Burgess Wisdom



“…to the bee a flower is the fountain of life. And to the flower a bee is a messenger of love…” Kahlil Gibran   

It was a Saturday morning in May, early enough that the sky was more midnight than dusk, when George and I tossed our gear into the double-cab 80’s model pickup we had borrowed and headed across the river from Illinois into St. Louis. George listened to NPR and I surfed through Facebook posts and email messages as though it was just another drive into the city. But this was a big day, one we had talked about for years. We pulled into the parking lot at the Maritz Center well before sunrise. Dozens of boxes filled with hundreds of thousands of bees were spread across the lawn—they had been traveling all night to get here–and two of them belonged to us.

The scene was surreal. There were vehicles already leaving the area as others arrived. Women and men of all shapes and sizes shimmied into white bee suits, with veiled hats and long leather gloves. A soft cloud of particulate matter hovered above the grassy area near the parking lot, wafting from devices known as smokers. The scent was pleasant, like an early morning campfire.

Smoke, according to experts, has two effects on bees. Apparently, it masks their ability to smell so if some of the bees attempt to communicate alarm to the others through emitting pheromones, the message will be stymied by the smoke. If no bees pick up on the scent of alarm, the thousands of others can go on about their business. Secondly, smoke causes the bees to go into survival mode as though they were in the middle of a forest fire. They gorge themselves on honey believing they will need to abandon their hive and find a new home, and apparently having a belly full of honey adds to the calm. It’s said to be reminiscent of the feeling we get after enjoying a plate laden with turkey and fixings.

    George and I passed my iPhone back and forth, getting shots of each other dressed in bee garb, photos of the parking lot filling with mostly new beekeepers like us, and a couple of shots of the scene with the smokers and the boxes of bees.  Then we fetched our order forms and went to collect our colonies.

    One way of getting started as a beekeeper is to align with an association. In our case a friend had recommended we attend the annual winter meeting of the Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association (EMBA) so we could purchase healthy bees and learn the first steps of choosing and setting up hives. Through EMBA we ordered two nucleus colonies, commonly referred to as nucs. Each nuc is a small wooden box with up to five frames containing a queen, nurse bees, worker bees, foragers, drones, brood (eggs, larvae and pupae), and a store of honey.

Honeybees are fascinating little creatures and each bee, based on age and gender, serves a specific purpose on behalf of the entire colony. The queen does not rule over the hive and direct the daily schedule as her title suggests–in fact she really has one job to do and that is to lay eggs; anywhere from 1500 to 2000 a day during the height of the season. She doesn’t seek out nourishment, it is provided to her.  The other female bees begin by performing a single function for a few days and then mature onto the next task. In the final weeks of a typical honeybee’s life she will work as a forager where she will leave the hive each day in search of nectar, pollen and water, to bring back to the hive. Her wings can become tattered from flying hundreds of miles a day, and at about six-weeks of age, she will likely die in the field. It takes the lifetime of about 12 honeybees to produce one teaspoon of honey! Drones—the males—are vitally important since they are responsible for mating with virgin queens and ensuring genetic diversity. But that’s really all they do. Typically, they die after mating, and those who don’t manage to connect with a queen will eventually be banned from the hive to ensure more honey for the female bees.

    The EMBA representatives who were distributing the boxes at the Maritz Center that Saturday morning were all smiles. They clearly loved being apiarists and were delighted to share the practice with others. On nuc day, the people who show up earliest get the heaviest boxes. The heavier the box the better established the colony. The gentleman named Greg looked at my order form, picked up one nuc after another and finally on the fifth one said, “ah, this is a good one”, handed it to me, then repeated the same ritual for George. My gloved hands held onto that little wooden box with the tightest grip I could muster, and I walked, determinedly, to the truck. What a disaster it would be to drop a box of 10,000 honeybees! It was terrifying, and exhilarating, and I wept as we started the drive home.

