Grace Chang Studio Architecture, Art and Design

Among Honeybees in Florida – 19 February 2010

Landed in Florida – getting the rental car, I noticed how very hot it was compared to Boston.  The forecast said 65 degrees but it felt like 80 degrees.  I realized I needed to go somewhere like San Francisco where it was moderately warm/cold, not extremes.  Florida’s heat and humidity is still too much for me.

Called Kate,* a small-scale organic beekeeper, at Kate’s Honey and after numerous emails on the subject, she still did not understand what I was doing in Florida.  I explained to her that essentially I was approaching honeybees (further noted as “bees”) from an artistic viewpoint to focus attention on them and their plight (possible extinction).  She said I could come by today around 3pm.  Her husband, who has a mechanical engineering background, was going to help her open the hives so they could shoot video for their website.  I said great, I would be there.  She said another possibility was Saturday afternoon (tomorrow).  Then I called Bill, a commercial beekeeper, and turns out he would be going to his hives today at the same time that I would meet with Jean.  I decided to go with Bill today and see Kate on Saturday. Bill said he would tag along with me to go to see Kate’s hives on Saturday afternoon.  I called Kate back and asked if I could still meet with her on Saturday instead.  She agreed that I should go with Bill’s today, since he had more beehives.  For whatever reason, Kate sounded surprised about Bill wanting to see her hives.

Used the gps (must thank my brother) and got to Bill’s Honey in about 40 minutes.  Really good to meet Bill.  He introduced me to his shop, production area (with centrifuge), loading/packaging area (large barrels), tool area, and his “home” brewery of meads.  All very exciting to see.  He also had an observation hive by the window, with pvc piping acting as access for the bees in and out of the hive.  Definitely made me want to create one (except, do the bees like the transparent plexiglass or do they like darkness better?).

Then we headed to Bill’s 40-50 hives on B Ranch.  Passed a lot of cattle and calves of all ages.  And big (Angus?) bulls.  Amazing heifers mooing plaintively to their babes when we got close, as if saying, watch out for the humans, we do not know what they are up to.

Got to the hives.  Two long rows.  Only 40-50 hives.  The rest of his hives, about 500 more, had been trucked to California to pollinate almond trees.  Bill would check over almost every hive, take off each cover, apply smoke with the [bellows], take out a few frames – one at a time,  observe, prop each frame against the hive boxes, repeat with next set of hives boxes.  Really good to see the worker bees, queens (typically one per hive), and drones in person rather than in a book.  Quite a few bees flying about – Bill said it was nothing compared to the regular numbers flying about.  I did not get stung.  That was my biggest worry.  I had a chance to fill a prescription for an epipen (not sure if I am allergic to bees or not) but I had to forego the option since it would have cost $65.

Back at the honey house (Webbs Honey), Bill showed me the sucrose water he mixed with copper glutimate and Bee Healthy mix to fortify the bees.  He typically feeds the bees sugar water in the winter, the off months.  This time around, Bill was going to be feeding his bees high fructose corn syrup (55 grade?  the thinner one for commercial use) since he was getting a free tank full.  Some production facility needed to get rid of it (post date and no longer legal for human consumption).  I just wonder the effects of feeding corn syrup to the bees since they naturally collect nectar, not processed sugars.  White sugar is at .22/lb, post human consumption.  Do they process sugar from beets now, rather than sugar cane?  It all confuses me.   I can understand the need to build up the bees in the off months, but, in the long run, are there any negative effects from feeding sugar water to the bees?

Bill said it has been tough to raise bees in the last 20 years, even harder as each year passes.  The biggest problem seems to be pesticides and fungicides.  Bill pointed out the problem lies not just at the commercial level since homeowner grades contain concentrated huge doses of poison that saturate the soil and stay there (and think of how many homeowners there are with lawns to maintain – what is really the advantage of having pristine lawns?  A carryover from the influence of the French garden?  Perhaps it is time for the English garden to have a comeback).  According to Bill, when bees get pollen that have been sprayed with fungicides, the pollen holds the toxins and doesn’t develop as it should to fortify the bees and the bee’s immune system is then compromised.  On the plus side, the treatment for Varroa mites knocked out tracheal mites as well.  However, all the other toxins in the compound are most likely hazardous to the bees and wreaking havoc on their immune systems.  To compound the problem, we are raising single crops like almonds. Bees need a diversity of foods rather than just one type, just like humans do.  Imagine eating just one food for several weeks or months.

On the road, Bill would point out the plants that the bees would forage – mustard greens, willows, saw palmettos, and Brazilian peppers (with red berries, supposedly the beeswax produced after foraging the peppers is a deep yellow).

Bill also talked about breeding his own queens soon.  Queens he bought have not been strong.  The queens are lucky if they make it to a year.  They used to be able to last two years. No longer.  Bill would graft cones onto a stick and attach it to an empty frame.  Then he inserts the queen larvae.  He would then place that frame into a nuc(lear) hive.  This would allow for the worker bees in the nuc to feed and care for the queens.  Once the queen was mated, Bill would either put the the queen with a colony where she would start laying eggs or ship her and attendant bees to whomever needs her.

Since he has been losing so many bees and, therefore, so much profit, Bill started to have them trucked to pollinate almonds, etc. Bee pollination has become fifty percent of his profit.  The other years there was nothing.  Selling honey was finally paying off, whereas it was not paying off before.

Bill seemed to have hit upon a golden opportunity when a couple from GS Honey in California hired him to tend to and winter their bees.  It worked out so that Bill would get a salary of about $80,000 a year.  A healthy salary, but for the amount of relationship building (with ranchers, farmer, etc.) and running around that he would be doing, it would not seem like much.

Bill seemed most excited about his room of honey meads in the honey house.  Different color liquids fermenting in huge glass containers.  He explained each flavor, some with chocolate, coconut, sassafras, blueberry, sunflower, orange, lemon, lemon rind.  I got to taste a few and they were definitely light and refreshing.  Tasted a sparkling mead.  Quite good, sweet but not cloyingly so.  Bill had used sassafras and hibiscus in this one.  I tasted the sassafras but not much of the hibiscus (though recognition may be tough since I have only tasted hibiscus in tea).  He was experimenting with chocolate, cocoa and cocoa nibs.  I suggested Varlhona chocolate instead of the Baker’s chocolate he was using.  I also suggested that a higher percentage bittersweet may yield more chocolate flavor and essence, and one could control the sweetness in other ways.  Bill said he had been using a semi sweet chocolate because it balanced out the bitter hops.  Makes sense, but I still think one would get more chocolate flavor by using bittersweet or dark chocolate.  I liked how some of the meads had qualities of champagne rather than beer.  I did not get any of the sharp hop taste you find in many beers.  [blueberry – need higher pH, less acid] [less acid in beginning with baking soda, but affect flavor?]

Bill had won numerous prizes for his meads in competitions.  He had a stack of medals, quite a few silvers and golds.  I said that he needed to keep a recipe and process log.  I would.  Seeing his brews in progress made me want to start brewing at home.  I had thought about it in 2001 but had no idea where to start (other than the brew kits they sell).  I need space – need to find land to tend bees too.  Bill was saying how he actually did not own or lease any of the land on which he had his beehives, other than leasing the land for the honey house.  Thanks to his great relationships with the farmers and ranchers in the area, they just let him keep his hives on their land.  They must also realize that the bees help fertilize the plants on their land.

Tomorrow, Saturday, the hive splitting workshop will be taking place.  I hope to go with Bill to his Home Brewers Association meeting on Sunday.

*Names in this account changed to protect participants from being drawn into the political battles revolving around agriculture in the U.S.

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