Yesterday the oldest boys, Kayla, and I went with Kwao to the apiary on top of the mountain to feed the bees. Working a hive we had split last week we found a bunch of queen cells which we had hoped to find. When bees suddenly become queenless (as these did when we took away their queen) they will turn several eggs in the hive into queen cells and feed them royal jelly. Although all baby bees are fed some royal jelly, the queen will dine exclusively upon it for her entire life. Whichever queen hatches first will either be allowed by the workers to make her way through the hive, seeking out queen cells through a high pitched sound that the other queens respond to and then stinging the queens inside to death or the workers will guide her away from the other queen cells and force her to swarm. Sometimes the workers will let 2 emerged queens fight, with studies showing they often handicap the queen they want to lose. Although the queen is pampered for her whole extensive life, she has no real control or power. The importance of the queen lies in her ability to pass on favorable genes to the hive. This is why genetic selection is a crucial part of all beekeeping particularly organic, natural beekeeping that does not rely on antibiotics and other chemicals as preventative measures for pest control. Instead organic beekeepers breed stronger, disease and pest resistant bees. It is also important when breeding to consider how productive and docile your bees are. Productive bees will grant greater honey yields and calm bees are much more fun and pleasant to work with than aggressive bees.
This was also a rare opportunity for me to get to taste royal jelly, which honestly is gross. Although lauded for its alleged health benefits across many cultures (especially for fertility), royal honey tastes extremely sour, like yogurt that has turned bad. Kwao teased me for being game to try it, saying I must secretly want a baby (if so, it’s a secret from me too). Anyways, it’s not something I recommend eating taste-wise and although health and cosmetic products are sometimes marketed on the basis of containing royal jelly, I would also be adverse to buy anything that uses it. The bees only make large quantities (we’re talking a few teaspoons worth) when they are making new queens so it’s an extremely difficult product to create and harvest sustainably. The bees must be stimulated to create queen cells outside of the conditions that they would normally do so, when swarming or when replacing a queen that has died. From a labor perspective royal jelly is also not sustainable. It requires a large, extremely cheap labor force, which is why China is at the forefront of royal jelly production. So buying royal jelly is supporting both unsustainable bee practices and encouraging reprehensible labor conditions. So don’t do it!
We also worked the few Langstroth hives that Kwao still has. Working Langstroth hives is pretty horrible once you are used to the ease of top bar hives! The major benefit of Langstroth hives is that they do produce more honey than top bar hives.
As you can see in the above photos the boxes must be disassembled to reach the bees in the lower boxes. The boxes do not have bottoms (other than the lowest one) so the bees are left exposed, increasing the likelihood of stings. The boxes are also heavy. This form of beekeeping requires a lot of physical strength and so excludes or discourages many people from trying beekeeping. Top bar hives are very equitable; women can easily participate as can people who are disabled or elderly. It is also much easier to rearrange combs when working a top bar hive because everything is laid out in a linear and not a stacked fashion.
Today we went into the hives in the backyard. Beekeeping is actually very intense work especially in this heat! Bee stings often have an energizing effect but if you are lucky enough to avoid them, recovery time is crucial. We did some fun stuff in the hives though. A comb had fallen off its top bar and Agape got to teach us how to use a comb saver.
And now to escape the kitchen and go lay by the sea.