Thinking back to my time spent in culinary arts school, and the endless days and nights of slinging eggs and hash browns, burgers, and wall-eye fillets, one phrase sticks in my head, mise en place, or everything in its’ place. This is the motto of any good line cook – know where your knife is, have all your ingredients and preps in their proper places and stations, and above all work clean. Even though I am no longer a Food Service All-Star, the idea of mise en place is still with me. When starting a new hobby, project or task, I like to make sure I have done my homework and the necessary research to insure a job well done.
This year we are getting back into bee keeping, a hobby we have taken some time off from. About six years ago we got our first hive with some friends of ours. Both my wife and our friend Bill took the famous bee keeping class offered at the University of Minnesota that is taught by Marla Spivak, a world renowned bee breeder. That catapulted us into backyard, urban bee keeping. That first year was a big success for us. There was plenty of nectar and pollen for the bees, and we actually got a few quarts of honey for ourselves that fall. Another big success for us and the bees was over wintering them. Wrapped up in a jacket of tar paper, our hive of bees made it into the next spring, healthy and happy. But that is when disaster struck our hive. Right as we were expecting their population to start building up for the summer honey flow, our bees disappeared. This is also when Colony Collapse Disorder started to take over hives across America. Since then, much research, and many theories have been brought forward to explain the collapse of the honey bee population across the country and the world. Ranging from pesticide use, climate change, and cell phones, no one has been able to pinpoint the exact cause of CCD.
This brings us back to the present. Now that both of our kids are a bit older (6 & 4), we have a bit more time to pursue another hobby (along with all the gardening, cooking and preserving, brewing, etc…) that we already do. And like all things I do, this winter has been spent reading books, checking online sources and forums, and talking with people about bee keeping. I will start with the bees. The most common honey bee used in America is the Italian. They are gentle, build up their numbers quickly, and are good foragers. They are also bred almost exclusively in Northern California. After talking with my friend Matt who is a professional bee keeper and owns the company Old Soul Honey, most of the bees coming out of Northern California are essentially “factory farmed”, or as Matt said, “It is like the Wal-Mart of bee breeders“. They come with a large amount of varrao mites already established, have been chemically treated, and really have had the cards stacked against them from the beginning. There is also evidence of a new parasite that is affecting honey bees in northern California. This article does a great job of explaining that, and it also has some more insights into CCD. So if our packaged honey bees are being shipped from an area that is infested with two of the worst mites for honey bees, why order our bees from them I asked myself? This put me on a quest to find a better bee. Enter the Russian honey bee, also apis mellifera, originating in the Primorsky Krai region of Russia. These bees are not really any better than Italians, or Carnolians, Minnesota Hygienic, or Buck fast (all different races of honey bees), they just have different traits that make them unique in their own small way. The Russian honey bees have lived with the varrao mite for more than a hundred years, so the theory goes they have had time to build up some evolutionary tricks to help them survive. They are not immune to the mites, but they are resistant and scientific trials show they have a higher survival rate than other strains of bees when dealing with the varrao mite. The Russians are also a very frugal bee, they over winter with a smaller cluster and use less of their stores. And being from a similar climate as Minnesota, the Russian honey bees should be a good candidate for surviving our winters here. Also, I was able to find honey bee breeders, not in California, but down in Tennessee and other southern states who have these Russian bees for sale. They are a bit more expensive, but for now I think it is well worth the risk. I ordered my bees from Arnold Honey Bee Services and talked with the owner Tess Arnold on the phone and feel very confident that I will be receiving a high quality package of Russian honey bees from him in the first week of May.
Moving on to the hive equipment. We purchased all of our equipment from Mann Lake, a Minnesota company that specializes in all things honey bees. We went with the Growing Apiary, 10 frame kit. Included is two deep hive boxes, two shallow honey supers, all the frames, bottom board, inner and outer covers, and the entrance reducer. We also ordered an unassembled honey super and extra frames, a screened false bottom (this allows the varrao mite to fall off the bees and not get back on), a queen excluder, two hive tools, and another veil. We are starting small, but we have big dreams. My main goal this first year is to keep the bees alive and healthy. If we can do that and get them through the winter, I hope next year to be able to split the hive into a second one that will be housed in home made Langstroth hive boxes. So between now and then I hope to start making my own hive boxes and other accessories and also experiment with Warre’ top bar hives, an older type of hive that tries to mimic how honey bees might live in the wild in a hollowed out tree.
Preparing for this new adventure has been a lot of fun and very enlightening. The bees need our help, and I want to do my part. I also hope this can become another tool to add to my kit of self reliance and the quest to move away from wage slavery. The further I dive into living a real life without the distractions of TV and junk food, I realize that everything we do has meaning. Keeping honey bees, grafting fruit trees, growing gardens and community, all have real impacts on our daily lives and those we choose to associate with. I am looking forward to a sweet summer and hopefully I have all my Bees-en-Place! Cheers!