The Dance of Bees Leaves a Sweet Trail
What do a backyard beekeeper and a kosher authority have in common? Honey, of course.
In flight, bees look random and unproductive. Curling and twisting through the air, bees seem like a nuisance as they buzz and brandish their stingers. When one lands to sting, it is powerful, annoying and painful.
“Honey is fascinating stuff,” said Rabbi Michael Bernstein of Gesher L’Torah. The dance of the bees buzz from plant to plant, allowing the flowers to be pollinated and renewed for new generations.
In the end, lives depend on this dance, according to Bernstein. The instinct that brings a single bee from flower to flower and the evolution of the hive makes one generation stick to the next.
The dance is what led Michelle Harvey to beekeeping.
Harvey was buzzing around the idea of starting a backyard beehive for a year. She laboriously read about bees, consulted a neighborhood expert and visited hives. Finally, Harvey made the decision to put her research into action.
“I wasn’t having great luck with trees and veggies in my small garden,” said Harvey about her Dunwoody yard.
“Also, the fact that I’m Jewish seemed perfect. Making honey would be great for Rosh Hashanah and then I could give honey to my friends.”
Harvey studied the ins and outs of beekeeping. It’s a hobby that takes about 30 to 40 hours of work per year. Some beekeeping groups suggest purchasing two hives, to observe the differences between two colonies. Pollination is the act of transferring pollen grains from the male part (anther) of a flower to the female part (stigma). Pollination is required for plants to reproduce, so plants depend on bees to collect nectar and pollen.
She learned that honey bees pollinate melons, broccoli, blueberries and cherries, while bumblebees pollinate tomatoes, sweet peppers and strawberries.
Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association in the North Georgia mountains offers classes, monthly meetings and mentor talks about everything from how insects can destroy a hive to junior beekeeping skills. Harvey signed up and learned more. She was ready to order bees.
According to MABA, bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value in the United States each year.
Harvey said she ordered the bees and queen for about $125. When the package arrived at her local post office, she got a call to retrieve her bees. A few had escaped the box.
Harvey joked that her chickens are shipped to the front door, but bees come to the post office.
When the shoe-box sized wooden container arrives, it contains a door on each side with wire netting, three pounds of bees, and a queen inside a cage. A few additional bees are contained because they have not yet accepted the queen. A metal tin with sugar water sits in the bottom to feed the bees.
The hive must be transferred out of the box within a few hours. Sugar water is removed and the beekeeper dumps the queen and some bees into the box. Within three to four days the new bees eat through a piece of sugar candy while they adapt to the queen’s pheromones, and they begin to establish the colony together.
No matter how much she read, Harvey said, there are times when she made minor mistakes. One day she picked up a new hive and was alone. She got into a beekeeping suit, dumped the bees and went back to work.
“Halfway back to my office I realized it. I forgot to pull the cork. I had to go back, get into the suit, pull the cork (to reveal the sugar candy). You get all wrapped up in the excitement of new bees. It’s scary, in a way, but energizing. Thankfully I remembered and didn’t cause permanent damage,” she said.
Scary and exciting describes exactly how Harvey felt last week, when she made a discovery in the backyard. The chickens were out of their hen house, acting odd. She walked around to the hives to see bees swarming outside of their boxes. One swarm was huddled on the ground, still in the grass. She searched for the queen and quickly returned her to a box with the hope that the worker bees would follow.
“As I got closer, I saw a small hive that was struggling. The bees had left their hive and were behind it, clumped together in the grass,” she said.
Harvey said it will take time to know for sure, but she may have lost a whole hive.
Six months into her beekeeping adventure, Harvey has primed her yard for the new pets. She planted bee-friendly plants, wildflowers and an herb garden. The bees began building comb in the spring with a bountiful pollen season.
During the cold and fruitless Atlanta winter, Harvey plans to leave enough honey for the bees to consume. But next fall, there will be plenty of honey to mark the sweet new year.
Bernstein related the behavior of bees to that of humans. “We, too, have a part to play in a dance, paying attention and responding to the call from within ourselves.
We gather together in our own hives and honeycombs to bring our own gifts and share each other’s purpose. And we not only produce the sweetness of celebrating our holidays meaningfully and joyously, but, without even knowing exactly how, connect the life of one generation to the next.”