Sunday was a beautiful day for a drive up to Frog Belly Farm outside Longmont to take a class on beekeeping offered by Corwin, Karen and Amy of backyardhive.com.
They brought along a couple of their hives, which Corwin has refined over the years from the top-bar hives created by Peace Corps volunteers for use in Africa.
They are smaller, cheaper and easier to manage than the box-type hive you are used to (known as a Langstroth hive, or Lang).
A typical Lang consists of rectangular frames into which beekeepers insert pre-embossed wax foundation. The bees use the foundation as a template from which to build up the wax cells for holding honey.
This is a fairly efficient way for beekeepers to get more honey faster. When they harvest, they take out the frames, spin them in a centrifuge to get the honey out, then put the frames back in the hive for more honey.
But if your goal is to provide a good home for pollinators with a honey harvest as just a fringe benefit, the top-bar hive is touted as more bee-friendly. The bees draw out their own comb, using the top bars as a guide. Their natural honeycomb-cell size is smaller than most commercially produced foundation, and this also seems to promote the bees' health and resistance to pests. Which makes it easier to keep them organically.
Did you know that commercial bees are regularly dosed with antibiotics and other drugs? Yuck. It never even occurred to me that they might be.
I just happened to encounter the organic, no-treatments side of beekeeping right off the bat, happily; it meshes with how I garden. And the top-bar hive looks like it will be much easier for me to manage (love that observation window, especially). But it's all still considered somewhat subversive. (!)
This class went over a lot of stuff that I'd already learned through my research, but it was good to see and handle some of the products of beekeeping. For example, pollen:
Bees collect it from plants and carry it back to the hive packed into little baskets on their hind legs. (Why are bees furry? Their fur exerts a nice little static pull on that fluffy pollen, just like a stubborn piece of lint you can't seem to shake off.) They store the pollen in their comb and later mix it with a little honey to make bee bread. Nom nom.
Have you ever had Nerds candy? Pollen tastes a little like that. Kinda fruity and tangy.
There's also propolis, which is the sticky sap that trees exude around their new growth or to cover up broken spots. It has antimicrobial properties, and bees gather it to glue things together in the hive and to seal up holes.
This ball of propolis was formed by scraping off different parts of many beehives over the years. It's the propolis equivalent of the world's largest twine ball.
Bees also produce something called royal jelly, from a gland in their heads. It's fed to the worker larvae for three days, and to the queen larva for six. It's what makes her become a queen. See, it's the workers who decide whether they need a new queen or not. They will put an egg in a larger queen cell and fill the cell with royal jelly for the larva to eat. Here are a couple of queen cells:
As an experiment, Corwin carved his own queen cell and stuffed it in a hive. Sure enough, the bees filled it up with royal jelly! Pretty clever.
When I was in China, people would bring me vials of royal jelly when I got sick. I don't know it if it worked as a health booster, but it tasted good. The snake bile cough syrup was OK, too.
Finally, we got to sample some comb from that hive you see above. Sadly, the bees were doing really well, making it through the winter with plenty of stores left, but a recent huge windstorm blew off the top of the hive and they froze.
It was good honey, too.
We went over a few of the practical points of setting up and maintaining a hive and then suddenly the class was over. I emerged blinking into the balmy afternoon to find a bunch of baby goats gamboling about.
A cute end to an informative day. Bring on the bees!