Beekeeping beginnings – A reflection on new knowledge, aligned to my personal learning goals and values

Dentistry and bees seem unlikely bedfellows. My continuing professional developmental journey has a tangential angle benefitting from new changes to our recertification guidelines. Personal development is now aligned to workplace professional growth without needing to complete a target of verifiable learning. During this period of COVID, finding meaningful education has been a struggle. Apicultural education has usurped dentistry for this period. This account describes that same experience, and I hope you enjoy reading it.

Bee on Flower by Naomi James

Brightwater in Tasman, New Zealand, also colloquially known as “Britwater” because of the large proportion of U.K. immigrants living there, is a sleepy backwater on the Nelson to Murchison main road, about 30 minutes west of Nelson. It is the home to two of my three hives forming my first apiary. Another resides with colleagues and friends in Mapua, 30 minutes north of Brightwater, again a sleepy, residential coastal village famous for its quirky shops, cafés and eateries as well as a thriving art scene. It is now late November, and for all three hives and the tens of thousands of worker and drone bees, the business of preparing for the up-and-coming honey flow in mid-December is afoot. Combe building, pollen and nectar gathering abound as the three queens prodigiously lay large numbers of eggs. The growth of larva and pupa, and ultimately hordes of new bees, will emerge to complement the hives burgeoning activities, adding more workers for the cause. As a beekeeper, you have the privilege to see nature go about its business. Like foragers (for I am also one), beekeepers look seasonally at the weather and listen to the “songs” from the hive. This, in turn, guides us to action, promoting the best possible outcomes for all, bees and humans alike, as we all benefit. Where did this journey begin for me, and how have I changed as a consequence?

Johnny Hamer

I can’t honestly remember my first encounter with a honeybee, wasps, yes, but not the humble nectar gatherer. However, I have powerful memories of my next-door neighbour on Limewood Close, Woking, Surrey, UK, where I lived in the ’70s. He was one Johnny Hamer, who would have been termed a “peculiar” character in the day. Johnny was a well-educated man, crafty in practical terms and an outsider to the road community. His garage had a vintage Morgan sports car under a dusty old tarp, often in bits, but occasionally he roared up and down the street in it. When it worked, I was fascinated. The garage, too, housed demijohns for various potions and brews, and the heady scent of fermentation and experimentation pervaded. His three children, Sally, Michael and Richard, were friends to me and my sister Melanie. His wife Ann, a beautiful woman, often with a pained expression, was crucial in my future life when my mother passed away. I can vividly remember a swarm from his hive gathering on our fir tree, a rare garden feature. It was smuggled in from Austria by my parents when it was a sapling. I can recall this suited, spaceman type figure, with smoker in hand, coming to retrieve it. I watched him from the “safety” of my bedroom window, gazing in awe and wonderment at the surreal sceptical.

https://www.guildfordbeekeepers.org.uk/news/1-latest-news/89-west-horsley-village-fete-at-dene-place-5th-september-2015

Returning to Johnny Hamer, a dear friend of mine, Dave Annette, asked whether I knew of anyone who was a beekeeper. I mentioned Johnny to him, and he affirmed he knew of him from Guildford Agricultural College. Neither of us was aware that he also had an apiculture college on Blackhorse Lane, Brookwood, Woking, Surrey. I visited it and met Johnny many years after that swarm event in my back garden. It was good to reconnect to childhood memories. I hope you have had similar experiences. They are to cherish. My memory of that event was watching another swarm marching up a ramp to a new hive. They were Italian honeybees, normally docile but even more so on this occasion.

Dave, a busy technical expert in his field, needed a diversion and point of focus to create more well-being in his life. This became an obsession and has since turned into a calling and a business, teaching and helping bees. Dave, with his partner Rachel, has set up an evolving enterprise called honeybeehappy.co.uk. I recommend that anyone locally pay a visit to their website for courses and events they regularly hold. After seeing Dave and Rachel in 2019, the symbolic seed began to grow. I had found that life in New Zealand hadn’t led me into the traditional natural interests, those of hunting and shooting, fishing and tramping. I had exposure to them from friends and acquaintances, but none had got under my skin in a meaningful way. Until, in a darker moment, during COVID lockdown 1, I read a thread on social media alluding to the fact that a level 3 course, laid on locally in Apiculture, was being held free of charge. Having no plans for the upcoming year, I decided to give it a go-to quote, the New Zealand vernacular.  

