Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Bees, Beesness and Beeswax


Let me start out by saying that I'm a beekeeper who is afraid of bees. It doesn't matter how many times I get stung, I'm terrified of bee stings. While Filipe throws his bee suit on over bare skin and assumes that a few stings will go through, I layer up. I wear tall socks, jeans and a long sleeve shirt under the suit as well as tall rubber boots and the customary long gloves so they don't sneak in anywhere. Although I get stung much less often than Filipe, I sweat like marathon runner, I probably look like I'm tying some kind of detox. In my defence, the species of bee that we work with which is native to the region- the Iberian honey bee is far more aggressive than the Italian variety most often found in the United States. Although bee stings hurt a little- the itch the next day is by far the worst part, although none of it really justifies an adult beekeeper running screaming from the hives because a single bee might have found it's way into her suit. Whatever, I soldier on.

Getting suited up- notice the fleece, collar up, under my suit.
This lady in my beekeeping course made a suit for her baby, adorable!

      Now on to the more interesting developments in my apicultural world. We started out this season with six hives, meaning we lost three over the winter. They say you should always expect to lose at least 20% over-wintering. The hives that we lost were all in one area and when we took them apart we found mold along the bottom. This tells us that we chose a bad location for the hives; too much moisture/too close to the ground and not enough sun. Since it was our first year here it was hard to predict what the conditions would be like and where the sun would be during the winter. Luckily we had hives in several different places and some even grew over the winter so we know where the new ones this year will go!

     Last year being the first season we had a relatively small take of honey. I know I should get all giddy and discuss terrior and notes of forest berries etc. But I just wasn't that impressed with the honey. Additionally, the cost and time required to meet regulations when it comes to the storing, packaging and labeling of food products make selling it on a small scale seem pointless. That's why we're going for wax. Wax has a about the same bulk market rate as honey (8€/kilo) but because it's not food, there are no regulations. To get bees to produce wax rather than honey is also fairly simple. A wild colony produces it's own wax combs as soon as it settles in a new place, once the comb is complete it begins to fill the cells with honey to save for the winter. To get bees to produce honey you give them the wax they need so they can start producing honey immediately, as soon as the first blossoms come. By the time winter comes there's enough for them and plenty left-over to take. To get them to produce wax you give them empty frames so that the comb is straight and easy to remove. They make the wax and fill it with honey for themselves for the winter. At the beginning of the following season (after they have eaten all the honey they stored) you take the wax and give them new empty frames to start again. This week we began melting down the wax we took at the beginning of this season. In terms of selling the wax, there is always a market for beekeepers who want wax to put in the hives, but the real money is in the crafts- the candles, soaps and even crayons. For now, we'll be selling wax to crafters and beekeepers, but I'm a keeping a little stash to try my hand at some of these projects.
We removed last year's wax from these frames and now they'll go back in the hives so the bees can make more!
Melting down last years wax in a double boiler.