At this time of year, honeybees fly in and out of their hive in such numbers that on a sunny day there’s danger of a log jam at the entrance, as some bees scramble to get out to forage and others struggle to get in and unload.
The amount of honey they can make astounds me, as it has for the past 45 years. There’s no getting used to it. In a week they can sometimes completely fill the nine frames that fit in a super – an astonishing feat if you consider that a fully loaded bee carries a drop of nectar that is about the size of the head of a pin.
Nectar is about 80 percent water and honey has less than 20 percent water, so, in the course of making the roughly 40 pounds of honey that fit in a super, the bees have brought in about 160 pounds of nectar and, in the dark stuffy confines of their hive, have evaporated about 120 pounds of water (14.4 gallons). All this in a week.
The construction of a wild bee hive – a pattern that beekeepers imitate – is astonishing as well. Hexagonal cells – and only hexagonal cells – fit together perfectly and bees use them interchangeably to raise new bees, store the pollen that is fed to the larvae, and to store honey. Each cell is tipped upwards at a slight angle, matched to the viscosity of honey, so that their sustenance doesn’t run out before they cap the cell with wax.
I do what I can to help them succeed. I’m the one who nailed all the parts of their hive and the frames together, and fitted each frame with a sheet of wax so the honeycomb would be straight and strong. In the winter a Styrofoam box gets duct taped around them, and a folded piece of hardware cloth across the entrance will keep mice out.
In the fall I’m going to leave them with 60 or so pounds of honey to carry them through the winter. I’ll take all the rest away from them. It will go to friends, into tea, and on to biscuits.
How much honey a hive produces in a year depends on a number of ecological and zoological variables – one factor that doesn’t come into play, however, is bee work ethic. They don’t make 70 pounds or 100 pounds of honey and then call it quits. They make every last drop they can. They don’t go on strike; they don’t work to rule. Instead, they go from one goldenrod floret to the next, as fast as they possibly can, from early morning to dusk.
People like me, with just a few hives, invest a huge amount of time and money into their insects. In economic terms, the bees aren’t getting ripped off. I try any fad that comes along to reduce the damage done by varroa mites, replace hives and bottom boards that have a bit of rot at the corners, and replace aging queens at $29.00 a shot.
And still, as I stand watching all the traffic around a busy beehive, the unconditional industriousness on my behalf makes me feel immoral, as though I’ve duped and exploited them. Six weeks of flying wears the wings right off a bee, and my little, golden, furry friends perish by the thousands from over work, making honey that will soon be stolen by the bucketful.