Monday, March 14, 2011

Trying to sum up Bee School

I liked it. The people were very friendly, knowledgeable and eager to share it. And for $30 it was a great deal: we had 12 hours of class with a short break each time and free homemade cookies, coffee, and tea. Really nice people. It was not terribly structured, but it worked.

The first session was the NH Beekeeper of the Year for 2010 (I don't know their criteria). He was a charming man of 82, only moderately snotty about wives (apparently some spouses are funny about propolis stains and bad smells). One of the delights of this hobby is seeing regular older men be all tender about their bees. You don't want to squash your bees, or injure them, if you can help it. It would go without saying, but they say it.
He talked about the parts of hives and general management. Wore a complete beesuit when he inspected his hives. He was interesting and coherent and I had a 'drinking from a firehose' feeling -- there was so much to say. He used routine medications like Fumigillin and miticides, which is the sort-of normal thing to do. After all, the bees would get sick, right?

The problem here is that (surprise!) bacteria get antibiotic resistance, and the bees still die. Mites get insecticide resistance, and bees are insects, so if you have effective mite-killing properties you get bee-killing and weakening and genetic-damaging and the bees still die. Add in all the other stresses -- bad breeding, selfish apiculture, environmental contamination, habitat destruction, GM pollen that does not supply nutrients, artificial feeding, forced migration, imported pests and diseases from different parts of the world, careless importing of bees and bee ailments, ozone holes, lousy and extreme weather -- it would be amazing if you did NOT get colony collapses. There is no one cause, there will be no one solution, it will not come overnight.

I was glad of the reading about bees I have done throughout my life, and I went home and got on the internet and read a lot more (this treatise was strangely helpful, introducing a lot of things in passing. So was the rest of that site. Exhaustive).

The second session was given by a man who runs a small farm with cows and corn and so forth. He kept stressing how he had to keep PROFIT in mind, while mentioning that he could not in conscience use chemicals other than essential plant oils or feed the bees sugar syrup rather than honey (that last is _way_ out there nutty-crunchy). He wore a veil, generally, but no gloves when he inspected his hives. He also had a pretty good PowerPoint presentation, so there was evident structure in his presentation and he stayed in the limits pretty well.

I borrowed a couple of books from the club library and went home and read and got on the Internet and became steadily more impressed with the depth of resources available online. And also frustrated with the number of books out of print (I want to read the rest of Richard Taylor, and I want to read The Archaeology of Beekeeping, and they go for hundreds of dollars on the used-book sites. Library, I know).

The third session, the president of the local association spoke about what he does at each time of year. He doesn't treat with anything, and he raises queens. He wears a t-shirt when he inspects his hives.* I was wondering how much further green-left the speakers could go, but I was very impressed that they had a spectrum of opinion represented.

By this time in my self-administered education I had already decided that buying bees from Georgia or South Carolina to live and be well in New England was unrealistic. I was very glad to find a beekeeper in Vermont who had locally raised nucleus hives for sale. A 'nuc' is different from a package (and more expensive) because it is a little colony, with brood (bees in process of becoming) and workers of different ages (who perform different tasks) and a queen who is related to them. A 'package' is a bunch of bees, who may or may not be related, no brood, and a queen in a cage whom they may or may not like once she is released in the hive. Troy's queens were not available until midsummer and he was out of nucs for the year already.

I had the presence of mind to ask some of the organizers if there were any places we could go _see_ the hive equipment for sale and have a shopping experience rather than just order it, and they gave me the name of a beekeeper and bee-supplies person in Vermont. He turned out to have nucs for sale this spring, so I have put a deposit on one and asked him to build me an 8-frame medium depth Langstroth hive, as propounded in The Backyard Beekeeper. Langstroth is pretty much what you expect when you think of modern beehives, the big white boxes rather than the straw beehive-shaped skeps (which are now illegal most places because you can't inspect them for disease). And there are mostly rational people whose opinions I respect out there who believe Langstroth hives are what's killing bees, along with everything else. Ventilation matters, people.

The last speaker was the state beekeeping inspector, who is a commercial beekeeper himself. I suppose there is some conflict of interest possible, but I don't think he would try to restrain anyone's trade or queer their pitches. He seemed like a decent person, less organic than some but not doctrinaire-pesticide at all (and as accurately paranoid about Monsanto as anyone might wish). He also told funny disaster stories: backing his pickup truck into a beehive at night, his smoker setting fires in the back of the truck as they sped along a highway... good times.

The local society has a Yahoo group. It is unfindable among Yahoogroups if you don't know the name, although you can get to it from the local society website. It was never mentioned in class. It had thirteen members before class and now has I think 16, and no traffic. If no one knows it's there, no one will use it. They have a postal newsletter, which is pretty good; it's been out for a month but no one has updated the website, so only the October one is there, and the home page has the details of when the Bee School just past will meet. I spend a lot of time online, and it confuses me that people can be so ... offline. Bee School would not have been as good if I had not had the reading at home, and there are limits to what a library can contain (I really will go check it out, but it's just a small local library and InterLibraryLoan is not instantaneous). The websites and chat fora are invaluable; you can find out all kinds of questions _I_ certainly would never have known I had. There are already too many blogs and too many beekeeper blogs, but I will keep mine up if only to remember what's going on in my life when, and to be of possible help. Also it's useful to force myself to synthesize something occasionally.

*Bees vary from hive to hive (and from strain to strain) in their defensiveness and irritability. If there's been something snuffling and digging at the hive at night, the bes will be testy the next day. If it's sunny and there's a big nectar flow, they are happy, and too busy to go after you. If there is a shortage of nectar or it's cold and damp, everyone will stick around the hive and be tetchy. I can sympathize. Everyone agrees you get stung sometimes. Most people get used to it; it stil hurts, but you don't swell up. These guys remove hives on a regular basis not wearing anything extra; they are also really funny.

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