Tuesday, August 25, 2009
THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES
August 27, 2009
Last week, a violent little storm hit Manhattan and the Bronx. It lasted just a few minutes, but what the meteorologists called "microbursts" of wind reached 70 miles per hour. When it was over, almost a hundred trees, some over a century old, had been felled in Central Park alone, and many more came down here in the Bronx.
Early the next morning, I got a call from Jim Fischer, a master beekeeper who maintains the beehives atop the World of Birds building at the Bronx Zoo and recently formed the Gotham City Honey Cooperative, an association of urban beekeepers.
"I'm here in the giraffe area," he reported. "The storm knocked down a huge tree right in front of their barn, and the downed section is crammed with honeybees. We've got to get them out of here as soon as possible so the keepers can let the giraffes out. I've gotta chain-saw this thing so we can get it down and level — the piece of trunk with the bees in it is propped up against a giraffe-sized fence about 15 feet up. I'll have to get a ladder and see what we've got. This is really something. I'll keep you posted."
That afternoon he called again.
"We cut the bee section off and swung it with a rope to rest flat on a pile of big limbs," he said, breathless, "and I've pried it open so it looks like a log-canoe. The bee nest is about two feet wide and eight feet long. It's bigger than anything else I've seen in 25 years. It looks like they've been there for a very long time. There may be several coexisting colonies there, with multiple queens. If you want bees to strengthen your colonies, come and get 'em. And call all your beekeeping friends — there's plenty to go around. Bring some bee-boxes with empty frames. We'll cut up the comb and put them in the frames and the bees will go along with it. Let's meet here tomorrow morning at 7:30. This may take all day, and it's going to be hot as hell in those bee-suits."
Worker bees are like interchangeable parts. As long as there's no queen with them, you can put them in another hive, they'll pick up the scent of the queen, and almost immediately they'll integrate into the colony. Beekeepers regularly do this, taking bees from strong colonies to beef up the numbers in weak ones. Rarely do they get their bees from fallen trees, however.
I called Sara Katz, a young and adventuresome beekeeper with a couple hives at a community garden near Yankee Stadium. "I'll be there," she said without a beat.
Sara and I met Jim at the zoo gate the next morning, and we ran a car-caravan to the giraffe enclosure. There it was, the log-canoe, teeming with bees in the half-light.
Most American beekeepers house their bees in those familiar rectangular boxes, the invention of Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth, a Lutheran minister from Pennsylvania. In 1851, Langstroth devised a way of organizing a hive to encourage the bees' own building techniques while making it easy for the beekeeper to examine the colony and remove the honey without tearing everything asunder.
Honeybees construct their living quarters of wax secreted from glands on their abdomens, shaping it into a "comb" of hexagonal cells in which they raise their young and store honey and pollen, their food. In the wild, in hollow trees or other crevices, they build comb in distinct layers, with space in between to allow them to move and work all around it. Measuring the width of the comb and the distance between combs, Langstroth found it was uniform — about 3/8 of an inch. "Seeing by intuition, as it were, the end from the beginning," he later wrote, "I could scarcely refrain from shouting out ‘Eureka!' in the open streets."
What Langstroth had discovered was "bee-space."
Inside his wooden boxes, he put hanging frames 3/8-inch wide with a 3/8-inch space on all sides, and as expected, the bees built their comb precisely to the dimensions of the frame and not beyond. It then became a simple task to take out the frames and their contents while leaving the hive intact.
What we saw in the log that morning was natural bee-space, though the layers of comb had been crushed together by the impact of the fall. Peeling back the layers, we measured sections to fit our empty frames, cut them out with a serrated knife, secured them in the frames with rubber bands, shoved them in the bee- boxes, sealed the boxes up with window screen, and took them home. Most valuable was the comb that contained "brood," the beekeepers' term for developing bees in egg, larval, or pupal stages. Placing the brood and the bees that covered it in our hives, we would soon enhance our workforce by thousands.
With the eye of a highly-experienced beekeeper, Jim quickly discovered a queen among the maybe 100,000 workers, caged her, and designated her for a hive of one of his apprentices with a weak and unproductive queen.
Later that morning, several beekeepers from Brooklyn arrived by subway to take their share of bees. As the day warmed from sultry to sweltering, the operation was discovered by wasps, bumblebees, and foraging bees from other places, all battling both the colony and the beekeepers for access to the exposed combs of honey. "Robbing" is the term for it, and it's done regularly to colonies that are vulnerable or weak and unable to defend themselves.
The scene was complete chaos, but Jim and his sweating comrades managed to sweep most of the remaining bees into boxes containing packets of artificial queen-pheromone to make them think a queen was present and induce them to stay put. They sealed up their boxes, and at nightfall, when the robbers had gone home, Jim loaded them into his old Volvo wagon ("Half a million miles and counting," he says proudly), and delivered them to the Brooklynites' hives.
Within a couple days, the remaining comb in the log had been robbed dry, and the zoo crew could set about sawing up the logs and taking them away.
Amidst the detritus of the storm, a treasure was revealed: the secret life of bees.