Honey, anarchy, and saving the world, one hive at a time
Story and Photos by Camilla M. Mann
The do-it-yourself culture is booming, and I don’t just mean making your own invita- tions or holiday wreaths. I mean DIY in the sense of reskilling. The trend is a revival of skills that were once commonplace, like rais- ing chickens, making clothes and foraging for edible plants. It’s a throwback to a more self-sufficient time by planting gardens, can- ning vegetables, making jam, brewing beer and keeping bees. While some people are doing these things as a way to combat tough economic times, others are acquiring knowl- edge to improve their quality of life, preserve the environment—and have fun!
Take backyard beekeeping. It may seem a recent phenomenon but its history began centuries ago. There are rock paintings in both Spain and India from the Mesolithic era (10,000–5,000 BC) that depict hunters who collected honey made by wild bees. Honey is mentioned in both Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform texts.
Eventually, people began to domesticate bees, transferring the wild hives into hollowed out logs, wooden boxes and pottery vessels, and the honey produced by these early beekeepers became a highly prized form of currency or tribute. Sealed pots of honey have been recovered from pharaohs’ tombs, including Tutankhamun’s, for example, and during the 11th century, German peasants paid their feudal lords in honey and beeswax.
The records of ancient Rome and Greece give us a glimpse into the lives of bees and beekeeping. Virgil kept bees. Pliny the Elder extensively documented how Romans crafted hives from cork, oak bark or fennel stems in his Natural History: The Selection. Pliny wrote of ancient observation hives built by the Romans with transparent sides made of thinly sliced, highly polished horn. (Today observation hives have walls made of glass.)
Thanks to a tip from Betty Kasson, a hobbyist beekeeper in Carmel Valley, I attended a gathering of the Anarchist Bee Col- lective, a beekeepers’ group that meets monthly to share information, opportuni- ties and experiences over breakfast. They aren’t “anarchist” in the militant, politically activist way. Instead, they use the term literally. In Latin, anarchia means “without a ruler,” and that is what they are—beekeepers who get together without bothering with rules or any real structure. One secondary definition of anarchy is to act without instructions or permission, possessing the impulse to do it oneself. In that sense, anarchists are the ultimate DIYers.
At the Saturday morning breakfast gathering I attended, the ABC beekeepers hailed from Prunedale to Pebble Beach. As forks clinked against plates, people chatted about bees. I sat with Denise Gluhan, from Aromas, who characterizes herself as a novice. She maintains three hives and has been keeping bees for about a year. Denise is allergic to bees. “Why would you put yourself in the position of being stung if you could go into anaphylactic shock?!” I asked, incredulous. She assured me that she carries an epinephrine pen, but that she has never had to use it. While she can’t get any of the wax on her or she’ll react adversely, she can—and does— enjoy the honey that her bees produce.
At the other end of the beekeeping spectrum was Peter Eichorn, from Country Flat Farm in Palo Colorado, who has been keeping bees and selling honey since 1965. Peter refers to himself as “The Honey Guy,” stating that he’s in it for the honey, not bee conservation. “He says that,” said a woman who has taken one of Peter’s workshops, “but I’ve seen him cry over losing a queen.” Peter instructed the ABC on how to use yarrow fronds dipped in mineral oil as natural mite abatement.
No matter the experience of the bee- keeper, I found that each one I met was mo- tivated at least in part by a desire to help support the bee population. The idea of bee- keepers saving the world might sound hy- perbolic, but our food supply relies on bees and their ability to pollinate plants. Their decimation in numbers by colony collapse disorder (CCD)—which causes adult bees to abruptly abandon their hives, leaving the young to die—is alarming. In recent years many beekeepers around the country have lost about of third of their bees each winter to CCD; this past winter, it was widely reported that losses spiked to as much as 50%.
This is a far reaching problem, because as much as a third of the food we eat can’t be produced without pollination by bees. A report issued jointly by the United States Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in May noted that revenue from crops that rely on bees for pollination totals $20 to $30 billion annually, making it “imperative” that honey bee survival rates be increased in order “to meet the demands of U.S. agriculture for pollination and thus ensure…food security.”
Here’s one statistic I heard at a workshop led by Ed, a beekeeper from Liver- more, who rents his bees to farmers for pollination: Without bees, an acre of al- mond trees would produce 50 to 60 pounds of almonds. With two bee hives in place in that same orchard, production soars to about 3,000 pounds! At the time of the workshop, Ed’s bees were in the Central Valley—in an almond orchard.
Bees pollinate plants accidentally. While scooping up nectar at the base of flower petals, bees inadvertently rub against flower stamens and pollen sticks to them. As the bees move between blossoms, pollen transfers from one flower to the next. Some pollen returns with the bee to the colony.
A bee colony is considered a superorganism. All of the bees in a hive are part of a highly specialized division of labor, work- ing toward the singular goal of maintaining their hive. To that end, there is one queen whose sole purpose is to lay eggs—up to 3,000 daily. Drones are the only males in the hive and their role is also remarkably simple—to mate with the queen. Worker bees are nonreproducing females who, throughout their brief lifetimes, perform all of the rest of the work required to keep the hive functioning and producing honey.
Ed owns and operates Gerard’Z Honeybees, named for his grandfather, who in- troduced him to beekeeping when he was 9 years old. At the time, tending the bees was a dreaded chore. Ed admits, “I grudgingly helped my grandfather, but I would rather have been playing baseball.”
