Thursday, March 10, 2011

Re: honeybees and some questions (Begin forwarded message, Part 2)

From: Michele Liu
Date: Wed, Feb 16, 2011 at 8.20PM
To: Tim
Subject: Re: honeybees and some questions
Hey Tim... Thanks for the quick response!

Haha... I'm laughing at myself for naively thinking that the almond orchards would have any other plant life around them when I should know very well that 1) the "Big Ag" boys wouldn't be smart enough or considerate enough to balance the area out with other sources of life and 2) I grew up in California and have made numerous trips through the state so I should know that you see nothing but monocultures and CAFOs. Yuck. : P

I decided to focus on bees because I feel that there are enough people in the design field who are already working in the area of urban gardening, composting, etc... What I'm interested in is researching and designing around the root of our food issues. For example, I designed a book last year about the history of maize where the reader could trace how the cereal made its way across the world from its origins, Central America. The book consisted of a map with particular areas of the world pinpointed to tell the history, story of how and why it was brought to a certain part of the world and how that part of the world uses the cereal. My point was to show people that our food plants don't just exist everywhere and anytime naturally. It's because of humans endeavors that has allowed a plant like maize to become such an abundantly used and important crop. I also wanted people to understand the importance of always understanding for yourself the facts and reasons behind things so that you may decide independently if something is true and/or safe for you. Like Francis Bacon said, "read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find fault and discourse; but to weigh and consider."

So from a similar perspective, I would like to design something through the subject of bees and food to convey to people that the necessity of understanding and respecting the natural balance of life cycles is critical towards keeping us, and generations to come, alive on this planet. This time I am interested in designing something which will confront the user of my design to be reminded of these cycles and to reconnect with them so that there is a clear understanding that fresh, healthy food requires, time, attention and knowledge. I believe that on top of sustainable actions and thinking, it is important to create emotional bonds as well. It is in this way that I wish to encourage people to move towards living "without strawberries in January". : )

Why I decided to come out to the Netherlands for my Masters degree in design is because the Dutch view design very differently then we do in the U.S. Here, design thinking is used to solve more then the commercial needs of the industrial product world. Here, design thinking is viewed as a way to solve many issues... social, environmental, psychological, medical, etc. So I wanted to come here and utilize my design skills in a different manner because it's possible and because I got tired of making things for people to buy, buy, buy. Prior to this, I worked in the footwear industry for 8 years, even passing through the corporate world at Nike. It was a place in which I knew wasn't going to suit me, but I took the job out of curiosity to see first hand if my suspicions of the corporate world was what I thought it was. Well... it was and worse!

Anyway, right now what I am training myself to do is practice conceptual design thinking that then gets translated into practical solutions in the end. I hope this clarifies a bit more of what my goals are and why I have chosen to focus on the wonderful world of honeybees.

Thank you answering so many of my questions. I was wondering if you received the second email I sent, a few hours after the first, with more questions? If not, here they are again...

I'm wondering what are the possibilities of merging packaging and honey together here...
1) Is it possible for me to control the form of the honeycomb? Can I create a form which encourages the bees to build their wax in a certain way?
2) Is there a way to crystallize an outer layer of honey to create a shell so it protects the inside?

I understand that the color of honey changes depending on the bee's floral source.
3) Does the color of the honeycomb, wax, propolis and royal jelly change as well?

4) Can you explain the process of how honey is made? I understand that it is a combination of nectar and enzymes that come from the bees, but I don't know what happens beyond that.

And yes, I would love for you to share our conversation on your blog. I'm glad to hear you think my questions are good and interesting enough that others will benefit from it!

In regards to visiting your apiary, sounds like I would see nothing if I go within the next few weeks (what would I see?). I think I may be able to fly over in April when you are installing the new bees and hives. I'd prefer to visit you sooner then later since I'd prefer to gather information now, but I guess there's no point if there isn't any activity. Where are you located... Brooklyn? I'm interested in visiting urban hives gardens in the U.S. because I know that I will be moving home, back into a large city, when I graduate this year so I'd prefer to gain knowledge on how things are done there (i.e. legals issues, structures of American cities, etc). From the Netherlands to NY is about the same distance as LA to NY so it's not too big of a trek. Besides, it'll give me a really good reason to get out of the tiny town I'm living in. Haha!

Thanks again for your help. I really do appreciate it. I'm happy to see that we have similar beliefs about the current food system. It really helps to work with people who are like-minded. Keep fighting the fight!

Good night from this side of the world...

PS... I found this. Have you ever heard of this method of beekeeping? Any thoughts on it?

From: Michele Liu
Date: Thu, Feb 17, 2011 at 11:36AM
To: Tim
Subject: Re: honeybees and some questions
sorry... a couple more popped into mind.

do bees forage at night?
what's the smoke used for?
how do commercial beekeepers manage to control the millions of bees they let out to the orchards?


... Michele

From: Tim
Date: Tue, Feb 22, 2011 at 5.36PM
To: Michele Liu
Subject: Re: honeybees and some questions
Hi Michele,

Sorry it took so long for me to get back to you. It was a busy weekend in which I managed to get absolutely nothing done.

I'll get this out of the way now. I don't blame the 'Big Ag' boys for the problems in our food supply or the problems with our bees. You shouldn't either. It is easy to do so, but it isn't right to. The system that supports them didn't suddenly spring into being, a fully formed monster of monocultures and CAFOs. Like any other organism, it evolved, following the pressures of natural selection. Consumers demand consistent, fresh, and cheap produce, and as the population has grown and become accustomed to the instant gratification of their dietary desires, the farmers have had to match that demand in any way possible. It is as much our fault, as consumers, as it is the farmers'. Big Ag has been growing cyclically, fueled by our wants, and breaking that cycle will require a major shift in the mindset and beliefs of the average shopper.