Honeybeehappy and the Annettes

One of my heroes is Paul Stamets, a mycologist extraordinaire from the Pacific North West of America. He is an unlikely muse for my transition from fungi foraging to apiculture and bees. Set apart, they appear very different, but the divide narrows in the context of nature and the symbiotic association of both. His passion and enthusiasm for mushrooms have inspired many people to evolve their interests in bees and shrooms. He has done both quite unexpectedly. I suggest you read Merlin Sheldrake’s “Entangled Life” book on fungi, and the connection will become vividly apparent. I’ve been a dental hygienist by trade for over thirty years now. Being with both kingdoms has brought a fresh and somewhat revolutionary perspective to my practice knowing what I know and have seen with oral ecology and their environment, immunity and balance. Stamets noticed this on his professional lifelong learning journey too. He observed honey bees where he lives and works, moving sawdust and leaves apart to expose mycelium, a vast fungal underground network. At which point they accessed and tapped into the nutrients for health and repair. These bees brought to Paul’s attention that it may have a purpose in apicultural disease control, particularly deformed wing virus. Having this prevented their ability to gather nectar and pollen, curtailing their life spans and the colony. Mushroom mycelia and bees symbiotically and therapeutically uniting, amazing. This discovery was recently published in Nature magazine, and further investigations and perhaps natural treatments to help reduce colony collapses in the future may appear.

The Fungal Evangelist Who Would Save the Bees - Issue 90: Something Green -  Nautilus
Paul Stamets

The class began with a dozen or so wannabee apiculturists, mainly women and very much in my midlife age group. Our motivations were similar, curiosity, environmental, possibly entrepreneurial and the like. Some of the class had experience, and most, like myself, had just a passing glance and were, in effect, complete novices. I didn’t feel out of my depth consequently, but the feeling of being back in the “classroom” after so long was daunting. The thought, however, that much of the future learning would be out in the apiary was eagerly anticipated. I was aware that additional costs would be part of the subsidised course, specifically safety gear and the all-important nucleus hive or “nuc”. This was the moment, upon receipt of it, that things got “real”. The nuc was a five frame family of bees, brood, nectar, pollen, maybe honey and the queen. The course providers facilitated the provision of the said nuc and got together a dozen plus nucs for this class, let alone the four or so other courses they ran. Indeed, a considerable undertaking. The first hurdle, and perhaps the riskiest for all concerned, was their delivery to us, the uninitiated. I will begin the most significant learning journey of the course.

Fern Newton and the Author at Brightwater Apiary

It was late October, and the weather had been exceptionally unseasonal. This posed a big problem for the course leaders from the onset, the date of receipt had been pushed back a few weeks as a result. We were asked to gather dried bracken before putting it into the 5-litre feeders in our personally constructed hives. A few frames with foundation were also a prerequisite. Empty hives were placed on either side of the metal road near the apiary, and instructions were given. The nucs would be placed beside and then added to the hives. The drama started after not enough bracken had been found, and the sugar water in the nuc boxes split after debussing from the truck. The sugar water being essential energy for bees became a distraction after removing them precariously by the rank and file, without proper advice. Suffice to say, the bees soon targeted the copious amounts of liquid fuel spread around. The air around us became a huge cloud of lusty bees after a fast food takeaway. The chaos was cut short abruptly with loud instruction from Scott, the alpha course commander who told us to scatter and go away for a few hours whilst the orgy settled down, and nature took its course. Tails between our legs, after a telling off, we hastily departed to return later. The scene was different, and we found our nuc boxes. I was the only one to be told my queen had died whilst in transit from the truck to my hive on transfer. I was distraught and felt guilty I had in some way caused its demise through my incompetence. My bee house returned to my house, put in its designated place, awaiting a substitute queen.

