The secret lives of beekeepers
Posted: Wednesday, Aug 11, 2004 - 03:34:15 pm PDT
By CHRISTINE HENSLEIGH
Whitefish apiarist knows the ways of nature's busiest creatures
Arvon Fielding has so much bee venom coursing through his veins that hungry mosquitoes know to stay away.
It's a mixed blessing begat after years of bee stings and before the bees learned to recognize him. The fact that bees learn to recognize beekeepers by their smell is one of the many fascinating bits of trivia Fielding has accumulated from nature's busiest and highly organized creatures, the honey bee.
"Beekeeping is one of the oldest professions. They've been keeping bees since the beginning. They've even found honey in the pyramids that was still good because honey won't spoil," Fielding says about his part-time trade.
Fielding is one of an elite few of Montana registered beekeepers, or apiarists. His honey business, Never Give Up Apiaries, which makes pure Montana honey with Montana bees, is busy year round.
Fielding spreads his hives throughout the Flathead Valley near agricultural fields, wildflowers and any "major nectar source" he can find. Development and herbicides threaten the bees' single-minded search for nectar he colorfully calls the "honey flow."
"The honey flow is all they're worried about. Bees are good for anything that gets a flower on it. They work every bloom whether there's nectar or not," he explains, obviously impressed with a bee's work ethic. "Bees never sleep."
Fielding routinely checks his 44 colonies, each consisting of between 20,000 to 25,000 bees and one all-important queen. On this particular afternoon, he's checking a colony in a field on a Farm-to-Market Road property. The bees make honey from the nearby field of flowers and even the infamous knapweed, which, Fielding informs, makes some of the best honey around.
After listening to Fielding explain the secret lives of bees, it is evident that reality is even more interesting than the maxim "busy as a bee." Every bee is assigned a different job: scout bees scour the area and locate the good patches of flowers, nurse bees care for the brood and the field/forest bees (which make up the majority of the colony) go about the collection of nectar and water for the colony. An elite few called "guard bees" even protect the entrance of the hive from invasion from other colonies.
It's a highly specialized society with a sweet side effect, Northwest Montana honey. And Fielding is a firm believer in the power of any pure local honey.
"Only local honey is pure honey because we never heat it over 110 degrees. Pasteurized honey takes all the good stuff out of honey," he said, explaining that since local honey has the pollen from all local plants it has the potential to reduce allergies. It's the sole source of food for bees, and Fielding starts off every morning with a teaspoon of honey and warm water.
"It's better than coffee to get you going in the morning," he attests. "It's an energy food that you can drink and one of the most natural foods you can get."
It's enough to keep busy bees going. Considering that bees roam as far as three miles on their honey flow and travel up to 17 mph. to and from the hive, bees need all the energy they can get.
"They're so excited," he says, explaining the speed of the return trip. "For a little critter they're pretty complex."
That complexity extends into every aspect of the hive. Bee culture is a sophisticated matriarchy made up almost entirely of females. At the top of society sits the queen. She is responsible for laying eggs and continuing the generations of bees and is fed royal jelly and waited on by attendant bees. According to Fielding, the queen sets the tone of the hive. A good queen means good, docile bees while a bad queen means aggressive bees. If a hive is aggressive, Fielding solves the problem by replacing the queen.
The few males, or drones, are necessary for singular purpose of mating with the queen, a one-time only event that means the continuation of the hive. After the first frost drones are kicked out the front door.
"Feminist organizations love bees," said Jerry Massman, Fielding's protege and assistant.
Massman is decked out in a full beekeeper regalia. His white suit, long gloves and draping hat make him look part astronaut. He approaches the gray and white boxes slowly. Colors have meaning: gray boxes are left for the bees to eat through the winter. Beekeepers only take excess honey from the hive, a harvest they continually manage with a perpetually empty top white box. The bees think they need to store more honey for the winter, and consequently, they constantly fill the white boxes.
"You're basically stealing from the bees," Fielding admitted with a sheepish grin.
But when you're a beekeeper that knows how good sweet Montana honey can be, it's hard to resist.