Today, Ed not only tends bees, but he also is working to save them. “Bees are in real trouble now, with diseases and colony collapse disorder.”
The USDA and EPA report issued in May blamed CCD on an interrelated series of factors including parasites, pesticides, disease, loss of genetic diversity and decline a in nutritious, diverse bee forage.
After years of mystery (CCD was first noticed in 2006), so much evidence now points in particular to a relatively new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids—a sys- temic pesticide that is used to treat seed prior to planting and is absorbed into plants’ vascular systems—that in March, a group of beekeepers and environmental organizations together filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court against the EPA, accusing it of failure to protect pollinators from dangerous pesticides like neonicotinoids. And on April 29, the European Union imposed an emergency two-year ban on the use of neonicotinoids across all of Europe.
The USDA/EPA report stated that pesticides are a “primary” concern but it called for further research and recommended no such immediate bans to protect the bee pop- ulation in the meantime.
For ordinary citizens like us, Ed says the four basic pillars for saving bees are to grow nectar-rich and pollen-rich flowers for bees, provide them with homes like beehives, avoid using pesticides and spread the word. (See more about what you can do in related story, p. 37.) Ed spreads the word by leading work- shops and encouraging people to keep bees wherever they live. “You don’t have to live out in the country to have a beehive,” he as- serts. “An urban environment is perfect. There’s a diversity of plants to forage around in the city. Just look in your yard and your neighbor’s yard.”
And aside from saving the bees, bee- keeping of course also rewards with honey—that delicious “food of the Gods,” as the Greek philosopher Porphyry called it, which is also highly nutritious and medicinal, and adds extended shelf-life and moistness to the foods to which it is added.
Honey starts as the flower nectar that worker bees slurp up and store in their honey stomachs until they return to the hive. A bee will forage between three to four miles from the hive in search of food and might visit 100–1,000 flowers to get her fill.
Once foraging bees return to the hive, they pass the nectar to other worker bees whose digestive enzymes change the com- position of the nectar, breaking down the complex sugars into simple sugars. These bees in turn regurgitate the digested nectar into the honeycombs. At this point the nectar still has fairly high water content, so other worker bees fan the nectar with their wings, producing a draft that evaporates the excess liquid. As the water evaporates, the nectar transforms into the thick, sweet liquid we recognize as honey. Once the honey reaches proper viscosity, the bees cap the cells with wax to store it until needed.
Beekeepers can encourage overproduction of honey within their hives and then harvest the excess without endangering the bees. In the first year, a beekeeper shouldn’t expect any honey from the hive, but in later years, hives can generate from 1⁄2 gallon to 10 gallons.
The color and flavor of honey varies from hive to hive, based on the type of flower nectar collected by the bees. When I visited Betty, she pulled out a collection of honeys to taste. As she travels she chats with beekeepers, frequents local markets and carries her favorite honeys home. We tasted a mahogany-hued honey from Kauai that tasted like coffee, honey reminiscent of molasses from the Fijian mountains and one from the herb garden at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa that looked amber and had a hint of rosemary. We ended with Betty’s own honey, a delicate and delicious variety that reflects the mix of wild and cultivated flowers on which the bees feast.
I never got to the monthly Wednesday night meeting of our region’s other bee- keeping group, the Santa Cruz Beekeepers Guild. But when I called Mountain Feed and Farm Supply in Ben Lomond (our area’s only local source for beekeeping equipment) to inquire about beekeeping gear, Karla DeLong, the guild’s generous and enthusiastic leader, answered the phone—and all of my questions. The guild, like the ABC, is an informal one that revolves around its monthly meetings, but also provides other member services, such as matching veteran beekeeping mentors with newbies like me.
In the realm of do-it-yourself, beekeeping can seem daunting—whether or not you’re allergic to bees. But knowing about local groups like the ABC and the Santa Cruz Beekeepers Guild, as well as the many classes that are taught locally, it’s not hard to see why so many people are embracing it. And that’s good news for our bees.
Camilla M. Mann is a food writer, photographer, adventurer and passionate cook. She blogs at www.culinary-adventures-withcam.blogspot .com/ and lives in Monterey.
Honey-Infused Dark Chocolate Truffles
Courtesy Camilla M. Mann
Admittedly, after observing worker bees flying in and out of a hive with the pollen baskets on their knees stuffed with pollen, I felt a twinge of guilt using bee pollen in my kitchen. Am I still a thief, I pondered, if I am not the one harvesting the pollen? Probably. Still, one bite of these will make you abandon any remorse…for a moment.
12 ounces high-quality, semisweet or bittersweet choco- late, chopped into small pieces
1/2 cup organic heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon bee pollen
1 tablespoon honey
Additional semisweet chocolate for dipping Granulated honey, bee pollen and unsweetened cocoa powder for garnish
In a small, heavy saucepan, bring the whipping cream and honey to a simmer. Place the chocolate in a separate bowl with the bee pollen. Pour the cream over the chocolate. Let stand for 3 minutes and then whisk until smooth. Allow to cool and place in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.
Roll teaspoon-sized balls in your hands as quickly as you can. Place truffles in the fridge for at least 20 minutes. In the meantime, melt the additional chocolate over a dou- ble-boiler.
Remove truffles from the fridge. Using a skewer or fork, dip them in chocolate. Gently nudge the truffles from the skewer and cover any imperfections with more chocolate. Sprinkle with granulated honey or bee pollen. Let chocolate set completely before serving.
Alternatively, rather than dip truffles in chocolate, roll them in unsweetened cocoa powder.