One of three, Queen

The subtext here is essential to clearly define how important healthy queens are to a vital colony. After she leaves her cell sixteen days after laying, where she is tended to and fed copious amounts of Royal Jelly, the long bodied bee emerges and spends several days in the hive before she begins her mating flights. Thus, begins a somewhat perilous toing and froing where all manner of things may prevent her from uniting with a dozen or so male drones and being inseminated with 3 billion plus sperm cells. She may find the drones quickly, nearby and successfully fulfil her primary mission. The perils of the weather, predators and accidents may take her, and a new queen then has to be created from an egg as before. When hatched, the queen has to find her competition, other queens growing in the same hive and crown her dominance by killing them with a sting. The life of a queen is a long one, too, living way beyond those of workers and drones.

After an anxious wait of a fortnight, I was given queen 2 in a plastic cage with its entourage of attending bees. It was shown to the rest of the class before I received it. After a debrief from the tutors about the previous experience, I took it home. I placed it as instructed on a frame to allow its imminent introduction to the awaiting queenless colony. During this time, her pheromones are sensed by the collective and hopefully accepted. I can state I saw it on a frame, freed of the cage once but after then no more. I suspect that my frequent intervention, looking in to check and anxiety driven, may have put pay to its continued existence. Either way, I had the dubious honour of having to tell my tutors I was sans queen once again. It was picked up and commented upon in the class by my teachers, and clumsy handling, I suspect, was the overtone of the verdict.

Johnny Hamer tends to one of his bee colonys at the Blackhorse Apairy Beekeeping Centre

I was devastated, once again, clearly feeling humiliated amongst my peers who had their queens operating effectively, or so it seemed. Recognising the queen is hard for the untrained eye, so I can only imagine others in my class not knowing their whereabouts and hoping, fingers crossed, that eggs laid and the brood forming indicated that. The lesson I learned throughout this process was not to focus too closely on finding her but to rely on observing her eggs and larva as an indicator she was in operation. I also learned to be stronger and less retiring with the tutors when it came to defending myself, and their journey with me continued with many others in the year. I was lucky in one sense that it happened before the active period of nectar gathering, and I had a relatively great deal of experience with the mysteries of queens at an early stage. This journey didn’t stop me from finding alternative ways to combat such dire losses, and I got queens sent to me online from sellers and didn’t bother my teachers much more beyond the honey flow. It made me hardened to the sad fact that poor handling and frequent inspections run a greater risk of such things happening. I learned that lesson the hard way.

Busy at the entrance

The swarm, like a low budget, B-Movie (get it?) title (sigh) is a free nuc. It can also hide disease and a weak queen, but the earnest beekeeper will carefully inspect them and put them aside from other hives. Swarms occur when there is no space for the colony to expand or the real masters, the workers, have advised the queen a new incumbent will soon supersede her. The novice beekeeper has to learn very quickly, in this case, several key things. Primarily, they need to observe and respond to changes in the colony behaviour. The frames inside provide visual cues and present the history of its nature. We must also be aware of the age and productivity of the incumbent queen. Any indication that they are potentially sub-par on egg-laying and brood production will lead to a new queen or supersedure cell. The hive needs splitting, and a new colony is created before swarming. I’ve not been lucky to catch one yet, but I have all the tools at my disposal. This includes a D.I.Y. catcher with a vast water cooler bottle, epoxy resin bonded, to a telescopic poll cleaning pole. It gives me multiple metres of length, if necessary, to get up to the highest nest. From there, when caught, queen included, into a box, bag or nuc with ventilation before being rehomed.

