How We Bee
We took a handsaw and a chisel to the football field the other day. Not the most common tools for that space, but exactly what we needed for the beekeeping job. Nestled up in the bamboo of the field shed,a low hum of busy bodies was stirring our curiosity: little bees. They have been living in that hive for quite some time, but on that day, the bees were on their way to a new home. I looked onward smugly as Esteban sawed out a piece of the public structure, because nobody in the back country of Costa Rica is going to stop you for something like that. Does it make us vandals? We jokingly called Esteban Winnie, for the Pooh Bear style honey thievery that we were getting into.
Names can be misleading, as nothing is set in stone. Names are just our mind's attempt to label things in order to make sense of our environments, which often appear to be in complete chaos. We must define these things. Take the bees for example. There are two types of bees in the world: bees that sting, and bees that don't sting. The Meliponi genus of bees, which we were investigating at the field, has been named the "stingless bee" (or "abeja sin aguijon" in "espanol"), insinuating that this characteristic sets the bee apart from other bees. Most bee species, however, have not evolved stingers, the way many colony dwelling bees have. There are hundreds of species of bees worldwide pollinating the majority of plants, but they go unnoticed because nobody learned to fear them. The honeybee, for example, is renown in part for its sting, but also for producing a rich, syrupy delicacy coveted by numerous creatures of the global biome. "Honeybee"-- why, that name insinuates that this bee is somehow special from other bees. This is where words have fallen short, because again, honeybees are not the only bees to produce honey. Meliponi bees have been producing honey for millenia, and though their presence globally is about fifty times greater than that of honeybees, honeybees have gotten about fifty times as much research and attention as Meliponi. It is only recently that more attention is being granted to these ecological keystones.
Meliponi bees hold a large presence in Costa Rica. Every now and again on the Ranch landscape, a little pipette appears. This is the entrance to a Meliponi hive made from wax and propolis. Meliponi live in cavities, such as hollowed tree trunks, but they're also keen to bamboo cells and manmade walls. We find them in our bamboo framed structures, like the Hooch and the garage, and in the wall of Jeannie's bunkhouse, but they very often go unnoticed. They are masters of flying under the radar. Mariolita, or Tetragonisca angustula , is the bee at the football field, and one of the smallest of stingless bees at 3- 4mm long. They are generalist pollinators, meaning they can pollinate a wide variety of plants. The bees are an asset of multifaceted benefits. They build orchard productivity, provide an indicator to ecological health, produce medicinal honey, and strengthen our awareness of our relationship to the environment.
We opened the hive at the field using a handsaw and a chisel, and we were no longer vandals or robbers, we were ecologic explorers, because the contents of such a hive are so rarely seen by human eyes. The intelligence of the bees to produce such sound and creative architecture in darkness is a wonder. Tiers of brood chambers, honey pots, pollen chambers, and a network of highways ramping within alluded to the bees' high degree of evolution. They are eusocial, meaning they cooperate impeccably, as each hive is viewed as a single organism. Such an organism falls under the natural laws of reproduction, which is just what we came out that day to do.
Call us ecological explorers, but I'd say we were just being resourceful. We took the nursery of the hive, the place most likely to contain the queen, and placed it in a bee box, along with some honeypots for food. We closed the box back up, sealed until the day when we access the hive again without the need for handsaws or chisels. We harvested a little bit of honey, but left most of it for the bees. Then, we took the bees and their box back to our newly renovated bee barn. They promptly began building a new pipette for their hive, an indication that the queen was leading the bees in their business as usual.
The bee box is currently surrounded by dozens, if not 100's, of flowering plants. From herbaceous ground covers and ornamentals, to the bananas, fruit trees, and forests, the abundance of resources for bees is obvious. Within a few hours, new honey pots had already appeared inside the box. Bees are industrious little creatures, and their presence works with mutual benefit to the health of our orchard spaces. Many flowering trees produce more flowers when there is a greater chance of pollination. More flowers means more fruits, and more fruits means we can maintain a sovereign food system. More fruit means our kitchen is stocked with pejibayes, coconuts, water apples, and biribas, and so many more fruits whose pollination I have yet to witness.
Call us resourceful, but I'd say we're just propagating life. This summer, the Ranch is approaching bee propagation from a new angle. We are building boxes from wood or bamboo that can serve as bee hives. When a bit of wax and propolis from an old hive are speared around the box, new queen bees are enticed to start building their colonies inside. The bee barn is decked out with one new bee hive, soon to be many more, if the queen capturing season is successful. The next few months classify the beginning of swarming season, so lone queens will be on the search for cavities. The queens will go on to produce workers, and the workers will pollinate trees, and the trees will produce fruits, and the nectar and pollen will produce more bees, and the fruits will be laden with seeds to grow more trees. And while all of this is happening, we humans will look onward with fascination, here and there harvesting fruits and honey, all the while taking notes on what it means to be a part of such an effective, cooperative community.
Call us vandals, call us robbers. Call us ecological explorers, or life propagators, or just curious creatures. I think we are just working harmoniously with the systems of our planet, and through our work, becoming more aware of how we impact the living environment.
News and Notes
We have a number of amazing workshops coming up.
- Permaculture Design Certification--April 17th to May 1st
- The Art and Practice of Live Culture Fermentation--May 10th to 13th
- Wilderness First Responder--June 8th to 17th
- Sustainable Homestead Design--June 22nd to 26th
We rely on all of the amazing ambassadors of our project to spread the word; if you know of anyone who needs a life changing experience, send them to one of our classes!
The Ranch Crew