Thursday, April 9, 2015

New beehive, new business plan

A month ago Stew, Félix, our dog Gladys and I set off for Morelia to pick up a third beehive, a seven-hour expedition that included lunch at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Félix was fascinated by the lakes, birds and other sights along the way and delighted with the chicken which he had seen advertised on TV. He bought an additional combo package for his family.

The starter beehive package cost about $150US and contained several thousand agitated bees plus a queen bee in a separate chamber the size of a cigarette pack. Along with the new hive Stew introduced Félix to basic accounting and the profit motive.

Only one bee escaped inside the car. It buzzed past the imperturbable Gladys a couple of times before disappearing somewhere. There was more excitement outside when we ran into a freak snow squall that some Mexican drivers took as a cue to speed up.

Lookee honey, it's snowing! Step on the gas!
Until the new bees get established, fly around the yard and begin making their own honey, they need to be fed a one-to-one sugar-water mix twice a week. The first feeding was due immediately after the new hive was quickly assembled.

But on that day the weather was slate-gray and dank, just the of kind of conditions that make bees very irritable, a lesson Stew and Félix learned when they tried to poke around a hive and feed the bees one cloudy day three years ago. Gangs of irate bees went after anyone nearby, human our animal. Domino, a spotted Dalmatian-like mutt, got stung and ran under the bed and would not come out for a couple of hours. The maid was afraid to leave the garage. The cats hid in the closet.

This time Félix and Stew waited until the third day when the skies turned warm and clear, perfect for checking the new hive and for the first serving of sugar syrup.

As they approached the new hive, however, a swarm of thousands of bees, looking as determined and menacing as a squadron of tiny fighter planes, buzzed over their heads, going north in the direction of the house. Not a good omen.

Had the new bees abandoned their quarters because they were hungry? Was a swarm of wild bees trying to take over the new hive? Was there some terrorist warfare among the bees from the other two hives? Were wild bees trying to rob the honey from our old hives?

After the menacing swarm flew by, Stew and Félix removed the top of the new hive and found the new bees from Morelia calmly buzzing about as if they had been knitting or chatting about fútbol scores. No reason for alarm or explanation of where the threatening-looking bees came from. Probably just visiting from the next ranch.

Buenos días, bees: Stew and Félix check
 one of the old hives. The bottom box is the
"brood chamber" and the top four boxes are
the "supers." Stew uses a smoker to
calm down the bees. 
A beehive is a stack of wooden boxes sixteen inches wide and twenty inches long, painted white or some light color. Standard Mexican beehives are sized differently than those used in the U.S. so the components are not interchangeable.

Either way a beehive is a machine as awesomely intricate as a Swiss watch except it's organized and run by insects acting purely on instinct ingrained over thousands, maybe millions of years.

The bottom box, about twelve inches high and with no top, is the "brood chamber" where the new bees traveled from Morelia and now live, lay eggs and reproduce, on eight vertical "frames" with pre-installed wax panels. Another compartment holds the sugar syrup. A slot on one side allows the bees to come and go and look for flower nectar and pollen to make the honey.

Atop the brood chamber rest shallower boxes called "supers," six inches high and with no tops or bottoms. The supers are where they bees store the honey on additional frames with wax panels. As they make more honey, more supers are added by the beekeepers. A wood lid covered with tin tops the hive.

When the supers are covered with honey, it's extraction and bottling time.  After several inspections and feedings, everything in the new hive seems to be working fine though there won't be any honey to be collected probably until the fall. The two old hives are nearly full and their honey should be ready by the end of May.

Along with the new hive, Stew announced to Félix a new deal for his honey business: He's going to have to pay us back for the new hive and bear some of the other costs of the operation. Until now we've paid all the costs while Félix takes all the sales money which last year reached over $600US on fifteen gallons of honey. The way Stew set it up Félix now will kick back twenty-five percent of new sales until the new hive is paid up.

I feared Félix might get upset or lose interest with the new financial demands but just the opposite happened. He thought the terms were reasonable and now he is really interested in the welfare of the bees—his small business—and checks the new and old hives twice or three times a week. He and his wife have been discussing a new pricing scheme I suggested, based on net weight of the honey bottled in different size jars, and checking competitors' prices.

Gordon Gekko may have been right about motivating power of greed.

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