Mind Your Own Beeswax

I caught a buzz today. And it had a real sting to it. But it wasn’t the kind I usually blog about here (although I plan to catch that kind of buzz later tonight at a party in the neighborhood).

Mead may be the oldest fermented beverage on the planet, but for me it’s about to become the newest. This morning I installed a “nuc.” That’s short for nucleus, which in this context means a young beehive. Among the many things bees do that are useful to humans, one stands out for people interesting in fermentation. Bees make honey and honey makes mead.

beekeeper space suitI’m expecting beekeeping and mead-making to teach me patience. I’ve been warned not to expect to harvest any honey from the hive in it’s first year. Then once I do finally harvest some next year and make my first mead I’ll have to wait another year or so while it conditions. We’re talking about a couple years before I get to drink the fruits of my labor.

But truth be told I’m not really much of a mead drinker now so the prospect of waiting doesn’t seem that bad. My first tastes of mead came from some fellow homebrewers. Frankly I wasn’t so thrilled with it at the time. First of all, it wasn’t beer. And I was thoroughly enraptured by the craft brewing revolution that was just unfolding back then. The few homemade meads I tried were either too sweet, too alcoholic, or too phenolic tasting. And again, it simply wasn’t beer – the dominant preoccupation in my life at that point . . . well, okay, I guess it still is.

beeframeYears later, I moved to Ethiopia for a couple years and was exposed to a whole different kind of mead called t’ej, a style which is generally consumed very fresh, even while it is still fermenting. So it is incredibly sweet and much lower in alcohol than the dry, highly-fermented ones I had tried before. The sweetness required some getting used to, but I persevered and took to it fairly quickly. Ethiopians consider t’ej their national beverage, highly associated with culture and tradition. Its drunk from special phallic-shaped flasks and always served at what are called “cultural” or “habesha” restaurants. Traditional dancers and musicians provide excellent entertainment and drinking t’ej from the special bottles adds to the whole aura of the experience. Habesha restaurants are usually in round thatch dwellings where diners sit on short wooden stools covered with animals skins. The room is always thick with the smell of earth, grilled meat, and rich Ethiopian coffee. Man, those places were great. We went to one about once a week for over a year!

bees on frameEarlier this spring I tasted some outrageously yummy meads from a pair of homebrewers who were in my beekeeping class. They were accomplished meadmakers and brought a variety of bottles for fellow classmates to sample, including some metheglin (herb or spice infused) and melomel (fruited mead). Wow, they changed my attitude right quick. Smooth, deeply complex, balanced. These are the meads I hope to brew myself in another year or two.

For now, I’m crossing my fingers that my hive doesn’t contract what’s being called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This is a frightening phenomenon affecting hives all over the world. Bees are simply disappearing en masse. According to an article in News Target the domestic bee population has decline by 50% in the past fifty years. CCD has only been documented for the past couple years and is devastating the population at an even more alarming rate. Why is it alarming? Bees are responsible for pollinating about 30% of the U.S. food supply. Oh and plus, I think they’re really cool and I’m excited about my new hobby so I hope whatever the hell is causing CCD goes away but quick.

beesAssuming my hive doesn’t disappear or die from one or more of the many, many diseases and pests that cause chronic problems, I’ll be publishing occasional blog posts about bees and mead. I aim to keep my hive as free of toxic chemicals as possible so I’ll also talk about how to the challenges of that and the environmental benefits of beekeeping in general and organic beekeeping in particular.

The pictures above were all taken during the field day at the end of the course I took from the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association.

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10 Responses to Mind Your Own Beeswax

  1. John Blatchford says:

    I have just written a few articles about various aspects of the Honeybee crisis which you might find of interest – for example: http://insects.suite101.com/article.cfm/bee_crisis

  2. […] Doing Better Drop an ‘r’ from Beer Activist and whaddya have? Bee Activist! As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve begun keeping honey bees. In addition to making mead and honey beer from their honey, […]

  3. beeractivist says:

    Hi John – thanks for the link. I’ll take a look at your articles.

  4. Dave Bonta says:

    Exciting stuff, Chris. I’m glad you’re getting into it – not least because I look forward to sampling your mead!

    I guess you know our Alma Mater is leading the research on CCD. See http://maarec.cas.psu.edu/ for updates.

  5. beeractivist says:

    Indeed. There was actually an article in the Washington Post today (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/09/AR2007050900597.html) that mentioned some of the folks in Pennsylvania who originally reported on CCD.

    I’ll share my mead but you gotta promise that next time I come up for a visit you’ll have some gruit!

  6. Amanda says:

    Mitigator Rules!
    I can recommend a new “scrub” product called “Mitigator Sting & Bite Treatment”; to say that it is terrific is an understatement! It actually removes venom by exfoliating the top layer of skin, opening the pores and drawing out the toxins. I had instant relief from pain and itching and all traces of the sting disappeared within minutes. I found it on the web at http://www.Mitigator.net which is their military website. I called and they sold me (6) ½ ounce packages for about $2.00/pack (each resealable pack treats about 20 stings or bites). The only thing that can create a problem is if you wait too long to apply it, it should be rubbed in vigorously within the first few minutes after the bite or sting – the longer you wait, the less effective it is. I’ve used it on bees, wasps, fire ants (no blisters even appeared), mosquitoes and chiggers. They say it works on jellyfish but I’m a long way from the ocean so I haven’t needed it for that problem. No smelly chemicals, works great and is even safe for kids (the scrubbing replaces scratching so – no secondary infections). I should make a commercial for them!

  7. Hummingbird says:

    As long as you do your beekeeping organically, you’ll probably be ok. I just read an interview in Smithsonian with an entomologist, and she says that the real likely culprit is that commercial beekeepers frequently add high fructose corn syrup to the diet of their bees. (Talk about STUPID!) , and that has been found to cause behavioral issues. (Just watch a child after they’ve drunk a coke!). Good luck on this, i’ll be following your progress. I’ve thought about it, because I love the bees, but I have too much on my plate right now!

  8. beeractivist says:

    Hummingbird,

    Thanks for the comment. The theories on CCD abound but so far nothing is definitive. My hunch is that it is probably some combination of things – the overall effect of industrial beekeeping plus some distinctly new disease occurring at the same time and that the two are mutually reinforcing. In terms of sugar feed, I actually am feeding my bees a sugar syrup for now but it is organic corn sugar. I may well stop this soon though.

    Cheers,
    Chris

  9. Hummingbird says:

    I’m sure that the simple organic sugar syrup is ok for them.. But the high fructose stuff is quite a bit different and if it comes from gmo corn, well you might have a synergistic effect!..

    I tend to agree that it may be a combination of factors, these mites, the gmo, pesticides, and global warming. The high fructose thing was a new one for me, but she seems to be a well respected entomologist.

  10. Michael says:

    I would recommend leaving the first honey super on the hive throughout the year, leaving this(Yes, this is the best produce from your hive) as a store for the bees instead of feeding them sugar when they are in need. It’s all a matter of greed. Don’t be greedy and your bees will be strong.

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