Bee

Costs are also worthy of consideration for the would-be beekeeper. I was fortunate enough to have the training at level 3 for free. I would have considered the financial outlay even if it wasn’t so, but we were all informed from the outset that it would entail costs in equipment and the nucleus hive. Prices continue to grow with additions to the hive, boxes and frames, new queens, disease control and association subscriptions. This hobby is about being frugal and practical, being thrifty with what you need to get and maintaining your gear in good order. I have a spare hive, on standby, for a swarm if it comes my way. Costs can be shared with other beekeepers, especially when you have to buy more than you require, especially disease control. I was lucky, too, to be gifted boxes from a friend. However, I was soon to realise this might not be so advantageous if they were carrying disease. In this case, I was confident they were okay.

Having come through the season, I am far wiser now, being more stoic about these matters, less emotional, pragmatic, and interventional. My real fear is A.F.B. – American Foul Brood and Mites. They both draw more energy and focus as they are more significant threats to the health and well-being of the whole colony. The Varroa mite is responsible for many colonies collapsing in the Nelson Marlborough region presently. Clients of mine in Blenheim have witnessed colony collapses in the four hundred plus hives they operate. Nosema, dysentery in effect, has been rife as well. Natural disasters akin to heavy flash flooding have taken many hives this year as well. A.F.B. is a critical and deadly concern. It entails radical elimination of the whole hive, bees and building, all of it when diagnosed. It also needs to be reported to the A.F.B. agency and tests undertaken before the crematorium beckons.

The treatments for the Varroa Destructor mite are varied and can be toxic to mites and humans. Gloves and filtered respirators bring a sci-fi theme to the proceedings when using Formic or Oxalic Acid in heavy mite load cases. I haven’t used them myself yet, but I’m sure it is looming on the horizon. The prophylactic use of mite strips from Bayvarol and Epivar are placed in brood boxes for several weeks before and after mite load checks are done to determine pre and post mite counts. Nosema parasites thrive in the springtime as brood numbers grow, further promoted by unsuitable weather conditions, where bees spend more time in hives and defecate there. Various interventional measures can be employed, using anti-fungal preparations, moving colonies to sunnier locations, and preventing excess moisture inside the hive with ventilation measures. Eradication includes disinfection solutions like acetic acid fumigation or, ultimately, the burning of infected equipment.

Biosecurity looms large here in New Zealand too. One has to just read the litany of clauses on the documents you sign before entering this country. There are genuine reasons for this, affecting many primary industries, including agriculture and environment, jobs and exports. To allude to New Zealand, being clean and green is entirely another matter. Still, we have an advantage here, shared provocatively with Australia next door regarding Manuka and its honey. Exports are enormous, and as are the profits to be made. To regulate the danger of importing infection and disease, protecting the environment, those employed in the industry and ultimately ensure colony and food security, the apiculturist, businessman or hobbyist, has to be registered and regulated with hives annually checked for A.F.B. It is documented and, more importantly, information disseminated to the specific locality upon discovery and outbreaks. A DECA (Disease Elimination Conformity Agreement Certificate) authorisation is given to those who pass a recognition test. They will be certified to check their colonies and report, test, and act upon their findings within a year. The website that mandates this is afb.org.nz. I find it easy to navigate.

Bringing this new knowledge and experience into my professional landscape has helped me observe the duality of the workings of an oral microbiome. The germs or “plaque” in our mouths and how important it is to plan, act and create balance, very much like the host of tens of thousands of bees do within their living and working space, the hive. They work complementarily as a community, hosting, nurturing, learning, protecting and producing. They can become unbalanced, very much like a mouth can with ecology and environmental pressures negatively changing. They work co-operatively to fix, mend, repair and eliminate that which can prolong and increase the risk of their colony collapsing into disease. The natural healing processes, when ineffective, are supplemented by we beekeepers either organically or chemically to bring about positive change and improvement. I see this as very much akin to my role as a registered dental hygienist. That of environmental, ecological balance and sustainability, focused on awareness of the natural balance of the mouth as opposed to imbalance, and act, intercede where necessary, to the benefit of the host, my client and their established and balanced oral microbiome. Honey itself is a complex nutritional food source having a massive burden of fructose in particular. The multitude of honey types, over three hundred at the last count, is drawn from the pollen and nectar foraged from various plant sources via the salivary secretions and enzymes of bees. The watery nectar with added constituents is dehydrated by fanning wings, becoming stickier and stored in wax cells sealed and capped.

