Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bee Keeping 101

Way back in August, I attended a free screening of the documentary Vanishing of the Bees, hosted by the Tidal Creek Food Co-op. Before the film, I didn't know much about the plight of the bee, nor did I appreciate the huge role bees play in the world - without them, we wouldn't be able to grow food. And while I knew the bees were disappearing, I didn't realize the extent of the problem or the tragic place a world without bees would quickly become.

Vanishing of the Bees - Trailer from Bee The Change on Vimeo.

Here is one crazy thing I learned from the film: today, so much large scale farming is done as a monoculture (farms that grow thousands of acres of one item, such as soy or wheat) that bees no longer live in that area, as food (pollen) is only available once a year, when those crops flower. In order to get their crops pollinated, the farm owners RENT bees from bee keepers. Hives are shipped across the country, multiple times a year, then collected and shipped back to the bee keeper's base at the end of the season. It's hard to imagine how this method could possibly good for the bees, for the farm, or for the world.

So what can we do, besides getting riled up by documentaries and lamenting the vanishing bees? I will tell you what I did. On the way home from the movie I pulled out my phone and started looking up bee clubs in Wilmington. Not only did I find one (hello, New Hanover Beekeeping Association!) but I discovered they were were having a six week beginners course to bee keeping starting in October. We signed up immediately and last night, finally attended our first class.

On the agenda: Anatamoy, Life Cycles and Social Structures. Y'all, I don't know if you're aware but bees are FASCINATING. Here are some tidbits I wrote down in my notes (I see a creative nonfiction about beekeeping in my future):
  • Worker bees are female and the drones are males. So just about every bee you see flying around and collecting pollen is a lady bee. All the drones do is have sex with the Queen and then die. In the fall, when mating season is over, the drones are kicked out of the hive because they eat too much and only serve one purpose. The feminist in me enjoyed this. (Kidding!) 
  • 20,000 species of bees have been discovered; 4,000 species exist in the United States. The bee most often raised by beekeepers is the Italian Honey Bee, which is actually not a native species. 
  • Honey never goes bad. There was a jar discovered in King Tut's tomb and it was still edible. (The lady sitting next to me told me this - I haven't confirmed it yet, but I desperately want to believe it.) 
  • Queens are actually created by the worker bees, who are in charge of feeding eggs royal jelly. If they give an egg more jelly than the rest, that egg will grow into a Queen. In this way, the worker bees can overthrow a Queen if she's getting old, not producing enough eggs, and not keeping the hive unified. 
  • The Queen secretes a pheromone which promotes unity and cohesiveness in the hive. This is what keeps the bees buzzing!

Clearly, I enjoyed the first class and am looking forward to the rest of the course (which includes a trip to an apiary!) as well as getting my first hive. A word about that: I considered beekeeping in the context of veganism and came to the conclusion that the situation here is the same as my chicken exception. I am not against animal products, but I am against large scale farming and animal cruelty. If I have my own animals, then I am morally okay with exchanging care and protection for a portion of their products (IE, eggs and honey). While I avoid those things in commercial and processed products, I don't mind consuming them when I know the source. And for anyone who thinks honey is vegan because insects don't count: watch Vanishing of the Bees. Your mind will be changed.

In addition! When people have their own hives, it actually helps the bees and is good for the environment. Research has shown that individual beekeepers have the least rate of colony collapse disorder (vanishing bees), which they believe is linked to the fact that they don't use pesticides or chemicals, and don't ship their hives all over the country. A biased view, I am sure, but it makes sense and the evidence is compelling. When we finally have our own hive, our bees will be healthy and happy, and will do the heavy lifting in our neighborhood as far as pollinating the flowers and trees goes. Caring for the environment is not just about putting out your recycling and turning off the light when you leave a room. There is so much more we can and must do!

So save the bees, please! And come back next week for more interesting bee facts.