Beekeeping Adventures in Europe – Overseas Experience

First of all, my apologies for not posting this past month.  I was in Europe.   We were on a Food First! sponsored food sovereignty tour of the Basque Country.  We were hoping the tour leaders would be able to schedule a visit with a Basque beekeeper, but unfortunately, they weren’t able to.  We did keep our eyes open for any beehives, though.  Interestingly, we had a chance to be in the countryside many times, but we didn’t notice much honeybee activity in the areas we walked.  We saw some pollinators, but not many, and very few honeybees.  It was sobering.  We certainly didn’t see as much honey bee activity as we’re used to here in my neighborhood.

It was not until we got to France after the Basque tour was finished, that we were able to talk with European beekeepers.  We went to the Farmers’ Market in Sarlat, a busy and picturesque medieval town in the Dordogne region of France.  The Dordogne is one of the most beautiful parts of France with rivers and cliffs, rolling hills, fortified ancient villages and castles, and many famous caves featuring prehistoric paintings up to 35,000 years old. 

At the Sarlat Wednesday farmers’ market, we noticed a table selling different types of honey, so of course, we checked it out. As we approached, the beekeeper offered us a taste of acacia honey.  It seemed she had at least ten varieties of honey. The acacia was light and slightly floral, but we were more interested in the state of beekeeping in France, having read about all the GMO protests by beekeepers in France.

We asked the woman how many hives she had, and said she had 100 hives.  We told her that we have two.  We asked her how beekeepers were faring in France, and she told us it was difficult. (Remember, this conversation was in French, and so our dialogue couldn’t be as detailed or specific as I would have liked.)  She told us that in her apiary she was battling varroa and tracheal mites and that she had to treat her bees with chemicals twice a year.

Part of me was surprised that she treated her bees at all because I thought the French were anti-chemical, but another part wasn’t surprised, given the number of hives she had.  Beekeeping was clearly her livelihood, and perhaps the non-chemical methods we use seem either too expensive or too novel for commercial beekeepers to have adopted in great numbers. 

With the natural methods we use, we have had to spend more on equipment and push the bees less hard and so harvest less honey, which would drive up costs for commercial enterprises.  We also don’t send our bees traveling to work as pollinators, which for most commercial beekeepers is an essential source of income but a stressor on the bees.  Because we also lose fewer hives to disease in the long run, it seems these methods work out over time and are the direction that commercial beekeepers should be heading, but that’s just my opinion.

Local Beehive Update

Last Sunday, we put out the cut cappings from our first honey harvest that we’d been draining for drops of honey.  It didn’t take long for the girls to find them!  For the past few days they’ve been enjoying the easy pickings that we left for them to clean up.  They were out on the piles of cappings gathering well past their usual bee curfew time.  And I’m sure it didn’t hurt that it was hotter than usual yesterday.

When I went to check yesterday on the wax cappings, the girls had cleaned and eaten most of the honey left in the cappings.  Ants are the next wave of the cleanup crew:

Hive 2:  I continue to see many drones entering and exiting the hive. There must be some late summer virgin queens going on their mating flights this August.  The hive continues to have a busy flight path that peaks around 2:30 pm. We haven’t harvested honey from Hive 2 yet, and they are 8 boxes tall.  In a way, I am not looking forward to harvesting from this hive as they are a little “hotter” (more defensive) than Hive 3.  Hive 2 bees aren’t downright mean, but harvesting from Hive 3 was amazingly easy because those Hive 3 girls have a very sweet disposition. The last time we inspected Hive 2 and gave them a medium super, they were a little cranky and kept bouncing off our veils.

Hive 3:  We still aren’t sure if we are going to harvest more honey from this hive.  They seem to be slowing down; they aren’t filling the frames as fast and their flight path isn’t as busy as Hive 2.  We want to make sure we keep enough honey stores in the hive for their winter feeding.  Already, we are thinking about winter.  They too have 8 boxes, but two of the boxes we returned to them after taking their honey, and remain mostly empty, though well cleaned up and ready for use next Spring.

Our neighbor directly behind us, Teddy, is selling her house due to health problems.  We are sad about this because she was such an advocate for our bees, and always told us how she loved seeing the bees in her yard.  We are hoping the new owners of the house are as bee-friendly as Teddy.