It is a romantic image… bees hovering over delicate blooms, gathering nectar and pollen ripened by sunlight. Then, in the darkness of the hive, wax is produced and shaped into comb the color of cream. It is as if sunlight had found its way into the very center of the hive! We take the gifts the comb offers, golden-hued honey, and in the darkness of night or the depths of winter, we light candles crafted of beeswax. As they glow with brightness and warmth, we are again reminded of the sun’s light, now before us in miniature.In our second beekeeping class, we had the opportunity to open a Langstroth hive, remove frames, and examine bees. Equipped with hat, veil, thick gloves, smoker and hooked hive tool, we gingerly lifted the hive lid. Clumsy under my gear and weakly grasping my hive tool, I seemed to move in slow motion. Hawaii’s bee expert, Danielle Downey, took my tool and deftly pushed the first frame to free it from the others. Encouraged by her vigor, I lifted the frame out, and the humming and buzzing of the bees quickly brought clarity and purpose to my movements. The gloves seemed more of a hindrance than a help, so off they came, and the bees crawling over my fingertips felt surprisingly more comforting than panic-inducing! My classmates took turns removing frames and examining brood and honey cells. I lifted out yet another frame when someone excitedly chirped, “There’s the queen, on the back of your frame!” She was instantly recognizable, her amber abdomen long and tapering, her thorax dark and mostly hairless.
Closer inspection of the colony revealed some bees with shiny small rust-colored ovals clinging to their bodies. This was our first encounter with the varroa mite, a blood-sucking parasite that spreads disease, weakens colonies, and is responsible, in part, for the massive bee die-offs in Hawaii over the last few years. Beekeepers have long been dealing with this pest on the mainland, but its fairly recent introduction to the islands has kept Hawaiian beekeepers scrambling to learn techniques for keeping the parasite populations in check.
After replacing the frames and lid, I walked away from the hive with mixed feelings: a “zingy” excitement at having held bees just inches from my face, but also concern over the mite that was weakening bees and causing some to emerge from their cells with deformed wings. For me, beekeeping will be a dance between the awe I experience when I am around bees, and the care I must provide to maintain healthy colonies.
Posted by Monika Hennig
This project was funded by a grant from the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.