Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Musings About A New Beekeeping Season: A Sunday Morning Walk With Scooter.

After a rainy Saturday with the town full of muddy streets, I took advantage of Sunday’s sunshine to go for a walk with Scooter (that’s my dog). We took one of the back roads that heads out of town and eventually up to a little village. Right away all the campanilla became evident—a little purple-pink bell-shaped flower similar to Morning Glories. They always indicate that the dearth has ended in the valley and the time of plenty is returning to the bees.

 Campanilla growing around a fence post.
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This also implies the exodus of hives for the migratory beekeepers in Honduras. If not there already, hives are taken to the southern part of the country where the campanilla is abundant and the weather stays sunny for the bees to work. By Christmas the beekeepers have harvested honey and moved the hives to the coffee farms in the mountains of central Honduras. The blooms are just beginning there.

Although these flowers are very common in the valley where I live, its location further to the north means that there are more rain days and the beginning of the cold fronts affect how much the bees can take advantage of it. Still, it is important for the bees to begin building up their populations again so they can take advantage of the flowers that follow.

 A small pollen-covered stingless bee on a campanilla flower. These flowers grow wherever people don’t cut the weeds, such as empty lots, along the sides of roads and streets, and the edges of the rice fields.

My walk gave me time to reflect a bit on what I want to accomplish this year with my hives. It gave me some time to think about what needs to be done as soon as possible and what can wait a bit. (Scooter was a good listener but really didn’t offer any substantial suggestions).

One goal is to get some colonies of stingless bees, something that I have wanted for many years now. People have offered me on several occasions colonies of Melipona beecheii, the stingless bees kept by the Mayans in tree trunks. The problem was that the price was always steep and I didn’t have the extra cash on hand at those times. To find them in the wild is very difficult.

The more viable option is the tiny stingless bee called jimeritos here in Honduras. These are easier to find in the wild but not always in a place that lets you remove them. Only once did I have a chance to remove one of these colonies. I was able to open up the root area of the tree that had the colony and transferred it into a small box I had made. I left the box by the tree so the bees could regroup themselves into it. When I returned the following day to collect the colony something had entered it during the night and taken off with the nest. It was a neat experience but a wasted effort.

So I started checking the root area of all the big trees I passed during my walk. When the roots fan out they create spaces for these bees to enter and start their colonies. I had no luck. Their entrance tubes are small and not always easy to see. (Maybe I need to train Scooter to sniff them out.)

 Can dogs be trained to sniff out nests of stingless bees or even swarms hanging out in trees? Or more important, can Scooter be trained??? I wonder.

I’ve been reading about stingless bees recently on the internet, however, and came across a website out of Nicaragua that explains how to make simple trap hives using 2½ or 3 liter soda bottles. The short version is that the bottles are baited with propolis, covered with a black plastic bag, tied to a tree and then you wait. I want to try this; put out a bunch of these traps.

This experiment will be for the valley and I still have a couple months until the bees really start to swarm here. The mountains, on the other hand, always seem to have some swarms starting in October. There really aren’t flowers yet so these are probably hives absconding as their provisions dwindle away. The swarms keep on going until the rains start at the end of May, turning into the normal reproductive swarms. Hopefully I can have some trap hives ready to hang in the trees on the coffee farm this next weekend.

We started the apiary up on the coffee farm with swarms, about eight or nine years ago now. About eight or ten of them were caught before Christmas. By May some of them had grown big enough to give us honey—enough to cover our initial inversion to start them. This is the idea for filling in the empty spaces on the hive stands. Splits could be made but nothing is really strong enough this time of the year.

I can put another 10 or 15 hives up in that apiary without over taxing the area. Better sooner than later. The challenge is to get the trap hives ready. Honduras just started a five-day holiday which couldn’t come at a better time. My teaching job otherwise leaves me very little time for my bees.

Here’s hoping for a good honey season!

The following photos are of the countryside during my walk with Scooter.

 The small stream that ran parallel to the road.

  The stone walls that are common along the edges of fields and pastures.

A bean field. The corn is folded over before eventually harvesting it. Farmers then plant beans in the field.

The road Scooter and I took for our walk. The valley floor can be seen through the trees.

I can’t sit on this rock and take a rest!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Musings About Beekeeping in a Cemetery 03: Life and death among the tombs

A person probably normally thinks of a cemetery as a place of death. This is the last resting place of our loved ones. For the bees of Honduras it can be a place of life.

These graves often serve as an ideal nesting place for bees, from the ornery Africanized bees to the tiny stingless bees. They are able to live and thrive among the tombs and the dead.

