Monday, June 23, 2014

A killing, then a coronation

Killing the queen bee in your hive is nasty business, nearly as bad as cleaning the mess after putting the honey in jars. This little creature, about an inch long, spends a couple of years, maybe less, frenetically flitting around deep inside the hive laying thousands of eggs that engender the thousands of bees that in turn make the honey which, along with the pollination of flowers and fruit trees, is the purpose of having a beehive in the first place. No queen bee, no honey and maybe no fruits.

Other than by her size, the queen bee is often hard to pick out from the thousands and thousands of bees buzzing around. But as her fecundity wanes the result is easy to notice. Activity and the number of bees in the hive declines and so does honey production. Her days are done.

The killing is not particularly dramatic—squishing her between the thumb and index finger of your gloved hand—and it only takes a second. You can turn your head away or stomp on her with your foot if you're that squeamish.

It shouldn't be that difficult. We swat flies or step on roaches and other insects without a thought, but this particular bug is different. She's worked ceaselessly to sustain the beehive, an incredibly complex society governed by rules and mores I'll never quite understand. She's no run-of-the-mill bug. Killing her feels ungrateful yet there is room for only one queen in a beehive.

Her death, however, quickly turned into a rebirth for the hive as a new queen arrived from Morelia, the capital of the neighboring state of Michoacán, neatly packaged for the trip in a wooden container the size of an old-fashioned matchbox, big enough to accommodate the queen and three or four other "attendant bees". The queens are marked with a tiny dot of paint, the color of which indicates the year they were bred. Green is the color for 2014 though these dots are difficult to see unless you're an expert.

Business class: The new queen arrives in a small wooden carrier,
 along with three or four other "attendant bees"
 that keep her company during the trip here. 
Escape hatch: This hole at one end of the bee
 carrier comes plugged up with a sugary
 substance some call "queen candy" to feed the queen
 in transit and which the resident bees also munch on
 when it arrives. When the hole is finally
 open, the new queen gets out and goes to work.
When the queen arrived about a week ago, Félix and Bee Bob, a sixty-something former hippie and local apiculture maven, first had to take out, and quickly replace, a wood plug from one end of the delivery box to let out the attendant bees. The queen, however, remains in the box until the resident bees free her by eating away the sugar plug, called "queen candy," at the other end of the tiny box that also fed the queen and her attendants while in transit. This process takes two or three days, which is about the time it takes for the resident bees to get accustomed to the smell of the new queen bee's particular pheromones.

Félix and Stew checked the hive three days after the queen bee arrived in her little compartment which had been placed in the hive. And just as the how-to books predicted, her new mates had eaten the sugar plug and the queen had been freed. Activity in the hive appeared tranquil, as if the residents were relieved. You don't have to be Marlin Perkins to be fascinated by this tiny episode of the Wild Kingdom.

Once the new queen is released, she'll go about her business of a life of wanton promiscuity and fecundity and create the bees that will make the honey. In addition, by their buzzing around our land from flower to flower collecting pollen, the worker bees will help pollinate plants, including fruit trees.

On Friday, President Obama announced a program to save the bees in the U.S., which are in the midst of a precipitous decline in population called "colony collapse," along with other pollinators like the monarch butterfly. The president said that the bees' pollination work is worth about $15 billion a year in fruit and vegetable production. The number of managed bee colonies, which are essential for the production of some crops such as almonds, has declined from four million in 1970 to 2.5 million today.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture also will lead an effort to determine why bee populations are imploding. Some environmentalists have blamed the use of a certain insecticide that may have the same disastrous impact on bees that DDT had on bald eagles and other large birds, but no one knows for sure yet.

(A few conservative wing-nuts reflexively took to the Tweetersphere to ridicule Obama's announcement as another form of needless big-government meddling. Bee-rack O-bee-mer! Beeghazi! Aw shut up!)

I don't know if the same decline in bee populations is taking place in Mexico. Our beehives seem to be fine. In fact, in the area immediately surrounding us there seems to be little change in the weather either. Temperatures are a bit cooler perhaps but the rainy season seems to have started in earnest, allaying fears that the drought that ravaged southern Texas and northern Mexico could spread down our way. Everything is flowering as usual.

What I'm worried about now are the marketing and pricing angles of Félix's budding cottage industry, which is set to produce another forty-odd pounds of honey in the next few months. There is only so much honey our friends can eat or for which they are willing to pay US$6 a pint. We may have to find some new friends—quickly—or lower our price and incur the wrath of other local honey producers.

Price wars are not pretty.

But such is life in this brutish capitalist world.

###

UPDATE JULY 10

An article from the Washington Post about colony collapse and bee kill-offs

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/07/10/the-surprisingly-simple-reason-millions-of-bees-are-dying/


5 comments:

  1. Perhaps you could create a colorful label for your jars--something with a Mayan or Aztec theme and a clever or mysterious sounding name. That will help you sell your honey, I am sure.

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  2. Fascinating information! A bee from Michoacan........who knew?
    You could market the honey to the several specialty stores here in town or set up a table at the Organic market......Just a thought

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  3. Just found your blog, and read your post. Unfortunately, there has reportedly been a significant decline in bees in Mexico. In the state of Campeche there were 1,500 colonies destroyed from the spraying of insecticides on Monsanto's GMO crops in 2013. I grew up in a small Central Texas town where a world-reknown family of beekeepers live... www.rweaver.com. Bev from El Campo, Tx and Mérida, Yuc.

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    Replies
    1. Beverly & Terry: Thank you for your comment. I have heard that too about Mexican bees but hadn't been able to confirm. There also have been a couple of cases of Africanized bees around here, which are supposed to be super poisonous. Supposedly they attacked a donkey and killed it (!!!)

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  4. Peggy Fernandez
    Jun 25 (7 days ago)

    to me
    love your blog! my husband was from Cuba and told my children and me wonderful stories of the
    Pearl of the Caribbean. Many years after his death, I finally was able to visit and indeed the
    Pearl is still there but somewhat chipped. Please continue writing such great tales about your
    farm as I was particularly interested in the Bees. Here in Tennessee the loss of bees is almost a
    tragedy.

    ReplyDelete