Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Birds and the Bees...

I completely forgot to mention the Grown In Marin "Bee Workshop" I attended on August 7th at Toby's Feed Barn in Pt. Reyes station!  

Equally well attended as the Backyard Chicken workshop they offered in May, Friday's forum hosted a speaker panel that included Glenn Smith, Marin Master Gardener; Doug Vincent, founder of Sebastapol based "bee kind"; and Shari De Joseph, beekeeper at McEvoy Ranch.  While this forum was mostly about keeping honey bee's, Glenn balanced out the conversation by covering native bees and their critical role as pollinators.  Honey bees get all the glory (well they do make that delectable ambrosia), but the ground nesting, native bee is an important workhorse in our Marin bee world: the B.O.B. (Blue Orchard Bee) for instance is 250 times the pollinator than your average honey bee! Master Gardeners have presented speakers on this subject in the past at the Marin Art and Garden Center, and given the growing interest in this solitary bee, more speakers are sure to come.  There are loads of resources available on the world wide web- just google "california native bee" and you'll find plenty.  But the important thing to remember is to leave some bare soil in your garden so they can nest!

As an aspiring bee keeper myself, I found it hard to digest the wealth of information that was presented by the remaining panelists and experienced beekeepers in the audience.  I will try my best to highlight the key facts below. Forgive me for jumping around and be sure to post a comment if I got any of it wrong:
-There are two main kinds of honeybees found in Marin/Sonoma, of the 11 known species of honeybee. These are Italians and Carniolans. The former are more yellowish gold, more docile, but consume a lot of honey. The latter are darker, over winter well and tend to eat less because they are more conservative (they reduce reproduction when food sources are low).
- The ideal queen bee is promiscuous- the sluttier the better (more chance for genetic diversity).
- A given area can only support a given number of hives. Otherwise you end up with a situation similar to mono-cropping.
- Nectar equals carbs, pollen equals protein.   We can learn something from bees- they are equal opportunity eaters- no low carb diets for them!
-Keeping bees is site specific. Know your vegetation (forage and shelter) and know your climate.
-A southeast exposure is ideal.  Morning sun, afternoon shade.
- Bee  forage includes some beautiful natives as well as low-water, Mediteranean non-natives. Some of the best plant material includes, but is not limited to, blackberry bush, coyote bush, buckwheat, salvias, ceanothus, echium, toyon, callistemon, buddleja and multiple varieties of lavendar and rosemary.
- A multi-season garden is best. For example plant Spanish Lavender, an early bloomer, as well as Provence Lavender, a later bloomer.
- There are 5 ways to start a hive
1) buy a whole colony, it costs more but you're ready to go
2) buy a nucleus colony, less expensive but good for a more experienced beekeeper
3) buy packaged bees, inexpensive and great for beginners
4) catch a wild swarm, free and fun (but you could end up with an old queen)
5) find bees in your walls, no comment
- Look out for "robber bees," yes that's right, robber bees.  They are opportunists that will move in if your colony is too small for your hive.
- Bees sting for only two reasons: to protect themselves and to protect their hive.  Otherwise they are harmless enough to stroke on the back- it's been done!
- Life cycle details:
1) It takes 21 days from egg to bee.
2) Queens must mate (a lot, see above) within three weeks or else she'll never produce a fertilized egg, only drones.
3) Winter solstice (you know, the shortest day of the year) triggers egg laying.
4) Average lifespan is 6 weeks.  Three weeks before they fly and another 3 weeks (or 500 miles) of flying.

These nuggets of information should get you started or at least pique your interest.

I'll conclude with a brief description of the honey tasting that was performed with the help of the audience.  Over 20 honeys were brown bagged to keep the tasters honest.  The samples included several "bee kind" selections, several McEvoy Ranch selections, audience participants' own  selections and a few ringers: Trader Joes, CostCo, SueBee, to name a few.  It was like a wine tasting but without the spitting (I'm happy to report).  The essence of honey was in all the samples, but the complex subtleties were reserved for the "quality" honey. Had the bees foraged on eucalyptus blooms? purple thistle? clover? lavender? Kat from the IVC farm and I agreed that the purple thistle was the best.  What made it so good? Frankly, I don't have the vocabulary to describe it.  All I know was that for me, it stood alone.  

So my suggestion to you is this: buy your honey directly from the beekeeper so she can tell you what her bees were eating when the honey was harvested.  Or keep your own.  Don't tell your neighbors or they'll get all worked up (for no reason I might add).  Just do it. And by the time they figure out you have bees (which they may never do), they'll be so happy with that jar of fresh honey you leave on their porch that they'll realize ignorance really is bliss.

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