Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Land of Bread and Honey. . .

I'm about 75% sure that I'm going to get back into keeping bees.  About 25 years ago I had bee hives.  I got my start in that unusual little hobby by a gentle giant of a man, Milt Fair.  He gave me my first bee hive.  In hindsight, I think he was the first Spirit filled person, by that I mean the first person who spoke in tongues, whom I had ever known.  I'm not sure of that, but I'm pretty convinced he was.  He was a man of great personal faith.  His faith ruled his life.  He was a very large man, an extra-ordinarily gentle man.  He died about 10 or 12 years ago.  I think he knew that I did not believe in God.  I'm not really sure if he knew, but in any case I thought of him as a very good friend.  It's not hard for me to imagine him praying for me.  He died well before I came to know God. . .Someday I'll know. . .Someday I'll ask him. . .Anyway, he gave me my first bee hive and I just loved it.  It was so enjoyable keeping bees.  I learned so much.  I would sit in front of the hives and watch them for hours on end.  It was much better than TV.

I lived in a residential neighborhood north of Mishawaka, Indiana on about a 1 1/4 acre lot.  I had my bee hives in a little stand of wild cherry trees toward the back of my property, surrounded by a little fence of wood slats painted red in wire.  I think it was called a snow fence.  People might think it odd or dangerous to have bees in a residential area, but bees are a natural part of every neighborhood.  Chances are no matter where you live that you have a natural hive of bees living in a tree within a few hundred yards of your house.  Bees will not go out of their way to bother people.  Generally people get bothered by or stung by yellow jackets and call them bees.

My next door neighbor back then had an above ground swimming pool in his back yard.  He came over to me one day and complained about my bees landing on the ladder of his swimming pool and his grandchildren getting stung when they put their hands or feet on the rungs of the ladder as they climbed out of the pool.  I was very sure they were not my bees,  I had a large galvanized wash tub filled with water, with tree bark floating on the top right outside of my hive boxes.  Bees need water to cool their hives.  They suck up the water and then spit it out on the inside of the hive for evaporative cooling.  They set up all through the hive each pointing in the proper direction, flapping their wings in place to bring air into the hive and then out again.  Bees must have water and the more time they spend flying to bring water to the hive the less time they have to gather honey.  So that's why I had water just outside the entrances to my hives and why I was certain they weren't my bees that were bothering his grandchildren.

I told him this, but as you can imagine, his eyes were pretty skeptical.  To him a bee was a bee.  His grand-kids were getting stung, and I had bee hives.  I told him I would show him where the bees were coming from, that were landing on his pool ladder.  I said this with a confidence that I really had no personal foundation for.  I had read of doing what I'm about to describe, but I had never done it.  Bees are very efficient.  When they are full of water or nectar they fly directly back to the hive.  They make what is called a bee line.  So I went over to my neighbors back yard and watched the bees take off from his pool ladder.  I lived directly to the east of him and the bees were flying to the south west, so I would follow a bee in the air until I lost sight of it and then I'd wait for another one to come along and follow it.  My neighbor probably thought I was nuts.

It was just amazing.  I hadn't gone a hundred yards following these bees through the air, just across the alley that ran in back of both our yards, kind of catty-corner to his yard, in what looked to be an empty field overgrown with weeds and very tall grass, I found, what I can only describe as a bee ghetto.  There were dozens of bee hives in a very bad state of neglect.  Some were toppled over, really it was a mess.  I had only left my neighbors property on my little bee hunt a few minutes before, when I came back to him to take him to see what I had found.  I am sure he was so ready to disbelieve me, but when we walked through the weeds and found all those bee hives, his eyes grew as big as saucers.  He couldn't believe it.  I could barely contain my smugness. . .  actually in truth I probably didn't contain it at all. . .sometimes things work out.  It was apparent the bees stinging his grandchildren were coming from there.

Indiana has a state bee inspector.  I called her and she came out a week or so later. You are supposed to have your hives inspected every year.  I can so clearly remember the day when I first me her.  I had called her to have her come inspect my hives.  She was supposed to be there at, I think 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning if I remember right.  I got ready for her visit.  I put my bee suit on.  It's a very closely woven lightweight, almost like a paper material, that is difficult (surely not impossible) for the bees to sting through.  I put on my canvas shoulder length gloves with the elastic bands around them to keep the bees out of my arm area.  I put my military elastic trouser-blouser bands around my boots, to keep bees from getting up my pant legs.  I put on my bee hat with my veil to keep them off my face.  I looked like some kind of alien from a UFO I suppose.  I had my bee armor on.  Bee Man!!!  I probably looked pretty funny.

