Ray and I had the opportunity to attend an introductory beekeeping class this past Saturday given by Ed Zawada of Gerard Z Honeybees. The class was held at Retzlaff Winery in Livermore, California.
The first two hours included a lot of great information about bees, their life cycle and how they actually make pollen. Ed discussed the current situation beekeepers are having to deal with regarding colony collapse disorder and the 40% die-off rate this past year of colonies right here in california. Yes, 40%! Right after World War II the annual death rate was about 5%. What is causing this? It’s not an easy answer, but apparently pesticides are the biggest threat to honeybees right now. Did you know that there is ant poison in honey? We spray our sidewalks and around our houses to get rid of ants and other insects that we don’t want to deal with. But in time that poison trickles down through the soil to the roots of our plants and trees. The plants and trees take up the poison along with the ground water and it is dispersed throughout the plant, ending up in the pollen and nectar within the flower. The bee comes along and harvests the nectar and pollen from that flower and takes it back to the hive, where it is made into honey. In minute amounts the bee can handle the poison – but in large amounts, not so much. Kind of scary, isn’t it? One way to tell if there are enough bees in California is to look to the almond trees. California has approximately 800,000 acres of almonds and produces about 80% of the world’s almond crop. You can tell how the bees are doing by how well the almonds are doing (taking into account the weather). One acre of almonds (about 100 trees) will produce about 50 pounds of almonds in the absence of honeybees. So you see, almonds need honeybees to produce a crop! With the bees, the yield increases to over 3,200 pounds of almonds! Obviously, without honeybees the price of almonds will skyrocket! Needless to say, because of the need for beehives within each almond orchard and the 40% die-off rate of last years colonies, renting beehives has become very expensive for our farmers. Guess who pays for this increased cost???? We do!
Ed also explained the way bees make the honey – from gathering the nectar out in the fields, bringing it to the hive and expelling it from their honey stomach (bees have 2 stomachs), then placing it into the comb, evaporating it, and finally capping it.
We also learned that the worker bee is the ruling class and makes all the decisions in the hive, why a drone doesn’t have a stinger, and why a queen has one of the worst jobs in the hive! Imagine having to lay 2,500 to 3,000 eggs a day – or be killed!Finally we learned about the hive itself, all the parts and pieces (they usually come in a kit that the new owner must put together themselves), the foundation (which is the preformed part that the bees use to make their comb), excluder screens (which aren’t really necessary) and beekeeper clothes.
Ed thoughtfully explained his philosophy on organic beekeeping, which was to leave everything as natural as possible for the bees. In fact, on the jars of honey we purchased from Ed, the label states that “We use natural means of beekeeping, aimed to raise smaller worker bees that produce higher yields of honey.” On the other side of the label it states, “Our honey is unique, raw and 100% natural. It is coarsely filtered, thus leaving most pollen within.”
With most of the instruction done at this point, we got to the sampling part of the day! Since we were at a Winery we were treated to four different wine tastings – Sauvignon Blanc, Estate Chardonnay, Estate Merlot and an Estate Blend of 30% Merlot and 70% Cabernet. I think the Estate Merlot was my favorite, and I usually don’t like red wines! Now for the honey tasting. We were introduced to four monoculture honeys (only one flower nectar is gathered by the bees) and one polyculture honey (many different flowers are gathered from) Ed had us sit in a row and gave each person a white spoon, which he then poured a tasterfull (my word) of honey. First came the blackberry honey. OMG I could taste the blackberry in the honey. Heaven. Next came the sage honey. This had to be the smoothest honey I have ever tasted. So mild. Then we had the Orange Blossom Honey. Now, I thought I had tried Orange Blossom Honey before, I was wrong. This actually tasted a bit acidic, almost like an orange itself, but a bit more floral. Yum. The next honey we tasted was the only polyculture one – Wildflower Honey. It tasted just like it sounds – sweet, floral, light. Good. The last honey tasted was another monoculture – Buckwheat Honey. Holy Cow folks – this tasted almost like molasses. I think I could taste a hint of anise in the honey. This would be excellent to make gingersnap cookies with!
At the end of the tasting, 3 hours had passed (way too fast) and our class was over. It was well worth the class fee. Ed said he is preparing an intermediate beekeeping class and Ray and I would certainly be happy to attend. We now know that we will definitely be buying and placing two beehives right in the middle of our orchard! But first we will need to erect an electic fence to keep out the bears. According to Ed, a bear will tear a beehive to pieces to get the sweet honey. After having the opportunity to taste some wonderful raw and organic honey, which is nothing like what is in that little plastic bear at the supermarket, I can’t blame the bear!
I hope you enjoyed this bit of information! If you did, please consider leaving me a comment below. Vickie
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