All that stood between me and about 500,000 bees were my thin cotton t-shirt, my sweat pants, some gardening gloves and a bee keeper veil. I was acutely aware that there was a hole in the glove, gaps between the ends of my sleeves and the tops of the gloves and my light gray sweat pants were not quite as long as I would have liked. Any trepidation I was feeling was properly squelched as I'm pretty sure my nervousness would have produced some kind of pheromone that the bees could have detected from miles away. I know my girls would have picked up on it and since they were meeting the bees too, I was cool as a cucumber! I was excited to finally get to meet all my niece & nephew bees!
My sister-in-law Laura has been an animal lover for her whole life. She's cared for cats, dogs, ferrets, chinchillas, cockatiels, fish, snakes, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, a chipmunk, bunnies, squirrels, raccoons and a very special skunk, named Zulu. So, hundreds of thousands of bees hardly seems a stretch for her! All that and her middle name is "Bee" - seriously! She and my brother, Tom, became interested in beekeeping when they helped with honey extraction at their friend's farm. They signed up for a beekeeping course, joined their local beekeeper association and are now in their third bee season with 7 humming hives of approximately 350,000 - 700,000 honeybees.
Honeybees as you may know are having a tough time; since about 2006, bee colonies have been in decline. A winter loss study for 2012-2013 shows 45.1% loss of hives across all US Beekeepers. That is a 78.2% loss increase over the previous year. (15% loss is considered normal.) This epidemic is called "Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)." Researchers are working to determine the cause or causes but mites, pesticides, viral/fungal intruders and the disappearing of foraging habitat are all suspected as contributing to CCD. Honeybees are not native to North America. They were brought by the settlers in about 1622 to provide honey, wax, and to pollinate the native European plants they brought with them (Kellar). Before the honeybees arrived and still today, our native pollinators are bumblebees, stingless bees and flies. The native pollinators do not really make any or much honey and are not plentiful enough (they are also experiencing population declines) to provide all the pollination needed for our large agricultural industry. So we rely on the European honeybee to do much of our pollination and to provide our honey. The health of the bee population is widely recognized as a barometer of the health of the ecosystem at large. The abundance of our nation's agricultural products are also dependent on the wellness of the honeybee population.
So, why all the "buzz" about the health of these stinging insects? Well, if you're a food lover, you should really embrace the bees. One third of all our food supply relies on bees for pollination (Holland, 2013). There are just not enough native pollinators available for the job. Honeybees pollinate over a hundred different crops from fruit trees to nuts like almonds to most of your summer farm stand favorites. Bees contribute over $15 billion toward US crop production (Holland, 2013). Without our little fuzzy winged friends, we'd probably lose some crops altogether and see massive increases in the costs of foods as alternative pollination methods would need to be explored. The least we can do is become more informed and try to not squash or spray the bees.
The best way to learn about anything is to jump right in, feet first. So I asked Tom and Laura if they could include me in some of their beekeeping activities. Early spring is a busy time for the hives. The bee population explodes and bees are busy flying out to collect pollen, nectar and water. The beekeepers need to inspect the hives, add boxes where needed, watch for signs of swarming (when a large number of bees fly out to start a new colony with a queen bee) and get honey supers ready (the part of the hive where honey is collected to later extract for human use.) I asked the girls if they'd like to check out the bees with me and they were eager to join the adventure! We were instructed to wear light colored clothing as bees are not aggressive with light colors. So I tucked away all my bright floral muumuu's (HA!) and opted for a long sleeved white t-shirt and some light gray sweat pants - clearly this was not going to be a fashionable event! I'll share our visit to Hillendale Apiary below and then I'll share a yummy cocktail I developed using some Hillendale honey!
We had such a great time meeting the Hillendale honeybees! We got up close (really close!) with the bees and none of us were stung! A few weeks after our visit, I went with Tom and Laura to their Montgomery County Beekeepers Association meeting in Skippack, PA. There was a talk about cooking with honey along with demonstrations and tastings! Yum! I'll be posting about that soon! Also, I hope to visit Hillendale again when it's time to extract some honey! I can't wait to see how honey extraction works! Stay tuned!
Next up is a honey recipe! The day of our visit was super hot and the heat was compounded by all the gear we had on. I thought a nice ice-cold cocktail would be a refreshing treat after all the hot work in the hive! So this recipe is dedicated to all the hard-working honeybees and the beekeepers who love them!! Cheers!
Combine lemon juice and honey. Muddle in some mint leaves. Add rum and top with ice and club soda!
Honeybee Mojito Recipe:
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon honey
6 large mint leaves
2 ounces light rum (I used Bacardi Superior White Rum)
½ cup club soda
In a 12-ounce glass stir together lemon juice and honey. Add mint leaves and use a muddler or the blunt end of other kitchen tool to stir and muddle (crush) mint leaves. Stir in rum, add some ice, club soda and stir. Garnish with a lemon slice and some mint leaves if desired.
If you want to make a honeybee garnish, use a small yellow or golden grape or pear shaped tomato. Draw on the stripes with a Sharpie or food coloring marker. Use a sharp knife to make a little slit where you will insert sliced almonds for wings.
Cheers to the honeybees!