    Our mission that morning was to get the nucs situated on or near the hive boxes we had prepared, so that once the sun was fully blazing the bees could come out, scout their surroundings and some of them could begin the all-important task of foraging while the others worked inside. The most common hive design, the Langstroth, is a wooden box that typically holds ten frames, and is designed so that one box can be stacked on top of another. We painted one of our hives butter yellow, and the other a light blue with big yellow OM symbols on each side. What could be more appropriate for welcoming thousands of vibrating, buzzing creatures, than the symbol of the sound of the universe? We set the boxes on top of their hives, removed the little screens that were keeping the bees inside the nucs, and went off to tend to morning chores. Our dairy goats, Sweet Pea and Alsie were full with milk, anxious for food and some relief, and there were dozens of birds to feed—we toss out sunflower seeds and a mixture of oats and barley for the chickens and ducks, and wind-up attracting bright red cardinals, gray mourning doves, little brown white-throated swallows, and blue-hued indigo buntings. Water buckets were topped off and we filled the two birdbaths in the fenced-in vegetable garden. Since we located our hives in the garden we expected the bird baths to be a source of water for the birds and the bees. Getting everything done took much longer than usual due to the frequent stops to see if the bees were waking up. When at last they started coming out to explore their new surroundings we grabbed a cup of coffee and settled nearby.

    Honeybees, upon arriving at a new location, spend time just flying around their new locale and scouting the surrounding area. It looks like chaos but is apparently purposeful. Next the foragers begin to travel farther from the hive in search of food. Soon enough there were honeybees visiting our table, curious about what we had in our cups. A girl buzzed my face, not in a threatening way but as though she was learning something. I had read in a scientific journal that honeybees can memorize and remember human faces. Was she studying mine for that purpose? Or perhaps she was hoping to locate someone familiar.      

    The apple trees were in full flower with sweet-smelling blossoms and we watched as some of the bees landed on them to cover their fuzzy bodies with pollen. They were also crawling all over the bright yellow dandelions we welcome each spring. Some consider dandelions to be weeds and douse them with the ubiquitous pesticide called Roundup which can be lethal to honeybees. We eschew Round-up and instead savor the days when we can pick dandelion greens for our smoothies and salads—they are full of good nutrition—and leave the flowers for bees, beetles and birds. Dandelions are a so-so source of nutrition for bees, but they serve a purpose by being readily available early in the spring. Once the bloom has faded and is magically converted to a puff of seeds, it’s time to blow them all over the yard. A young friend of mine once said, “…a thousand seeds for a thousand wishes!” so I always summon a wish just prior to scattering the seeds with a deep inhale and a mighty woosh.  If you’re tempted to sample dandelions for yourself here is a chef’s recipe for adding the greens to eggs: https://www.abeautifulplate.com/sauteed-dandelion-greens-with-eggs/

The weekend we brought our bees home we eventually suited up and carefully slid each frame from the nucs into their respective hives. The yellow hive bees came from one nuc, the blue hive from the other and each continues on as a unique colony—separate from the other. In other words, the yellow hive bees don’t visit the blue hive and vice versa.

For years we were accustomed to seeing bees everywhere on our property. We remember sizzling hot summer days when our huge St. John’s Wort bush with its showy yellow flowers would rustle with bee activity. We knew back then that we didn’t dare thrust a hand into the purple butterfly bush to collect a stem or two for the kitchen table without checking for bees first. And in autumn when unharvested apples would fall to the ground and begin to ferment we knew to just leave them alone—the bees returned to them day after day for nutrition. We didn’t notice a gradual drop in numbers, we just realized one summer that the bees were gone. It was around the same time that a mysterious plight called Colony Collapse Disorder was identified across the country with hundreds of beekeepers reporting losses of virtually all their hives. The high mortality continued for nearly a decade, from 2006 to 2015. Fortunately, the numbers of managed hives in the U.S. have increased somewhat in the last couple of years and annual losses have slowed. The USDA estimates there are about 2.5 million honeybee hives in the U.S. Many of those hives are migratory—they spend much of the year being trucked around the country to provide pollinating services for various crops. Do you enjoy almond milk in your morning smoothie? Almond butter on your toast? Almond flour for your favorite gluten free cookies? It takes 1.7 million hives of honeybees from all over the country to pollinate the almond crops in California. The guacamole you enjoyed on Cinco de Mayo? Yep, avocados require bee pollinators. Can’t get your morning started without that first cup of coffee? Coffee beans benefit greatly from honeybee pollination; yields would drop without them. Many of the flowers blooming in your garden, fresh peaches, apples, Brazil nuts, lemons, broccoli, melons…you get the idea…all rely on the pollination services of honeybees.

There are things we can do to improve the outlook for this fuzzy little friend of humankind.

  1. Reduce or if possible, eliminate the use of Round-Up and other similar chemicals in your yard. 
  2. Research and cultivate bee-friendly flowers and plants. (Stay tuned for details about our Pollinator Seed-Ball Party coming soon at The Land of Goshen Farmer’s Market.)
  3. If you have the space and the desire start your own hive! Contact the St. Clair Beekeepers Association for advice on how to find a local nuc supplier.
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