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Sustainable Happenings June 2011

What's the Buzz
photographs and story by Joan Gough

The queen is inside of a plastic mesh tube. Worker bees cling to the tube trying to get in to attend to her. As Robin Straub lifts the new queen and her entourage out of the shipping box, I'm struck by how much it looks like a large pine cone. Robin places the queen with the tube open into the new hive box. Then she rather unceremoniously dumps the three pounds of workers into the hive. She has prepared the hive box with sugar water and new frames. The sugar water tides the bees over until they can get out foraging for nectar (carbohydrates) and pollen (protein). Frames give the bees a structure on which to build their comb.

This was the installation of one of several hives being started in Moab this spring. Jerry Shue, Moab's local bee expert and a former bee inspector from Pennsylvania, is on hand in case the bee keepers need help. Everything goes smoothly for Robin and her new bees. Several other prospective bee keepers are watching and learning about establishing a hive. Some will buy bees while others say they will wait for an older hive to divide and swarm.
Jerry has been a great resource for bee keepers in Moab Valley. Since he offered a workshop with the Youth Garden Project, interest in bee keeping has been growing until now there are over 50 hives in the valley.

Later, Jerry and I are sitting in his backyard tasting honey from various sources with bees flying in and out of his hives. The honey is astonishingly varied in color and flavor. The dark wild honey from an old cottonwood tree in Mack, Colorado is mild where I had expected strong. The very light, lemon colored honey from urban Salt Lake is floral, like eating a nasturtium blossom. A Moab honey is medium dark and strong flavored. When I taste the Kroger honey from City Market, it is surprisingly bland. It is the difference between a great varietal wine and a cheap blend.

We have been sitting within a few feet of three hives, eating honey, and have not been bothered by the bees going about their work. Honey bees are just not aggressive, and if they should sting, they pay for it with their lives. A part of their abdomen comes off with the stinger. By immediately pulling out the stinger, you can minimize your reaction. Wasps, on the other hand, are more aggressive and don't die after stinging as bees do.

Another important distinction between bees and wasps is that wasps build the large grey paper nests which hang from trees or buildings. These are sometimes mistaken for a swarm of bees. A bee swarm would appear black, rather than light grey, and be more irregular in shape than the wasp nest. Swarming bees are not dangerous as they have no hive to defend, but bee keepers like to know about swarms because they can gather them and start another hive.

Wild bee hives in southeast Utah are frequently built in hollows in cliffs. The most beautiful construction I've seen was a wild hive in a crack and overhang of sandstone with the combs built outside the crack. They were milky white leaves of wax five to eight inches long and an inch or two thick in the middle. If you put your hands together in prayer, that is about the shape and size of each perfect comb.

Bee keepers build a bee "town house" with the deeper, lower level or box for brood and the upper story for honey. The comb in the lower level is filled with eggs the queen has lain. The fertilized eggs become workers or queens depending on how they are fed by the female workers. The drones are the only males (making up 15% of the population) and start as unfertilized eggs. A queen mates with ten to twenty drones holding the sperm in a sac to fertilize the eggs as she lays them. She will live for three to four years laying as many as 200,000 eggs a year.

Kyle and Carrie Bailey are also local bee stewards--a more accurate title than keepers according them. While Carrie says it is a lot of work, their enthusiasm and deep knowledge is obvious as they talk about bee life. The Baileys have gotten good production, harvesting 20 to 25 quarts of honey while leaving enough to get the bees through the winter. Since bees only fly when the temperature is between 58 and 80 degrees, and have to deal with wind, mites (introduced in the late 70's and early 80's), moths, viruses, and mice. I am amazed they ever have the energy to store extra honey.

According to Jerry, the interest for consumers in local honey is two-fold. First, people use it as an anti-allergen. While there is no research establishing its benefit, there are plenty of anecdotal stories supporting its use. Another reason is the local foods movement which is about eating food that tastes better and is better for you while supporting those who produce it. The benefit of bees as pollinators is hard to overstate. When almond growers in the Sacramento Valley started importing bees to pollinate their trees, they increased production 1,000 fold.

To be part of buzz in Moab, just go to the Farmer's Market in mid-summer where there will be honey to taste and buy. If you want to keep bees, there is plenty of information on line, in The Beekeeper's Handbook by Sammataro and Avitabile, and, most importantly, from local "bee stewards".

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