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Interview With an American Beekeeper
My parents have been hobbyist bee keepers since I was in grade school. I personally never got very involved with beekeeping, but now that my parents have been working at it for years and have more time to dedicate to it, I’ve decided to ask my mom for an interview.
They started out in Missouri, in 2006 with one hive that was given to them as a gift from my grandfather. I remember seeing the two white boxes situated under the shade of old oak trees to the side of my grandparents’ house. He had been a bee keeper for years, but the work load was becoming too much for him, so he passed his hobby along to my parents. Later that year, we had to move from St. Louis, Missouri to just outside Mississippi, so the bees came with us in the back of the truck.
Since then, they have been learning more as they go and constantly studying up on bee keeping and all the problems that bees come with. Today America has both wild and domesticated honey bees, but what we think of as a honey bee is actually not native to our continent.
The domesticated, or agricultural honey bee, Apis melliffera L., is only native to the European continents and wasn’t introduced to the Americas until 1622. However, honey bees in Europe have a long history of human use. Some of the earliest civilizations have drawn records of “honey hunting.” The earliest known record of beekeeping is 900 B.C. from modern day Israel, and the first beekeeping centers were developed sometime around 400 A.D. in the large established civilizations such as Egypt and Rome. Our domestication of crops would have happened alongside the spread of this species, which in turn we domesticated as well. This explains why honey bees respond to only some types of flowers and ignore many that are only native to the Americas, such as tomatoes.
My parent’s now have a total of nine hives, most of which are situated on a pumpkin farm. Each is color coded with duct tape, that matches a corresponding duct tape marked journal, where my mother records the events of each hive per year. Most farmers welcome the presents of bee hives on their farms, because bees will help pollinate their crops. And bee keepers get the benefit of plenty of flowers surrounding their hives, which help to produce more honey. The odd thing about the particular farm that my parents’ hives are on is that it is primarily a pumpkin farm, which is an American native crop, with large squash like flowers, that honey bees typically do not respond to.
The pumpkin flowers are pollinated by a variety of other pollinators and while the American continents did not have Apis melliffera L., they did and still do have a wide variety of native stingless honeybees, or what we recognize as bumble bees. My father learned about them while in South America, where they apparently still keep some traditional native bee keeping alive. Records show that Mayans around what is now modern-day Mexico, kept bees as early as 300 B.C. The most widely used species for South America was Melipona beecheii. But in comparison to the bees of the Americas, Apis milliffera L. produces greater quantities of honey and the bees have a longer life span, so their introduction to the Americas by the Spanish, greatly lowered the popularity of native bees.
Modern day American farms, such as the pumpkin farm, my parents keep their hives on are pollinated by a variety of native and nonnative pollinators. Even if the honey bees aren’t getting the majority of their nectar from pumpkin flowers, there are plenty of other flowers on the farm. And my mother says she has seen a few of her honey bees venture into a pumpkin flower or two. Where ever the nectar is coming from, they are finding enough of it. My parents harvested over one hundred pounds of honey this year.
Today bee keepers only take honey from the top super, or box. This one has a wire mesh, which keeps the queen bee from laying eggs in the honey comb. The bees fill their comb from the bottom to the top, so the top super will only get filled if the bees have an excess of honey, more than enough to feed themselves. This hasn’t always been the case. Early American hives were built out of straw, sometimes a wooden box or a hollow tree. At that time people had no way of harvesting the honey without killing the bees, so the common practice was to fill the hive with sulfur smoke to poison them at the end of the summer and then crush the honey comb inside to squeeze out the honey. That didn’t change until 1852. The title “father of modern beekeeping” was given to L.L. Langstroth, the man who patented the removable frame hives or supers that are still used today.
Another major change that brings us to modern day beekeeping in America is bee breeding. The European bees widely used across America in the 1800s-1900s were dark in color and said to be fidgety. Their biggest downside was that they were very prone to European foulbrood. To breed out these issues, Italian strain queen bees were imported in large quantities, until this was restricted in 1922 to protect against the spread of a particular mite. After that the Italian queen bees, already in America were carefully inbred until most of the bee population in America resembled the traits of the Italian honeybee.
Today, my parent’s hives are made up of a mixture of Italian and Russian honey bees. The Russian honey bees are darker and smaller than their Italian relatives, but their most prominent difference is their tendency lay multiple queen cells. This can be beneficial to the bee keeper, if they are interested in splitting their hives. All of the honey bees are susceptible to both European and American foulbrood and they all struggle with Varroa Mite. My parents explained that today, bee breeders are attempting to breed for bees with higher cleaning instincts, to help against the mites.
My parents still think of themselves as amateur beekeepers, but are excited by how much they have grown over the eleven years that they have been working on their hobby. It's a lot of work and most of the time the best way to learn is by trial and error. My mom explained how she can now tell when the bees are going to swarm, just based on time and weather conditions or how she can listen to the hum of the hive to know if the bees are distressed.
Although I can't see myself being a bee keeper, I can't help but admire their persistence at something completely new to them. We are all new to something at some point in our lives, but sometimes it's hard to remember how that felt or to imagine we'll ever get any better at it. It's good to see that anyone can start learning something new and get a little better at it everyday.
© 2017 Britteny Perry