muscles and her poison gland behind.

Bee venom is apparently a joy for the chemist to study. It includes all kinds of biochemically and pharmacologically active substances: histamine, dopamine, melittin, apamin and more. Some have possibly heard of bee venom therapy where one is intentionally stung several times. This therapy has long been practiced in Europe. Curiously, my arthritic knee did not hurt for twenty-four hours after the bee stings.

So, what has this got to do with Transition? Well, Transition is about self-sufficiency and self-reliance. We need pollinators and a bit on honey wouldn’t be bad either. It’s amazing how many people have told me in the last few days that they “used to keep bees.” The Transition Movement encourages us to re-skill. I don’t know if we’ll be successful beekeepers this year. But, ultimately, we’ll figure it out.

And, if you hear about a honey bee swarm on the island, give me a call. I’d like to try to catch one.

May 032011

“Wassaile the trees, that they may beare
You many a Plum and many a Peare
For more or lesse fruits they will bring,
As you do give them Wassailing.”

I recently attended a workshop put on by Steve Diver who is highly respected in certain gardening circles (the ones I try to travel in!). Steve is an agricultural scientist with broad experience around the world with organic gardening systems and spent years at the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. Noted author and gardener Steve Solomon, on his Soil and Health Yahoo Newsgroup recently commented that it was an honor and privilege to have Steve Diver participate in his on line discussion. I like Steve Diver’s approach which includes the practical, the scientific and the esoteric.

He points out that there are essentially three aspects of gardening and we have to pay attention to all of them. We have to deal with biology, with mineralization and with energy.

With biology we are working with the soil/life web, trying to increase life in the garden soil. With minerals we are attempting to achieve the right balance of calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium and trace minerals, using soil tests and remineralization. Energy involves the sun, wind, rain and even our intention as gardeners. There are subtle energies, energy forms we don’t think about like the force that enlivens the plants. Some people believe that this force is directed by spirits called devas, energetic non-physical forms who take specific interest in certain plants or trees or animals. One might think of them as angels. I like to think they are there, hovering around the garden, giving direction, helping out. I’ve never seen one, though I did talk to a fellow last week who had been in discussion with the Honey Bee Deva. Clearly, there is an energetic pattern to nature, a cosmic blueprint (like the physical DNA) that prescribes and proscribes action in this plane of existence.

At our workshop Steve got into some of this stuff, using a pendulum to dowse the life force in substances. He used a pendulum and the Bovis Scale to measure the potency of some of the material he was suggesting we might experiment with in the garden. One of these was something called “Ormus.” I’ve read some about this since the workshop and am experimenting with it both personally and in the garden. At this point, I make no claims. I have also ordered a set of bee sprays that are biodynamic and homeopathic (made by the fellow who is in touch with the Honey Bee Deva). Full disclosure: I am not put off by the  weird and whacky. In fact, based on my experience with alternative medicine I am inclined to go out of my way to find techniques, modalities and ideas that most people will scoff at. The point is, I’m not pushing this stuff, just telling about it. So, when a guy like Steve Diver, who has spent the first four hours of the day talking about cations, anions, exchange capacity, complete organic fertilizer, soil tests, the importance of calcium and why humates make things work better, pulls out his pendulum and begins to talk about energy, I get really interested.

One simple technique of intention that Steve recommended is a garden fence. It is both a physical and energetic barrier. It identifies the garden space and offers protection, both real and symbolic. Even with a fence he recommends the ancient practice of wassailing. In olden times there was a tradition of the orchard-wassail. “The purpose of wassailing is to awake the cider apple trees and to scare away evil spirits to ensure a good harvest of fruit in the Autumn.” In Steve’s system the gardener(s) or orchardist(s) walk the perimeter of the orchard or garden, perhaps smudging at the corners with a sage smudge stick and stating their intention for the coming season.

How can it hurt to wassaile, to state our intention, to make and attempt to impart our psychic design to the garden which we hope will provide much in return? Who can dispute the amazing energy one feels in a garden full of plants and flowers, bees and birds, worms and bugs, fungus and bacteria?

It can make your head spin.

Note: To establish his bonafides, a few of articles Steve wrote for (these aren’t even the best ones, which I’m hiding to use for future blog posts).

May 012011

Removing plug from queen box

All over Whatcom County this weekend new and old beekeepers were installing packages of honey bees into their hives. As a first time bee keeper it was an exhilarating experience. A package of bees is a three pound screened wooden box that holds ten thousand bees and their new queen. There’s a tin can hanging upside down dripping sugar water to this mob. In a separate little wood/screen cage is the queen. On the top of her cage is a metal tab that fits into a slot at the top of the box. The object of the exercise is to get the queen cage out of the box, remove the little piece of cork that plugs up the hole in the queen cage and put her in the hive. There’s supposed to be a piece of candy between the cork and the queen. After you dump the bees into the hive they will cluster around the queen and eat through the candy plug, releasing her so she can get about her business. This is where our troubles started on Friday. There was no candy plug.

I had ordered a bee package through the Mt. Baker Beekeepers Association. The group sends one person down to Burlington to Belleville Honey to pick up bees for the entire group. After our hive building party Adam J. and David T. ordered bees direct from Belleville. Adam drove to Burlington on Friday morning and picked up the two packages. David and I were waiting with the hive and bee suits. We placed the hive, took off the roof, planned our attack and put on the bee suits. It was mid-day and the bees were very active. Adam got the can out of the hive and began to work the queen tab out of the slot. We had trouble removing the cork. They tell you to use a drywall screw but this wasn’t working so Adam got out his leatherman and use the needle nose tool to pull it out. There was no candy plug! The queen was running back and forth in her small space trying to escape. Panic. Adam ran to the house to try and find a marshmallow but by the time he came back I had managed to let his queen escape. He dumped the rest of the bees into the box. A great hullabaloo. A high pitched humming. Bees everywhere. And, what do we do? No queen.

What’s supposed to happen is that while the hive is eating its way through to the queen to release her from the cage they begin to get used to her. In fact, the queen’s special glands are producing a “queen substance,” a combination of pheromones which serve to harmonize the behavior of the hive. At a point, the hive begins to act like a single organism with the various castes of bees serving the queen who lays the eggs to make the brood and expand the hive.
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