Cold. Snap!

In the last post, The Culling Winter, I reported that one of my hives didn’t make it, and I puzzled about the reason. The comment section was unanimous in its conclusion: a weak hive plus the cold snap starved the hive. Even the simple two inches from the cluster to the remaining supplies was too much in the frigid conditions. Linda’s description had a bit of poetry to it, I thought it worth repeating:

They all then die together in a very democratic way, each getting shares of the very last of the honey available to them until the supplies in those cells are completely gone and then they die, head down in the cell and tongues out to get the last lick.

Sic transit gloria apis.

The Culling Winter

Like the many of the rest of the northern states, we got more than our fair share of snow this past December. Seattle, which ordinarily might get one two days of snow all winter, often amounting to less than an inch, accumulated got what seemed like a foot or more (but that’s with fisherman’s eyes, no doubt).

Hive Mind Beekeeping Hive Mind Beekeeping Hive Mind Beekeeping

In any case, this time of year I often get the question “what do your bees do over the winter,” to which I invariably reply “smoke cigarettes and play cards.”

Less flippantly and more generally speaking, the answer is that they’re hunkered down in a bunch in the center of the hive, keeping each other warm and living off the honey and pollen they spent the year collecting (minus the honey and pollen we collect, that is.) Cold weather isn’t such a problem for them, they survive in much colder climes than Seattle.

Less flippantly and more specifically to my hives, they die.

Half of them, anyway. That is, this past Sunday was balmy and bright, perfect day for mowing the shaggy patch of grass we call lawn and cracking open the hives to see how they were getting on. Upon removing the top inner cover of Hive 1 (aka Shady Hive), I heard the faint annoyed buzz of my girls rousing themselves from below, and a few came out to object to my leaving the door open and letting in a breeze. I shut the top and left well enough alone.

The opening of Hive 2 (aka Sunny Hive), on the other hand, was a more somber affair. Huddled at the top was a cluster of bees, same as I imagine were huddled down lower in Shady Hive, except that the Sunny Hive bees lacked a certain vitality.

In other words, they were dead.

Dead Bees Dead bees Dead Bees

It wasn’t hunger that did them in, as there were clearly honey stores all around them, and there were enough of them that I doubt it was the cold, but I’m not sure what else to pin it on. You can see in the top set of pictures that Sunny Hive (on the right) does have more dead bees out front during the snow, but inside they seemed in good physical shape, piled one atop the other and burrowed into empty cells. Good physical shape, ya know, aside from their deadness.

Could be mites, of course, but I didn’t see any direct signs.

One interesting note was that I clearly made a mistake in the hole I drilled in the bottom of the hive for ventilation. The idea was to create airflow that would keep moisture from building up. My mistake, it seems, was putting screen on the bottom and top of the hole. It ended up creating a closed area for detritus to build up in, which it did and eventually plugged the hole. Take a peek:


My plan is to replace the whole bottom board with a screened bottom for mite control next Spring anyway, but were I to try this method again, I’d put the screen only on the inside of the hive, not the outside as well.

Pollan, not pollen

Michelle, Zev and I heard a great talk tonight by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. It wasn’t specifically relevant to beekeeping, but is certainly relevant to the locavore mantra we’ve been preaching here lately. Indulge me then a tangent.

Pollan suggested that Nutritionism has become the dominant ideology of Western food-thought. Its tenets are:

  1. Food is a nothing but a sum of its constituent nutrients
  2. Because you can’t directly see nutrients, knowledge of what to eat is a mystery that must be guided by experts (a priesthood, if you will)
  3. The goal of eating is to improve bodily health (not, say, to savor the meal or one’s company at it)
  4. Nutrients are either good or evil (e.g., Omega-3 is Good, high fructose corn syrup is Evil)

This ideology leads to various flawed conclusions. For one, the “good” and “evil” nutrients change over time, like fashion. At the turn of the century, Kellogg preached that protein was evil, and that a healthy diet consisted of primarily carbohydrates (yes, that Kellogg).

Worse, if there are “good” nutrients, then eating lots of them must be better. And this exactly has been the recommendation of the goverment (at the behest of the agriculture industry): encourage people to eat more things with “good” nutrients in them, rather than to eat less of anything.

As a result, obesity, diabetes and heart disease have skyrocketed over the past several decades, to the point where the CDC predicts that 1 in 3 children born in the year 2000 will eventually develop Type 2 diabetes!

Pollan’s recommendation? He has lots, but one that resonated with me is “shorten the food chain”. If you know the person who you are getting your food from, it’s much less likely to be processed “edible food-like substances” than if you are buying it anonymously in the store. In other words, eat local!

And now, for those annoyed at my non-beekeeping tangent, is the obligatory bee-relevant tidbit of the story: another rule he suggested was “only eat things that rot” (i.e., if it has so many preservatives or is so far removed from biology that molds and bacteria don’t want any of it, neither should you). He caught himself though, and exempted that one natural food that never rots, that has been found edible in Egyptian tombs after millenia, honey.

Honey Laundering Revisited

The Seattle Times ran a series of five articles by Andrew Schneider this past week on honey laundering, a topic I blogged about some time ago. The articles are a good read, he manages to bring a bit of James Bond flair to the business:

Seven cars with darkened windows barreled east toward the Cascades, whizzing past this Snohomish County hamlet’s smattering of shops and eateries.

The sedans and sport utility vehicles stirred up dust as they rolled into the parking lot of Pure Foods Inc., a Washington honey producer.

Out popped a dozen people in dark windbreakers identifying them as feds — agents from Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some raced to the loading docks. Others hurried through the front door. All were armed.

The gist of it is that Chinese honey producers are apparently no safer than Chinese dairies, using antibiotics and pesticides that are banned for use in foods in the U.S. and adulterating their honey with corn syrup, cane syrup and water.

To get around tariffs and rightly skeptical American consumers, the Chinese honey is shipped to Vietnam, Russia, Thailand and the Grand Bahamas (the Grand Bahamas?!), where they are relabeled as Vietnamese, Russian, etc. and shipped to the United States (a practice known as “transshipping”). American companies such as Sue Bee, Silver Bow and Pure Foods that import and distribute the honey seem, at best, willfully ignorant of the practice.

The articles go on to note that even honey labeled “natural” and “organic” isn’t necessarily, as there are few federal standards on what makes honey “organic”. Plus, given that bees will forage for miles, it’s virtually impossible to ensure that a given hives bees don’t come into contact with chemicals somewhere in their travels.

So what’s a honey loving consumer to do? I’ll tell you what to do!

Buy Local Honey!

It makes sense for dozens of reasons. First, if you want to be sure that the honey wasn’t adulterated with antibiotics and pesticides in China before being shipped in a supertanker by way of Russia, buy it from a guy with beeswax under his nails in a farmer’s market. Beekeepers working the farmer’s market are not in it for the money, believe me. There are way easier ways to make a living. If you’re in Seattle, go to the Ballard Sunday market. It’s the best.

But there’s more to buying local than avoiding contaminants. Think about the carbon footprint. What does it take to ship honey from deep in the interior of China to Russia and then to the United States? How much oil is consumed as those cargo ships chug across oceans? When I deliver honey, I deliver it by foot to friends (and occasionally by bicycle).

But there’s something special about local honey, more so than any other food product.

Honey that was produced from flowers in the environment in which you live is better for you by helping you build up immunities to allergies from local pollens. It doesn’t do you a spit of good to get immunities to Chinese pollens or Californian pollens if you’re sneezing in Snohomish.

OK, soapbox moment over. As you were.

(Photo credits: Customs agent by Meryl Schenker / P-I and Local Honey by Melissa_Thinkspace)