Getting up close and personal with several thousand honeybees… it’s a pretty good way to spend a Saturday morning.
Round Rock Honey offers introductory beekeeping classes that allow you to learn the basics of raising the buzzy insects and producing your own honey.
This past week I got the chance to visit their operation and play with the bees. As a hopeful future homesteader, knowing how to raise bees for pollination and to have honey (for its own sake, as well as for making mead) is a great addition to the toolbox.
To start off the day, we visited a few of Round Rock Honey’s beehives on land near their offices/bottling facility (they actually have thousands of hives all over the state, but these hives are kept nearby for educational purposes).
At the hives, Round Rock Honey owner Konrad and his assistant Joanna demonstrated basic beekeeping skills.
First we had to suit up. Each of us were given a white canvas bee suit with an attached hood that zipped around the neck, and a pair of long gloves. These suits zipped up over our regular clothing and would protect us from the swarming angry bees… as well as make us pretty well anonymous. As it turned out, I was able to identify my friends Kaila and Victoria only by their green cowboy boots and red hightops.
It was probably the closest I’ll ever be to becoming an astronaut, but without the climate-controls in the suit (which given how hot it was, would have come in handy!)
At a row of Langstroth hives, they smoked the bees first to calm them, and warned us not to stand in front of the hive where the bees were entering and exiting. Never having gotten up close to a beehive before, I just assumed that when they started messing with the hives, the bees would get pissed off and come pouring out of the hive much like you see on Saturday morning cartoons. In reality, you don’t stand in front of that opening because it confuses the bees who can’t find their way inside, and so they’ll buzz around you in their own frustration. Otherwise, the bees were pretty calm and didn’t seem overly concerned with our presence.
Upon opening the hives, the first step was to inspect for evidence of wax moths and examine the beetle trap for hive beetles that go after bee larvae. They also scraped off any propolis the bees had left along the top of the frames. Propolis is a gummy substance the bees make from local trees and use to weatherstrip their hive, plugging up any holes to prevent intruders, water or other unwanted things entering the hive. The substance can, if allowed to build up, glue the different parts of the hive together to the point where a beekeeper can’t remove them to check on the health of the bees or remove honey. The propolis is also a great anti-bacterial substance and very good for dental problems among other things.
As Joanna pulled out the frames one by one, we noticed that there was little honey production, and the bee colony wasn’t particularly large. Both of these things are due to the drought and extreme heat this summer. Because the bees have to keep the hive at a constant temperature (under 100 degrees), most of the bees are forced to spend their days fanning the hive (the constant buzzing sound you hear) rather than going out on pollen runs or making honey, which has the effect of reducing the number of baby bees that can be born, since the honey is their food. In fact, the beekeepers have to give them supplemental sugar water every couple of days to make up for the lack of water and natural pollen sources.
Meanwhile, as we poked around in the hives, it was amazing that despite the thousands of bees, they really didn’t care what we were doing…. they all had better things to do. Even when Joanna pulled out the frames with the honeycomb, the bees really didn’t seem to mind and went right back to whatever they were doing. As she inspected each frame, she pointed out that it was critical to make sure not to squish any bees, because that would trigger an alert response within the hive – and we wouldn’t want that. And really, bees are such beautiful creatures we didn’t want to squish them anyway.
We got to see a queen bee in one hive, and while she wasn’t wearing a crown or ermine cape, she was a bit larger than the others. We also saw one of the very few boy bees, the drones, whose entire purpose in life is to mate with the queen. In fact, once the drones have served their queen, they get kicked out of the hive before winter since the hive dwellers have no more use for them and don’t want to waste food on them.
In the course of the class, we learned that it takes thousands of flowers to make a tablespoon of honey, and one bee never even makes a teaspoon in her whole life. There was a discussion about colony collapse disorder, which could be caused in part by the huge commercial beekeeping enterprises that instead of raising bees for honey, load up ginormous hives on semis and send them around to large farms to help with pollination. These bees encounter any number of pesticides, herbicides and possibly pests, and then get packed up and shipped off to the next farm. In the process they are horribly stressed and never get “time off”, leading my friends and I to think of them as “slave bees”. In such a situation, it’s hardly surprising that the bees die off at alarming rates and possibly spread disease or chemicals to plants and healthy bees they may come into contact with.
Overall, despite the wicked heat (Austin reached 110-112 over the weekend), it was great fun to play with the bees and learn to respect the amount of work that both bees and their keepers must expend to bring that beautiful golden liquid into our stores, and our tummies.
Thanks to Round Rock Honey for offering these classes and helping to promote beekeeping in Austin, Texas!