A frame of honey and brood

Honey is either raw, filtered, unheated, processed, or heated. The heating removes potential pathogens similar to pasteurised milk. The composition of the nutrients of honey, after glucose and fructose, simple one chained monosaccharide sugars, includes proteins, minerals, vitamins, enzymes and polyphenols, including flavonoids. The smooth liquid contains imperceptible tiny crystals, but these can solidify depending upon storage temperatures and the degree of glucose within it. The sugar content of honey is problematic for good dental health, eaten frequently. It is a dilemma I face when I consume raw honey sourced locally to me in Nelson. My advice to myself and others is to be mindful whilst consuming wisely. Ideally, avoid frequent intake, having around mealtimes and drinking water to clear its continued oral presence, elevating to balance pH in addition.

A primary hive product produced by bees is a sticky wax-like structure called propolis. A colony can gather between 150 to 200 grams of propolis in one year. The word propolis originates from ancient Greece as well as the Romans and Persians. It might have been used as an embalming product by Egyptians. The Jews considered propolis a medicine way back in Old Testament times, known as The Balm of Gilead. The Greeks also used propolis in perfumes with aromatic herbs and is recorded in their historical literature. Hippocrates is said to have used propolis to cure wounds and ulcers, both externally and internally. The Roman, Pliny the Elder, in his famous “Natural History” writings, describes the practical uses of this substance. According to his findings, he recorded that propolis has the property of extracting stings, allaying pains of the sinews and dispersing tumours, to name but a few.

Ancient drawings of bees

In Medieval times propolis lost popularity, and its medicinal use disappeared, quoted in only a few remaining texts. Sources from the Twelfth Century mention this bee glue in treating dental caries (tooth decay) and throat infections. In 1486 the Karabadini, a Georgian book of medical treatment, suggested propolis be useful against tooth decay. Beyond this, the knowledge of propolis health benefits survived into traditional folk medicine and herbal medicine, especially in Eastern Europe, termed “Russian Penicillin”.

In modern times, this sticky and enzymatic bee glue is made to protect the hive from infections and bacteria, constructed from their saliva, wax, and botanical resin. It is composed mainly of resin, wax, essential oils, pollen and other organic compounds. It includes twelve different flavonoids, phenolic compounds and acids. It also contains vital vitamins like B1, B2, B6, C and E and minerals like Magnesium, Calcium, Copper and Iron. Propolis is gathered from tree sap and buds. Its purpose is to fill gaps and strengthen or plug parts of the hive for protection or repair. Dental applications appear in toothpaste, tinctures and sprays for desensitising teeth and its potential in anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-microbial and antioxidant dental therapies used by companies like Comvita. See their research and products at www.comvita.co.nz.

Pollen Pants

Pollen, the protein-rich food source for bees, is gathered and stored in the frame cells as a rich and nutritious superfood. Nectar is the carbohydrate-rich alternative that bee’s return to the hive. They create bee bread through mixing both, tightly packing the blend into the cells as future fed for newly born bees. Pollen is mechanically liberated from the bees as they enter the hive via pollen traps attached to the hive entrance that carefully plucks off the gathered mass on the bee’s legs as they squeeze through the restricted space into the hive. The beekeeper processes carefully by drying, sorting and dehydrating to remove moisture and contaminants. The end product is a tasty cocktail of pollen in a jar, the colours of which belie its origin. The low pH acidity of honey provides an anti-bacterial property that allows honey to stay as it is, safe and stable.

