Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rose & Thistle Farm Apiary Tour

For V's birthday, some friends of our gave her a wonderfully unique gift - an invitation to tour their apiary, complete with kid-sized bee suit, hands-on opportunities, and a seasoned beekeeper as her guide. Last week, we synchronized our watches and the weather patterns and all things potentially conflicting and made our way out to the farm east of Santa Maria.

What a fantastic tour! Our guide is generally a quiet man, but with bees as the subject, and clearly leadership experience and an organizational style I could really appreciate, he was off and running.

E, V and the host's son all donned protective bee suits while The Beekeeper showed them an empty hive box he had built. He explained the parts and purposes, encouraged them to lift it and fiddle with it. He showed them some empty beeswax comb and joked about its lack of heft. Then he led us all to the long, top-bar beehive to check on the colony's condition before heading up the hill to the Warré hives.

The Beekeeper carefully lifted the first box and let the kids each have a turn peeking inside with the help of a mirror. The swarm, collected from a distraught resident who came upon a swarm in his city yard, was making itself at home and busily building comb. The kids took turns lifting the relatively empty hive, then a fairly well-established hive that had nearly built its comb out of the box.

It was here that we learned some critical facts about bees and honey. While I learned (and have since repeated) that honey was "bee spit," we were informed that bees are sort of like nature's tankers - they do slurp up flower nectar through their proboscis and deliver it ("spit" it) to the comb. But the delivery doesn't mean the work is done. Once in place, the bees fan the honey with their wings to remove any excess moisture, essentially drying the nectar to a consistency which allows preservation. We also learned that worker bees secrete the wax from wax glands along their abdominal segments. Working together, they build the comb. It's an incredible combination of chemistry, engineering and cooperation.

We also learned about propolis, or bee glue. The bees create this sticky substance to secure their homes. In this case, they sealed two stacked hives together with the dark-brown-to-black substance. I've seen the stuff before, but always thought it was dirty wax or just old, filthy biological matter. In fact, its quite purposeful.

When we returned to the barn, the Beekeeper showed us his storage area where collected honey is stored in jars. Additional honey remains in its own, original container - sheets of honeycomb - until the Beekeeper is ready to switch it to the more portable glass containers. Then it was down to the kitchen with a sheet of honeycomb for the final stage of our tour - taste testing. V cut strips of the comb for everyone to enjoy. The early season area of the comb held sage honey, a delicate, lovely, light honey. Later in the season, the comb turned to toyon honey, a much stronger, though still wonderfully sweet, honey.

We returned home with a wonderful piece of the honeycomb, half toyon, half sage. It won't last long.

Thanks to Rose & Thistle's beekeepers and support crew for the wonderful visit.

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