There is no sweeter music in the waning days of winter than the life-affirming buzz from a hive! I have two hives and when I went out on Sunday to check, I was delighted to see some bees crawling around the entrance, but the other looked eerily quiet. I tentatively knocked on the silent hive and was greeted by a beautiful–if somewhat irritated–dull roar from within. It sounds sort of like a distant wind. It rose and then faded and no one came out, but I am reassured. I left them a ridiculous amount of honey going into winter and they were able to get out for a cleansing flight in January when temperatures climbed to plus 10, so it’s been a good winter for them I think.
A cleansing flight is simply polite beekeeper-speak for a bathroom run. Bees are incredibly fussy and will never foul the nest. Instead they will wait for weeks and even months (an idea that makes me practically double over with sympathy) until conditions are warm enough for them to take to the skies and let their poop fly. If winters are too long and cold the poor bees can succumb to dysentery and other nasty stomach ailments brought on by not being able to reach the bathroom skies.
TO BEE OR NOT TO BEE
I have only been a beekeeper for a few years and it’s a term I use loosely since some of those years I’m not a beekeeper at all, but a beeloser. Like gardening, there is much to learn and a lot of things that can–and will–go wrong. Still, it is a fascinating hobby. I never get over the thrill of cracking open a hive and discovering the incredible world of the bees inside. And the taste of fresh honey is indescribable and I love the sweet vanilla scent of honeycomb. But even if I never harvested any wax or honey, I would still enjoy having bees just for watching. But lately I have been wondering if we should. Keep bees that is.
In all the hoopla about colony collapse, varroa mites and other catastrophes to hit the hives, we sometimes forget that honey bees are not native to North America, but were originally imported. Like dandelions. I have watched honeybees and our native pollinators–bumblebees, hoverflies, wasps and butterflies–compete for nectar in my garden. Honeybees are the jersey cows of the pollinator world. Instead of gallons of milk, they have been bred to produce lots and lots of honey. But they aren’t really designed for our tough climates. If humans didn’t interfere with insulated hives and buildings it is unlikely any honeybees would survive for long. The native pollinators, on the other hand, are designed for life in the north.
I recently read how some of the diseases from commercial honeybees are being transmitted to native populations and that worries me. And raises the question of whether we should be raising honeybees at all. Maybe pollinating should be left to the insects that were meant to be here. Once again, humans have messed things up by pushing production over the natural order of things. But I’m no scientist and I’m only speculating. Still, I don’t think I will be expanding my hives and if the two I have die out one winter I don’t know if I will replace them. I do know I would miss them, but there are lots of things you can do to make habitats for native pollinators and perhaps that would be more gratifying in the long run. No honey or wax, but gratification is a pretty worthwhile harvest too. I guess I need to do some more research. What do you think?
The following is an example of creating habitat for native pollinators…for more ideas check out The Metropolitan Field Guide
this great site is loaded with “ideas and resources for the design of urban wildlife habitat”!