Unlike table sugar, honey contains vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. The amount, however, only meets the recommended daily intake as directed by the World Health Organisation by about 1%, and more significant amounts would exponentially increase the exposure to the fructose and glucose honey naturally contains. Raw honey is better than processed, but there is no daily recommendation, except eat in moderation. I had a teaspoon of local raw honey in the morning and the evening with pollen. My purpose is to use the local fawner and flora, gathered by bees and minimally processed and filtered by beekeepers, to help my year-round hay fever allergy. From a purely emotional and well-being perspective, I also receive comfort and pleasure from the textural and tasty pollen and the rich, silky texture and favour of honey, raw and in particular Manuka and Honey Dew. This is part of a traditional dietary approach I have adopted in the last few weeks as part of a health improvement programme. Having taken vital measurements and blood work, I will be interested to see what has changed at the three-month point, several weeks away still, if anything. I am curious about inflammatory markers and present blood sugar levels, indicating potential prediabetes due to glycated or “sugar-coated” haemoglobin, especially after starting my twice-daily pollen and honey regime. I’m hoping a real food eating policy incorporating these natural raw bee products may deliver long term benefits. January will reveal the metrics and comparable facts.

Honeyland' Review: The Sting and the Sweetness - The New York Times
Honeyland 2019

Interestingly, the cinema world has seen two recent releases that explore the subject of beekeeping. Honeyland, released in 2019, is a film that explores a Macedonian woman who keeps bees and sells her honey at the local market. Clever cinematography makes one wonder whether it is a drama or a documentary, taking the viewer time to determine. It reveals her husbandry and deep connection to her hives situated in traditional stone structures. Her caring and compassionate behaviour toward her bees reflects how she attends her bedridden, dying elderly mother. A gipsy family arrives in her locality, beekeeping in a savage, less harmonious way. It disturbs the fragile balance between her and the success of her beekeeping, and ultimately her livelihood. It allows a critical comparison between an over commercial practice, intent on profit and not the welfare of their colonies and a more gentle and traditional approach. Sadly, there is no happy ending, leaving us to rail against greed and its destructive effects. Hives, a Kosovan film released recently as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival, is just as sobering. Based on a true story, like Honeyland, it tells the story of a lady enduring the loss of her husband, still missing years after the Balkans War ended. She inherits his hives and begins to unite the local widow community to commercial endeavours, despite the simmering rage of the traditional village menfolk. It relies on simple themes and the struggles of bold women in a misogynous society, whereas Honeyland focuses on tradition meeting modernity.

Hive (2021) - IMDb
Hive 2021

So, in summing up, how have I changed and the consequences of this journey to the personal and professional me. At times I have felt frustrated and overwhelmed, especially regarding the death of queens and the unemotionally intelligent responses of tutors. I have to confess they are learning too, and we, the students, are the unwittingly willing victims. Blessed are the bee teachers. I have also found that, akin to foraging, beekeeping is obsessive and addictive, endlessly exposing your lack of knowledge and frustrating your ability to feel in control, which you soon discover you don’t have. We have to choose where you gather your additional and future learning, be it in person at meetings or mentors or the vault of online videos in social media in the canon of literature, a vast assortment of bee orientated books. Depending upon what suits your character, you can be a quiet, solitary but engaged apiarist or an activistic sociable character, alive at gatherings and meetings. Myself, being shy and socially distant to those I’m not close to or trusting of, hence the nature of being open in this first-person, living, reflective publication, feels very comfortable with the intimacy of beekeeping. I extend this to friends who want to experience the life of bees, their environment and their process. For those, I am both generous of my time, and limited knowledge as their glee and surprise when we lift the lid on the hive is magical. It makes every sting, as there have been and will continue to be many, and each high and low toned sigh worthwhile.

Mark lifting the lid

Finally, it has given me hope that in these times of uncertainty, upheaval and excessive mandate, apiculture offers the participant unhindered access to an authentic and holistic pursuit. You have a degree of peripheral influence, the location, additional feeding, disease control and the number of hives, but after that, you are ancillary. To end this thread, I will consider taking this journey to the next level, diving deeper into the sage experiences of those I have followed. More hives perhaps, a venture potentially in a commercial sense, that takes me beyond dental into apiculture practice. But that, as they say, is an endeavour yet to be written.

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