Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Heroes of Michigan Fruit

I recently visited Al Haarsma Apiaries in Walker, MI. He was in the process of bringing his 1200+ beehives back to Michigan from their winter work in Florida pollinating orange blossoms. Travel is done via a semi that holds more than 350 hives each trip. They spend about half the year in Michigan arriving in April to May and leaving as the evening weather starts to cool in September. Al started in 1987 with three hives. Many beekeepers started out as hobbyists - much more than those handing down to their sons or daughters. Less than 25% of the beekeepers pass the tradition down to their families. However, Al did have an uncle in the bee business who officially quit in 1991. By that time Al was up to about 100 hives. The main packer that the honey is sent to is in Olmstead, MI.

When I arrived, I drove up a short dirt road to an open field that was surrounded by a light forest. Al was there with one of his daughters starting the smoker. Using a smoker around the bees calms them down while he is checking the health of the hives. There was a constant buzz – not unlike a B horror movie – in the background. It competed with the music of various birds on a sunny afternoon.

The bees were doing well that day considering we have had a slow start to spring. To make up for the late Michigan blossoms, they are fed a combination of corn syrup, water, and mint oil. The mint oil strengthens their immune system and keeps the mites at bay. They were also enjoying a new crop of dandelion flowers.

The bees will be moved to apple and blueberry farms where they are necessary for pollination of these plants. When I was on Old Mission for Blossom Days, I noticed bee hives in the orchards. Bees are an essential part of our foodshed.

Just as the hive check was wrapping up, a group of bees started to swarm. That is a natural event in the spring when the hive is too full. The queen lays eggs and then moves on to start a new hive. The old hive will have a new queen. The first queen to hatch is the new queen and she kills all of the other potential hive queens.

In an open area a few hundred bees started flying around an area of several feet. Then, they all started moving (following the queen) around a tree trunk. Apparently the tree is a favorite of bees. In a couple of days there will be a ball of bees about 18 inches in diameter. At that point, Al will put down a white sheet and one of the hive boxes. Then, he will shake the tree to loosen up the bees and knock them into the new hive that he has prepared for them. That is how a new hive is born.

Al, who used to work in the construction industry, and his family have been beekeeping for many years now. He is very comfortable around the bees. He can tell their moods. There was one hive that was irritated about something, so we avoided the area near it. I wore a bee jacket and hood that was borrowed from Al’s daughter. But, I did feel pretty comfortable around the bees – which is actually unusual for me. So, I was able to learn about beekeeping and face a fear.

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