Treekeeping Beekeeping

I finally got around to posting photos from our trip to Thailand over the New Year holiday and came across this gem.  We found this tree trekking in Chiang Mai province in the north.  The “ladder” that’s been hammered into the tree is for the beekeeper to climb up to a wild hive and harvest the honey.  That is hard core!  Our guide didn’t know much about the practice, unfortunately, so I don’t know if they wear anything beyond a veil for protection (or even that.

I’ve got a book on the history of beekeeping with some amazing pictures of beekeepers harvesting honey from cliff-hanging hives.  That is truly hard-core.  They lower themselves from ropes and cut the combs into buckets, and all this wearing only loinclothes.  I wanted to scan in the photo, but can’t seem to find the book.  I did find some interesting pictures on the Internet of various traditional beekeeping methods, though. Click the photo to go to the article.


One bourbon, one scotch and one mead

Back around 10, 12 years ago, after my first harvest of honey, my housemates and I decided we’d brew ourselves some mead from some of our surplus bounty.  Mead is simply honey wine: honey, water, yeast, ferment, drink, carouse, but it’s got a long and storied history.  For example, the word “honeymoon” comes from the idea that drinking mead on your wedding night increased fertility (or at least proclivity to test fertility).

The experiment was a moderate success.  The result was a very fruity, sweet, alcoholic beverage with a strong…well…honey-like flavor.  I was told that mead needed to age for at least 4 years before it was any good and that some mead could take as long as 10 years to reach maturity.

Problem is, I’ve got a bit of a hoarding instinct.  I’m always thinking “I should save that for a special occasion.”  This isn’t entirely unreasonable, except that my definition of “special occasion” are so few and far between that 10 or 12 years later, I’ve still got a fair amount sitting in dusty bottles on a shelf, waiting for a special occasion. 

Now, apparently, the situation is getting worse.  My 2005 harvest was quite bountiful, 15 gallons full, and, being somewhat of a hoarder, I haven’t gone through it all. Normally, this wouldn’t be an issue, because, as I’ve blogged before, honey is the only food that doesn’t go bad. Archaeologists have found 3,300 year old honey in an Egyptian tomb, still edible!

However, the honey I harvested had a bit higher water content than normal. My speculation is that I harvested too many uncapped cells.  Typically, the bees will fill a cell, let water evaporate from it, refill it and repeat until the honey is good and thick, then cap it with wax.  In my case, they hadn’t finished their job.

As a result, my honey has begun to ferment.  I can tell because there are bubbles forming in the 5 gallon bucket I’ve got left.  That’s right, 5 gallons of honey, fermenting. 

What do you do with five gallons of fermenting honey?  I wasn’t sure, so I put it to the Organic Beekeeper’s group on Yahoo!. The answer? Make mead. According to Scott McPherson of McPherson Family Farms, the yeast used to make mead, champagne yeast, will kill off whatever happens to be growing in my honey naturally and I’ll end up with a huge, tasty batch of mead.  Another contributor, BIll Huhman, disagreed:

“The best mead comes from the best honey you’ve got. Other than using in my coffee for that early morning buzz, I’d tend towards using already-fermenting stuff for the vinegar and wait for the good stuff for my mead in 3-4 months :)”

I dunno, what do you think?  Tell you what, if you’re a brewer and want to take a swing at it, I’ll give you the honey in exchange for some of the mead.  It’s not hard, there are a ton of recipes on the Net, including this fine one for Halfdan’s Viking Mead. I’ve even got a bunch of the equipment (thanks, Brian).

So, who’s up for it?

Bee Phage and Bee Thieves

Bad news on the bee disease front.  As if Varroa Destructor (cool name for a parasite, eh?) wasn’t bad enough, there’s some new plague hounding the American bee population, Colony Collapse Disorder (originally Fall Dwindle Disease, a less impressive but more Carrollesque name).

According to the New York Times:

The ailment has killed off tens of thousands of honeybee colonies in at least 21 states…threatening the livelihood of commercial beekeepers and potentially putting a strain on fruit growers and other farmers that rely on bees to pollinate their crops.

