Sunday, April 29, 2012

Honey bee mystery

originally published here.

A few months ago, my dad discovered a huge bee hive in the wall of his barn. And it was dripping with honey.

He debated with what to do with it. He definitely didn't want it to stay in the wall of his barn, but should he just throw it out?

"NO!" I said. "We should save the honey!"



But he was worried about the bees. They weren't buzzing around, but it was still cold enough that he thought they might just be hibernating, or something. When we had a warm spell and he thought the bees would be moving around, he investigated the hive and discovered that the bees were all dead. The comb appeared to be uninhabited, and there was a big pile of dead bees on the floor inside the wall.

Since they were out of the way, we elicited the help of some farmer friends of mine to harvest the honey. They chiseled the comb off the barn wall and collected it in several big plastic tubs, and took it home to process the honey.

But questions remained! So I found a bee expert, Michael Smith. He's a grad student at Cornell in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior studying honey bees. He's also the founder of College Beekeeper, an organization that helps students initiate beekeeping programs at their schools.

"It's a shame that the bees died!" he said. But I don't feel so sorry for them, because now I have what seems like an unending supply of honey.

For those of us who don't know where honey comes from, he explained that bees make it by concentrating nectar. And it's more than just delicious. "It's naturally antibacterial and antiviral," said Smith. Plus, it won't go bad!

He explained that there's a whole host of reasons a hive of bees could die suddenly: starvation and freezing are unlikely because of the presence of honey (they use it as a heat source). But, they could've been too small to generate enough heat to survive, or they could've contracted a disease. Essentially, Smith said it can be pretty difficult to tell even if a beekeeper inspects the hive.

I was also wondering how long the hive had been there. It was about 6-8 feet high, and almost 1.5 feet wide. But again, it's not an easy question to answer. "They could have been there for many many many years, or only a few," said Smith. "Often a colony will die out, but then another one comes in and takes over!"

He explained that a colony that big could be made in as little as 2 years. "In the wild, a colony lives for an average of 5-6 years," he said.

But the most important question, of course, is how to get the honey out of the hive. "If you have comb with honey all in it, I'd say eat it just like that! It's comb honey, and it's delicious," he said.

We did try some like that, and it was delicious, but the majority was mashed up and strained to remove the wax - another method he suggested.

So, out of honey bee tragedy comes triumph, for me at least. I might try dressing some wounds with it, but for the most part I'll stick to its edible qualities and mix it into tea, use it in marinades, and maybe bake a honey cake or two.

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