As you mentioned, it is important that people come to realize that they need to make conscious, independent, and well-informed decisions when choosing their food. So many people still place convenience above health or sustainability, and it will take the combined efforts of all to change that for the better. Unfortunately, as a friend of mine pointed out, there is another problem. Healthy and sustainable foods are often more expensive, sometimes to the point that they are unaffordable for a wide subset of people, resulting in a bit of a Catch-22. Prices can't come down until there are enough consumers willing to buy the products to justify their increased production, but consumers as a whole are so far unwilling or unable to buy the products until they come down in price. There is a lot of inertia to keep things the way they are. Solving this dilemma is going to take some creative thinking, a fundamental change in the way people think about their food and a LOT of effort.

For the record, I love eating strawberries in January. Baby steps.

Back to honeybees?

You MAY be able to influence the form of the comb, but only in a very limited fashion. Left to their own devices, the bees will naturally build lovely straight comb, curved and graceful. You may be able to encourage them to hang and shape those straight combs with an artificial object, like what we beekeepers do with frames in a standard hive, but the bees WANT to build a regular and uniform structure and will reject following a guide that is too far out of the realm of their normal instinct. When thinking about how you can integrate the work of bees into your design, you'll want to keep the concept of bee space in mind. Bees space the combs in their hive in a very specific way, a uniform 5/16s of an inch apart. Any gap smaller than 1/4" they will seal with propolis (bee glue), any gap larger than 3/8" they will bridge with brace comb.

Bees actually preserve their own honey by capping it with fresh, white wax. Capped as it is in the hive, honey lasts indefinitely and does not need to be treated in any other fashion to preserve it. Even extracted honey will last for years if sealed and kept away from moisture. Pure honey with a properly low water content (<18%) is naturally antimicrobial and inhibits the growth of the natural yeasts and bacteria it contains. Extracted honey will almost always crystallize naturally, but can be reliquefied with gentle heating.

Like honey, most of the other products of the hive change in colour, but not always due to the source and makeup of the nectar it was made from. Rather, the wax itself and the comb made from it change and darken with age and use. As comb is used to raise brood, it slowly turns a deep chocolate brown, stained with the cocoons and waste of the young. The bees do a good job of cleaning the cells, but some of the byproducts inevitably leach into the cell walls, staining them. Eventually, the comb will darken to black, at which point most beekeepers will replace it with fresh foundation, in order to limit the spread of disease. Propolis, like nectar, is collected from natural plant sources and so there is some variability in colour but it is almost always a dark brown, with a range from deep red to almost black. As far as I know, royal jelly is relatively uniform. It isn't collected from outside the hive, but is excreted by the hyphopharyngeal glands in the head of adult worker nurse bees, so it isn't directly influenced by the original food source.

Honeymaking is both interesting and gross! When a bee collects nectar from a flower, she will store it in her honey stomach, or crop. On the flight back to the hive, it gets mixed with the enzymes produced by the bee and the natural bacteria and yeasts living in her digestive tract. Once she returns to the hive, she will regurgitate the nectar and pass it off to a “house bee,” whose job it is to turn it into honey. The house bee ingests the nectar and mixes it a second time with the enzymes and microorganisms living in her crop, which start to break down the complex sugars in the nectar into simple ones. As the sugars are broken down, she spits out a small drop onto her tongue and then stretches it out in order to increase the surface area and encourage evaporation. While other bees fan their wings to maintain a steady flow of air, she will continue to ball up and stretch out the partially digested nectar, until the water content has been reduced to under 18%. At that point, it is considered “ripe” honey and the bees will store it under wax cappings until they need it. It's a remarkable process. Some people classify honey as a fermented food.

Bees tend not to fly at night. They use the sun for orientation, so without it they would get lost very easily. While they may not be flying, they will continue to work, ripening honey, feeding the brood, tending to the queen, etc., etc., etc.

Beekeepers smoke their hives for two major reasons. I was always told that smoking the bees incites an instinctual response in the bees to gorge themselves with honey and prepare to leave the hive. A hive's natural home is a hollow tree, so bees had to develop a response to deal with forest fires—pick up and leave. A fully engorged bee is fat and heavy and will avoid flying unless necessary. More important than that, smoke serves to mask the alarm pheromones released when the bees detect unpleasant vibrations resulting from clumsy manipulation of the hive by beekeepers, or by stings. Without smoke to cover up that alarm scent, it would dissipate through the hive and cause them to become much more aggressive.

As for the final question, the beekeepers themselves DON'T control the bees they let out into the orchards. The bees themselves have excellent senses of orientation and will almost always return to their own individual hives, guided by location and scent. Some bees will end up in the wrong hives, but it's not a big deal. When the beekeepers are ready to move on, they wait until after dark when the bees are no longer flying, seal the hives up, and cart them away.

You really wouldn't see much of anything if you came right now! All of the hives that didn't survive the winter are just boxes full of comb and cold air. I should be getting all my new bees the weekend of the 9th, so that would be an exciting time to come. However, if you want to see the hive in full swing with all stages of brood and a growing population and lovely new comb, you'll want to come in late April or early May. I'm located in Brooklyn, but there are beekeepers in all five boroughs, many of whom would probably love to show off their hives. If you want to talk to someone with access to a lot of hives, and with a lot of experience in urban beekeeping, you might want to email Jim Fischer, the instructor for the NYC Beekeeping Group. He's had hives in the city for years and is well versed in the legal issues faced by urban beekeepers.

Tim ONeal

P.S. I am very unfamiliar with the BioBees method. Different beekeeper keep their bees differently, depending on their personal philosophies and desires, and I don't think that there is a universal right or wrong way to keep bees.

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