Just Bee Happy

March 5th, 2009

It’s so warm out now that it feels like the middle of spring.  We’re not there yet, but winter is giving way and the days are getting much longer.   Yesterday was time to remove the insulation from the bee hives.  I went out early with temperatures in the low-40’s, and cut off the packs of insulation material.   I wasn’t sure how the bees were faring, and had not checked on them for a couple of weeks.  I slowly peeked inside each top cover and Buzzzz! they let me know they were still fine, thank you very much.  As I stood nearby a lone bee flew back to the front of a hive and crawled inside.  I had never seen the bees flying in temperatures so cool. 

I came back a couple hours later when it was nearly 60 degrees F, and hundreds of bees were flying around actively in front of the hives.  Awesome!  I watched in admiration, thankful they made it through winter thus far, and was surprised to see bees bringing back pollen.   I then took a short hike down the hill and looked up at some of the larger maple trees, and sure enough- they had begun to bloom.

Maple tree in bloom

I can’t say for sure, but maple is my best guess since there’s not many plants other than red cedar or elm that have begun to bloom.  Bees don’t really use anything from the cedar trees and I’ve seen only a few elm trees anywhere.  There may be a willow blooming somewhere too, but I haven’t seen it yet.  However there are lots of maple trees around and the bees can get both pollen and nectar from them.   

I’m excited that the bees are doing so well.  My goal is to foster honey production and local pollination while caring for the bees in a natural, healthy manner.  I don’t want to use chemicals or synthetic treatments for our bees if at all possible.  I first wondered how to produce organic honey, but after a lot research I believe it’s nearly impossible for most beekeepers to achieve.  You can find “organic” honey on the internet, and from other countries, but I believe honey labeled as organic is a dubious distinction because you don’t really know where the bees go.   Maybe you’re paying extra for a label that really isn’t accurate.

 How many bees can you see with pollen? 

Missouri Bees with pollen in March

With a hive of 50,000 or more bees, who knows what pollen and nectar sources they visit?  How do you know the bees have not visited a plant or flower with chemicals on it?  Their normal range is two miles in all directions, with some research showing flights up to five miles! I suppose if your hives are in the middle of a 3-4 square mile area with no farming or other residential/commercial activity you can reasonably be sure the bees are encountering only natural forage.  But more importantly, is the honey raw and unfiltered?  Has it been pasteurized or heat-treated to prevent crystallization?  There are many enzymes in raw honey that are destroyed by heat treatment.  Pasteurization of honey is not really a health issue anyway- it is primarily used to kill sugar tolerant yeasts that might lead to fermentation, hence longer shelf life.

The USDA requirements are fairly strict too- and seems to classify bees as livestock. To certify livestock as organic, a farmer/producer must be able to prove that the animals have not come into contact with certain chemicals or genetically modified material.  Not going to happen with bees for most beekeepers in the U.S.  And did you know by many organic standards that even organic honey can come from hives in which antibiotics have been used during the year?  Doesn’t make sense to me.   You can find organic honey imported from other countries too, but I would like to think that natural, local honey would be healthier and preferred by most people.  Unfortunately, the imported honey is often cheaper than what a small producer can offer.  Still I would like to think that most people will pay a little extra for a quality, local product that they know where it comes from and helps support the community.

My goal is to harvest raw, unprocessed natural honey, while keeping healthy, untreated bees.  I don’t intend to become a commercial beekeeper on a larger scale- just big enough to have some honey and sell it in the local area.  But many beekeepers believe bees simply won’t survive without antibiotic or other treatments due to the mites and other diseases they can catch.  Maybe so, but I’m going to give natural beekeeping a try.   If all goes well this year maybe we can add to the number of hives.  At any rate, it’s time to get the rest of the equipment ready so the bees can make lots of honey this year!

8 Responses to “Just Bee Happy”

  1. My parent’s bee business consisted of around 150 hives at it’s peak. They tried several labels including organic for the local Maharishi crowd and the word local. Local seemed to bring more sales than organic though that was back in the 80’s and times have definitely changed. Not sure what would work best now.

    Back then and now, the Maharishi crowd only bought organic but back then, their definition of organic was unfiltered and unpastuerized. There wasn’t much concern about where the bees got their pollen.

    By far, the biggest requirements were the USDA who inspected and licensed my parent’s operation twice a year to allow them to sell the honey. Not only was it specific but it was also pricey to bring everything up to code.

    I wish you luck in raising bees without antibiotics. My parents tried for a time but mites were the real killers, even with antibiotics. We treated in the fall after honey harvest to minimize chances that it ended up in the supply. The winter my parents sold their operation, the guy asked to winter them on our farm and didn’t treat them. He lost 75% of the hives in one winter and Iowa in general lost two thirds of untreated hives. What is really scary is the CCD or colony collapse disorder that is going around. So far, I haven’t heard of any treatment for that.

  2. Ed- Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Interesting how things evolve. I know there’s a new movement toward natural or sustainable beekeeping, and I’ve got a lot to learn! I wonder if a lot depends on the region, but the CCD problems are pretty scary.

  3. Sounds like you have a worthy ambition despite the challenges (or maybe because of the challenges). When I buy honey (granted, not more than twice a year) I always buy from local farms. For me it’s more of an economic thing. I’d much rather support a local business than some monstrous international outfit.

  4. That’s great Pablo- I feel the same way… hope others do to!

  5. R. Sherman

    Honey is such fascinating stuff. Other than the fact that it’s bad for the teeth, it’s pretty much nature’s perfect food. Good luck!


  6. R.- Thanks… I’m always open to welcoming luck!

  7. pamela

    I hope you have great success with your honey project. I buy honey for my shop from a local woman whose enthusiasm and knowlege about bees is amazing.

  8. Pamela- Thanks too- I have the enthusiasm… it’s the knowledge part that I’m working on! :)

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