Carolee's Herb Farm

Carolee's Herb Farm

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To BEE or not to BEE Print E-mail
Most people watch the winter skies, and listen to weather reports because they are worried about road and travel conditions, school closings, high heat costs, or power outages. Beekeepers keep tabs on these as well, but they have an additional reason for watching the thermometer during the long winter months. Sometime, during the month of January, or early February at the latest, there must be a day above 55 degrees. Just one day will do, but two would be better. Why?

Because beginning in autumn, when the temperatures turn cool and drop below 55 degrees, the honeybees must stay enclosed in their hives. They close the hive entrance with a type of waxy seal to keep out winter winds. They carry on limited work, such as patrolling the hive in search of predators, tending the brood chambers and the queen, and fanning the hive to move air within for warmth. During these long, long weeks the bees cannot leave the hive to defecate, or to eliminate dead members.
Hopefully, by mid-January, Mother Nature smiles down on the Earth, the sun shines, and the temperature rises above freezing. The bees remove a section of the seal, and groups of bees leave the hive on a much-needed cleansing flight. While groups are taking their turns outside, other worker bees are busy with housekeeping chores, removing debris and cleaning. With luck, all the bees get a chance to fly before the temperature falls again.

However, during some especially nasty winters, the temperature does not rise soon enough. The accumulated waste material can harbor diseases. The bees do not get a chance for a cleansing flight, and the entire hive population can perish!

Winter woes are not the only thing a beekeeper has to worry about. In recent years, tracheal and varroa mites have nearly wiped out all the honeybees in this country. These are tiny insects that attack the breathing tubes, and eventually kill the bees. No cure has been found, and the mites seem to develop a resistance to the few chemical controls that are available.

Why should this worry the average person? Well, nearly 80 percent of our vegetables and fruits are pollinated by honeybees. 95% of apples, peaches, almonds, blueberries, cucumbers, strawberries and melons are the result of honeybees’ visits to their flowers. Without honeybees, crops are greatly reduced, and food prices rise. Not to mention that honey and beeswax are a $140 million industry in the U.S.

I have always admired the miracle of the honeybee. No one else can take pollen from beautiful flowers, and turn it into sweet, delicious honey. They are fascinating creatures. I had hives at my old farm, but didn’t moved them with me with I came. Keeping bees takes a lot of work, dedication, and it must be done in a very timely manner. I thought I would be too busy to give them proper attention with the problems and time needed to get my business going in a new location. However, I have always been interested in bees and was delighted to discover, in 1992, a "bee tree" in my woods here. It was a very large colony, and its members did a fantastic job pollinating all the herbs and flowers.

Then in the spring of 1994, no bees emerged from the tree. Like most wild bee colonies in the Midwest, my bees had died. Beekeepers suffered similar losses, and it looked like the honey business was doomed in the U.S.

Fortunately, help was on the way. At Buckfast Abbey, in Devon,England, Brother Adam was involved with his life’s passion, the honeybee. Since 1919, when he took over the Abbey’s bee operation, Brother Adam had been selectively breeding bees for disease resistance. He traveled throughout the world, seeking native strains of bees that seemed to ward of most common bee ailments. By carefully crossing these, he produced the now-famous Buckfast Bees. American beekeepers imported the Buckfast queens to breed resistance into their remaining bees. Buckfast bees are not only disease resistant, but they are excellent housekeepers, which helps reduce disease. They are also some of the most productive and gentle of all honeybee strains. While the problem of mites has not been solved, the new colonies seem to be able to survive, given the help of attentive, knowledgeable beekeepers.

When I visited Devon last summer, I made a pilgrimage to Buckfast Abbey. It is a lovely, tranquil place. Brother Adam passed away in 1996, at age 99, so I was not able to meet him. However, he passed his passion and his legacy on to younger brothers who continue to carry on his work at the Abbey. It was a thrill for me to be able to stroll through the national Lavender Collection, which is planted there, and see the Buckfast honeybees at work in the fragrant blossoms. One can visit the Abbey shop, and purchase honey or beeswax candles that are produced there.

Happily, we have hives again at the farm, as a 4-H project by Christina, one of our high school employees. We’ve planted more bee-friendly plants that produce lots of pollen over a long season. They are positioned far from the sales areas, so visitors won’t have to worry about interfering in their flights. We are looking forward to a SWEET season of lavender, anise hyssop, clover, and goldenrod honeys! And, we’d love to hear from other beekeepers!
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