This petite little lady bee inspector showed up.  She had on this little sleeveless jump suit with short pant legs.  She had sandals on.  She didn't wear gloves.  She did put a veil on as she told me she didn't prefer the bees crawling on her face.  So much for my mucho macho male ego.  She was comfortable with what she was doing.  She did admit that my bees were pretty grouchy, but I don't think she got stung that day, but man they would sting me when I worked them.  I remember one sting in particular.  My entire arm swelled from shoulder to finger tips.  That fellow got me right in the arm pit where the elastic from my canvas gloves drew my bee suit next to my skin.  Goodness, 25 years later I still remember that little fellow.   

Actually this whole story I'm describing was the final chapter of my beekeeping.  The bee inspector had been looking for this fellow's bee hives for years.   He would play hide and seek with his hives and keep them from her.  Anyway, the bee inspector came out and burned, if I remember correctly 30 or more of those hives.  They had disease in them, American foulbrood  it's called.  As its name says, it kills off the bee brood, it kills the baby bees and thereby severely weakens the hive.  It isn't harmful at all to humans, but the spores of foul brood are transmitted through honey.  As the hive is weakened it cannot defend itself and bees from other hives come and rob the honey thereby carrying the disease back to their hives and that's what happened to my bees.  They ended up getting foulbrood from these hives and dying off.  You can either destroy the hive box and all the bees or for evermore treat them with tetracycline.  The foulbrood spores live for more than 40 years.  That was too much for me.  I just wanted a little hobby and not a big mess with antibiotics, etc.  So that was the end of my beekeeping days.

But the several years that I had them, it was so neat.  I learned so much.  It was fascinating.  Bees do not hibernate.  They gather the honey for food, to keep them over the winter.  The inside of a bee hive is kept in the mid 90's all winter long.  The bees form a ball over the honey comb.  The heat from their bodies heat the hive.  They rotate from the outer edge of the ball to the inner, just like people warming themselves around a campfire, move close when you're cold, move away when you're warm.  The bees will not go to the toilet inside of the hive.  They must have a thaw every few weeks throughout the winter or they get sick and die when they cannot get outside to relieve themselves.  On a sunny day in January, even with the air temperature below freezing the bees will fly and go to the toilet.  The snow for 50 or 100 feet around the hive will be speckled yellow with bee droppings.

It takes the nectar from a couple million flowers to make a pound of honey.  Nectar is something like 98% water and honey is only about 15% water.  So it takes 6 or 7 pounds of nectar to make 1 pound of honey.  In like manner it takes several pounds of honey to make 1 pound of beeswax.  Beeswax comes off the bee's bodies like scales of dandruff.  They then form it and shape it in their mouths to make the honeycomb.  Beekeepers cut the caps off the honeycomb and spin it to extract the honey.  They then put the honeycomb back in the hive for the bees to reuse, thereby saving the expensive process (in terms of lost honey production) of the bees having to remake it.  The honeycomb is where the baby bees are raised and it's where both honey and pollen are stored in the hive.  Pollen is quite high in protein.  The baby bees need the high protein of the pollen when they are growing.  A worker bee only gathers nectar or pollen, never both at the same time.  The gathering of the nectar and pollen is the last stage in a bee's life.  If nothing else kills them (yellow jackets kill and eat bees among other dangers a bee faces), a worker bee dies when its wings wear out.

In the late spring and early summer, when the bees are really gathering lots of nectar, you can smell the hive from yards and yards away.  The nectar from uncountable millions of flowers is being evaporated into honey.  In a good year you might be able to take somewhere between 100 and 150 lbs of honey from a hive and still leave them enough for themselves to eat through the winter.  When you lift off the lid of the hive at this time, an indescribable fragrance fills your lungs.  It is intoxicating.  It is beyond any man made perfume.  That wonder filled scent alone made keeping bees worthwhile.

It will be interesting to see what kind of honey I produce here.  In Mishawaka my bees primarily made basswood honey.  I did not at all like the honey that my bees made.  Basswood honey is a very pale yellow, about the color of very light lemonade and has an extremely floral flavor.  To me, the taste was like eating flowers.  I didn't care for it, but lots of people liked it very much.  Honey comes in widely varying shades of color from almost clear like water to blacker than coffee.  One of my favorite honeys is made from buckwheat flowers.  I bought some yesterday.  It is very black.  It has a very distinctive flavor that I just love on toast.  I'll bring it to my Sunday school class for their snack today.  We've been eating my Bonneyville Sweet Wheat bread, butter and honey for our classroom snack the past couple of weeks.

I've been pondering getting back into beekeeping for a number of years.  Yesterday I bought over $30 worth of honey for my bread making and while that alone is not my only motivation for having bee hives again, it was a enjoyable hobby years ago and if I can save myself money also in the making of my bread, that's surely an added bonus.  I'm looking forward to spring. . .I'm looking forward to ordering my bees and building the hive.  I'm looking forward to the wonder of it all. . .

This morning, maybe for the first time in weeks, I'm looking forward to something. . . We had a prayer meeting at the church last night and I was prayed for.  A great heat filled me as maybe a dozen or more brothers and sisters laid their hands upon me and prayed for my depression to lift. . .

Thank you my Lord for this new day. . .


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