Bee researchers from Pennsylvania and Montana who have spent the last couple weeks in California collecting test samples said they have heard stories of beekeepers having lost colonies by the thousands, forcing them to return home with no work and few bees.

Crap-o.  Maybe I’ll switch to tapping sugar maples.

While reading some articles on the disorder, I came across mention of Bee Alert Technology, Inc., a Montanan company that was surveying beekeepers regarding the disorder. I was curious what they did when there wasn’t a pandemic threatening the US bee population, so I googled their web site.

Incredibly, they specialize in hive security.  From their web site:

HiveTracker™ uses tiny devices called Radio Frequency (RF) transmitters…to specifically identify valuable assets such as beehives. These tags can be located using special equipment from distances up to 1,500 feet, meaning that it is very difficult to hide any hive marked with HiveTracker™. Working with Bee Alert Technology, Inc., you can now locate your valuable assets from a low-flying aircraft…We also provide you with HiveTracker™ identification stickers which you should affix to a prominent location to warn potential thieves…

HiveSentry™ is a satellite or cell-phone/internet reporting station that calls you when any of your beehives or pallets move.

Amazing!  There are beehive thieves out there.  And beehive thief chasers, tracking them in low-flying aircraft.  I mean, wouldn’t it seem like the best security against thieves stealing your hives is that they’re filled with bees?!

Apparently not.

Mid-winter stretch

  I just did a Google search for “sorry I haven’t updated” and “blog”.  26,800 hits.  Well, procrastiny loves company, as they ought to say.

In my defense, while I haven’t updated this bee blog since September, I haven’t actually been as lazy a beekeeper as I have been a lazy blogger.  I’ve been into Healthy Hive 2 a few times, and the girls are doing fine.

First, I grabbed the honey supers in late October.  There were three boxes of comb on the hive, but only one was full up.  This is a pretty weak showing.  Last year, I had 9 boxes between two hives.  I’m not 100% sure why the harvest was so low this year, although I imagine it’s because either 1) I’m a bad beekeeper or 2) it was a dry summer.  My money’s #1.

For those of you waiting for your jars of Hive Mind honey, it ain’t that I don’t love you.  Truth is, I’m such a lazy beekeeper, I haven’t actually extracted the honey from the comb yet.  It’s sitting in my basement, ready to be harvested as soon as I get off my lazy ass.

Well, not completely lazy.  I remembered that I last year, I didn’t check in on the girls all winter, and when I finally did pry open their coffin…errr…hive, I found a decaying, moldy mess of bee carcasses.  Wishing to avoid the same mistake, I cracked open the hive in late January, after the inches high snow drifts from our Seattle-style blizzard had cleared.  As I feared, it weren’t pretty.

As you can see, my first hint that all was not well at Casa Beehive was found at the front door. See those tracks coming and going below my lovely logo?  That’s shit. Now, I’m not saying it’s a sure sign of the death of the hive or imminent doom or anything, but let me ask you this: would you want big streaks of shit leading up to your front door?  I didn’t think so.

Inside the hive the same ugliness I found last April.  Jonestown-style piles of dead bees layered in with a thick carpet of mold.  In fact, it had grown so high that it covered their front door.  I figured what had happened is that during the cold spell, a number of bees had died.  Once it warmed up, they were blocked from cleaning up the carcasses by the sheer number of them.  Again, they’re bees and not humans, so I don’t want to draw too many parallels here, but would you want carcasses layered in mold piled up in front of your front door?  You see where I’m going with this, then.

Fortunately, cleaning up stacks of corpses isn’t really a big deal when they’re less than an inch long and you’re roughly five foot six.  I scraped the bottom board clean, flipped the entrance reducer so it would still keep them warm, but give them a bit more room to come and go through and declared them ready for rewintering.  I checked one of the frames on the way out, it looked fine.  From the heft of the boxes, they’ve still got sufficient stores of honey to make it through the winter, and there was just a bit of mold on a few cells, nothing they won’t be able to clean up in no time.

This was all back about three weeks ago, and they’ve been doing awesome ever since.  Every warm day, they’re out buzzing and humming, hauling in pollen on their little legs, occasionally following me into the house and harrassing the cat.