I first really began to notice this on the day I had to help deal with a colony of Africanized bees that had moved into a mausoleum where someone needed to be buried (see the two previous blog entries). I don’t usually spend time in my town’s cemetery so I took advantage of being there to look around. 

It’s much different from the cemeteries of Wisconsin, where I grew up. Many of the people are buried in mausoleums build above ground, usually for six caskets. There were some graves just marked with a simple wooden cross but others were ornately decorated or surrounded by a small fence and bushes or flowers.

I wandered over to look at one ancient-looking mausoleum that was covered with interesting decorations. Right away I noticed the nest of small black stingless bees in the center of the structure.

The bees were lined up around the main entrance tube. Below that, however, were several structures that looked like “sacks.” Someone once suggested that maybe this was the way these bees would confuse predators with what the actual entrance tube would be.

I also had seen these same stingless bees in the walls that remained of an ancient church that was probably built some 300 years ago. Located in the middle of the small valley where I live in Honduras, I found several of these hives in the overgrown structure.

Unlike a normal honeybee, these girls don’t sting. Rather they try to bite (like an ant) or fly into your face and tangle in your hair. Annoying they are, but not dangerous.

Their normal nesting structure is also much different from the common honey bee. Their brood combs are much like a layered wedding cake. The combs lie horizontally and are separated by small pylons. The honey and pollen are stored around the brood comb in “honey pots,” round balls that the bees build and fill.

But these weren’t the only bees I found in the cemetery. Looking closely I began to see other colonies.

The smallest bee found was the “hemeritos o jimeritos” (tetragonisca angustula). In other parts they are known as mariolitas. Hondurans sometimes transfer these colonies into gourds or small boxes and hang them under the eaves of their house. They don’t make much honey but what they do produce is prized for its medicinal properties, especially for treating eye problems.

Their entrance is through a small tube they make. They will close it up at night to protect their colony

“Hemeritos o jimeritos” (tetragonisca angustula), that are also known as mariolitas. Their honey is prized for treating eye problems.

Other colonies were found of stingless bees whose names I don’t know. There are several hundred species around the world, many in tropical America.

One striking little bee was black except for its bright golden-yellow abdomen.  These may be what are called magwas (lestrimelitta) o limonete, according to José Martí Rosales Rodríguez, an expert on stingless bees from Nicaragua. He mentioned that these bees survive by raiding the nests of other species of bees, such as the jimeritos, to rob their honey and pollen.

This is possibly a colony of magwas (lestrimelitta) o limonete, stingless bees that survive by robbing the nest of other species of stingless bees.

An unknown species of stingless bees making their home in one of the graves.

The death associated with a cemetery was reflected in the status of the “royal Mayan bee” or Melipona beecheii. These stingless bees were not to be found, as is the case in most areas of Honduras. They are becoming more and more rare. All the other types of bees can adapt to living in the tombs but not the “white star bees,” which they are also called because of the structure they build around their entrance hole.

Colonies of Melipona beecheii, called the “royal Mayan bee” or “white star bee.” This colony was found hanging under the eaves of a farmer’s house. None were found in the cemetery since they normally only inhabit hollow logs. They are becoming extremely difficult to find in the wild due to deforestation.

Xunan kab, as they were called in the Mayan language, were considered sacred. They were actively kept by the Mayans, who used their honey in religious ceremonies and rituals. Their honey would be fermented into a mead-like drink.

They are kept the same way today as they were kept during the times of the Mayas—inside the hollow logs were they are naturally found. Most people will hang these hives underneath the eaves of their house. Either end of the trunk has a mud-covered plug which is removed to harvest the honey.

The mud-covered wooden plug that seals up the log containing a colony of Melipona beecheii. The owner of the colony will remove it to harvest the colony’s honey.

But today they are rare. It is difficult to find them in the wild. There is much deforestation due to agriculture and suitable hollow trees are hard to encounter.  Unlike other stingless bees, this is basically the only place where the “blanco estrellas” set up their colonies. 

During my 23 years of working with beekeeping in Honduras, I have never seen one of these hives in the wild. I have only seen what people have hanging below the eaves of their houses. I have always wanted to get some for myself but people are normally reluctant to part with them. Many times they are an heirloom, inherited from their father or grandfather. If they do decide they want to sell one, usually because they have an emergency and need some money, they ask too much. It is more than what I can usually afford.

This whole experience made me reflect a bit on my own death one day. When people comment that I am now a Honduran I always joke with them that I have already bought my plot in the town cemetery.  I think I might have to tell my wife or children to discretely leave a couple small entrances in my grave with the hope of a swarm moving in to keep me company. They can maybe make my final resting place a bit “sweeter.”