Honey bees have been inexplicably disappearing at increasing rates in the US since 2006, when the phenomenon was named Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). USDA statistics from 2008 to 2011 reported losses of about 30%; between 2012 and 2013 it was an estimated 50%. No one knows why, but regardless of the cause, it is an alarming trend with far-reaching consequences. Transition Town Manchester is sponsoring a showing of the film ‘More Than Honey’ (see page 19 of this issue) to highlight the plight of the bees and what their demise could mean to us.
If you don’t see the film, you can head up to the Southern Vermont Art Center, where artist Jessica Yager’s multi-media exhibit, ‘The Hive Project’ beautifully and poignantly addresses the topic. Yager will be discussing her project at SVAC (see page 59.)
Meanwhile, the Southern Vermont Beekeepers Association recently met to discuss their plans for the season. Given all the local buzz, I decided I needed to find out a little more about these tiny creatures, so I called Susan Marmer, president of the Association. As luck would have it, she’d just obtained two swarms of bees to add to her small beekeeping operation in Dorset, and invited me to look on while she placed them in their hives. When I arrived one sunny afternoon last week, Susan was busy filling a wheelbarrow with equipment to wheel over to the hives, which were secured behind an electric fence to keep away bears. She explained how the hives were constructed and the tools of the trade before inviting me to put on the extra beekeeping suit she’d set aside. The suits are white, which apparently the bees find calming. The swarms – called ‘nucs’ by the experts – were in oblong cardboard containers. Earlier, Susan had given them a mason jar full of sugar water to keep them fed, and they were busily flying about in a dense cluster as we approached. After a couple of gentle puffs from Susan’s bee smoker, they obediently returned to their boxes. The smoke acts as a kind of red flag to the bees, who head back home to make sure all is well within the hive. This allows the bee keeper to go about her task more easily. Any anxiety I had about being stung was overcome with my curiosity as I then watched Susan pull eight frames, one by one, from the box to examine, turning each with great care so as not to upset the bees that covered it. She was looking for evidence of a queen, her eggs or larvae as an indication that the ‘nuc’ was vibrant and healthy. The bees were unperturbed as they teemed over and around each other on the wax honeycomb they’d constructed within the frame. Some of the cells were designated for the young; others as storage units for the pollen brought in for food. Honey is manufactured from the pollen as a means of sustenance when they can no longer forage for food in the colder months; there is always more than enough to go around, which is why we can harvest it without harm to the colony. Susan explained that the bees hold many jobs within the hives, graduating from one to the next during their 60-day life cycle. There are bees that clean the hive, tend the eggs and larvae, care for the queen, collect pollen and guard the hive. The queen bee’s only function is to lay eggs – 1000 or more each day. Then there are the drones, whose only purpose is to mate with any new queens. Other than that, they’re deadbeats whose presence is benignly accepted until the cold comes, when they’re driven from the hive to die. The hive cannot support those that don’t earn their keep, and because of all those eggs, there are always more to come. Once Susan examined each frame, she carefully placed it into a wooden hive, using a brush to herd the errant bees off the edges before capping it, weighing down the top with a cement brick to keep it in place. When asked how often she harvests honey, she explained that it is variable, depending on the weather, which affects the blooming of the flowers the bees collect their pollen from. First-year hives are not generally productive, but she added, her hive last year produced 65 pounds of honey between Memorial Day and the fourth of July! The most work, as Susan wryly explained, in is the preparation. “It’s like painting a house,” she said. “The actual tasks are fairly easy. You just have to prepare ahead of time, and have what you need at hand before you begin.” If you would like information on setting up your own hive, visit southernvtbeekeepers.org. The webiste offers additional resources and a link to Betterbee, based in nearby Greenwich, N.Y, which sells beekeeping equipment. The Southern Vermont Beekeepers Association is keenly interested in promoting beekeeping and educating the public about bees, offering mentoring and quarterly meetings. They also have local Swarm Teams, who can visit your property to retrieve errant swarms.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on topics of interest to you. Email me: [email protected]