This spring, Henry agreed to pollinate at Radke’s Blueberries, hands down the best U-pick blueberry farm in the Corvallis area if not the entire world (read more about the place here). Blueberry growers generally contract with beekeepers to drop off two or more hives per acre during bloom time. Having honeybees on hand ensures widespread pollination and a good fruit set.
Bumblebees are highly effective blueberry pollinators, even better than honeybees, but commercial blueberry farms often have large fields with only bits of bumblebee habitat around the fringes, and that scale limits the reach of bumblebee foragers and increases the need to bring in honeybees. Radke’s Blueberries, however, in not a particularly big operation, less than ten acres, and Ed Radke is keenly aware of the local bumblebee population, realizing their value as pollinators.
As things warm up around here, Henry’s been starting to schedule 2013 honeybee extractions. (I’m using the term “honeybee extraction” in this post to mean the act of removing unwanted honeybees that are living on their own in people’s barns, garages, rotten trees, etc.) The next month and a half or so is the best time of year (as opposed to summer) for doing extractions for several reasons: colonies are smaller with fewer bees and less brood to have to worry about rehiving, the bees will have longer to recover and establish strong hives over the summer, less nectar in the hives means the process will be less messy and fewer bees will be drenched and mashed in the process, and newly boxed colonies are less likely to get their honey stores robbed by other bees this early in the season. Spring bee removals are more convenient and cheaper for homeowners as well because Henry can usually get the job done in one or two sessions (as opposed to multiple sessions in the summer), which keeps his costs down and therefore keeps his fees down, too.
Through word of mouth, Henry heard about an old barn in the Blodgett area that had at least one colony of bees living in the wall. He approached the landowner (Mike from Willamette Saw Service) and asked if he wanted the bees gone. Mike agreed, so Henry made a quick visit to the site last week to scope it out.
Honeybee’s comb is about the coolest stuff ever. It’s beautiful, functional, symmetrical, and it smells good to boot. Comb is also a wonderfully multipurpose substance. It provides structure for a hive, the right nooks and conditions for rearing brood, and storage space for pollen and of course, honey.
Bees have four pairs of glands on their abdomen that secrete wax flakes that young bees pick off, chew up, and mold into comb. The color of new comb depends on current nectar sources, the race of honeybees in the hive, how much/what type of pollen they’re collecting, and other factors, but new comb is typically white, though in some cases, bees can make bright yellow comb. As the same comb is used over and over, it will darken in color.
Around 5 PM last night, Henry and I were hanging out in the driveway talking when he suddenly stopped and started looking around. It didn’t take but a minute for him to locate small swarm of honeybees. I had been hearing a buzzing in my subconscious, too, but had ignored it because there’s always a lot of buzzing at our place from the 60+ hives scattered around the property.
At first, the bees were all in the air. They were flying around in one area for five minutes or so until they began to land and cluster on a small branch about 25 feet up the trunk of an oak tree. Henry ran off and grabbed his pole saw (with an extension) and hung a bucket with a frame of drawn comb doused in sugar syrup on the end of it. He positioned the bucket squarely under the growing ball of bees and forcefully rammed the branch with the bucket to jostle them loose. Some bees fell into the bucket and a bunch took flight but stayed nearby. When the cluster began to form again, Henry knocked the branch with the bucket a second time. The queen must have fallen in the box at that point because the bees started to regroup in and on the bucket instead of on the branch.
I was at home with kids about a week and a half ago when around 1:00 in the afternoon, I started hearing a loud buzzing. I’ve seen and heard enough honeybee swarms in my day (including this one) to know right off that I was hearing bees on the move. I ran up to the upper landing with my camera and soon was standing in the middle of a cloud of bees.
On Mother’s Day, we took a little family beekeeping excursion out to check on Henry’s hives that he had dropped off in the heart of the Willamette Valley about a week earlier.
Seed farmer, Cody Younger (one of Henry’s friends from college who I wrote about last summer in this post), contracted Henry’s bees to pollinate one of his family’s meadowfoam fields. This arrangement with Cody is Henry’s only pollination contract this year. It’s sort of a test run to see if he wants to pursue more contracts in the future or if he’d rather build hives up in more rural areas.
On Sunday, we went out on a little family beekeeping adventure. My long-time friend Kelly who lives in the heart of Oregon’s wine country contacted me months ago about the possibility of having Henry remove an established hive from the wall of a porch on the back of her home. Kelly’s young son has pretty serious allergies, so Kelly didn’t want the risk of living with bees, but she didn’t just want to kill them either. Kelly’s house is about a two-hour drive to the north for us and really is out of Henry’s beekeeping territory, but because Kelly is a friend and the job seemed doable, we decided to make a family event out of the extraction.
Last Saturday, Henry and I scheduled a date. We dropped the kids off at his mom’s house, picked up a couple burritos, took a scenic drive out to Blodgett, and then crawled into an uncomfortably warm, insulation-filled side attic, and riled up a couple thousand honey bees. We really are so romantic.
The sun came out yesterday, and the bees went nuts. They hurried out of the hives and clouded the air. I walked right into their territory to pick some kale (bottom right) for lunch, and in just a few moments, I had bees in crawling in my hair, on my clothes, and on my camera. Though I’m not the beekeeper in the family, I’m getting used to having bees up in my business, and I can generally just carry on with what I want to do.