Here & Now: Visit to a Hive
Sexy, violent and bee-witching
Bees are sexy. so blatantly sexy that I plan to write a steamy bestseller, working title 50 Shades of Black and Gold.
It will be dripping like honey with passion and intrigue, with young virgin queens killing off their own sisters for the crown, nonstop days of in-flight mating in which the hapless drone, following a few seconds of unbridled ecstasy, falls to his death on account of a vital male appendage being left behind. Meanwhile, no mourning for the new queen. She continues on with a dozen or more of his brothers.
There will be fights to the death by stinger, by the queen’s own daughters, for ascension to the throne. Yes, in my steamy bestseller, pheromones will fly, literally. But don’t watch the bookshelves quite yet. I just made my virgin trip to the hives, and, truthfully, I still don’t know my brood cell from my honey cell.
I first met Claudia Silveira—the Lee Queen Bee—at one of her farm market stands. I can’t resist her seasonal organic honeys (light and fresh in spring and richly dark in fall) and honey scrub for my skin. She finally gave in to my wheedling to visit an apiary.
Our rendezvous began in a fast-food parking lot. From there she drove us to her secret remote Estero location where she tends one of her five apiaries. The natural Florida landscape, shaded by ancient trees and palmetto, feels like an Old South plantation. Leaving the dirt road, she cut the engine in an open field. Just around the bend are the hives.
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So here I am on this perfect blue-sky Friday morning, dressed like a freshly landed space alien, trying to maintain my foothold in the spongy, rutted scrubland at the edge of a black mangrove forest. Fourteen million or so bees (OK, maybe 50) are bouncing off the veil of netting protecting my face. I feel the vibration of their Buddhist-like mantra: Hummm… Ohmmm… Should-we-sting-her, Hummm?
Luckily, these bees are currently in a slightly altered state (more about that in a minute), and Claudia says they’re more interested in memorizing the details of my face for future encounters than they are in stinging.
Duct Tape and Hallucinations
I’m not nervous about being stung anyway, because Claudia has outfitted me in her spare beekeeper’s suit: blousy white pants and overshirt, heavy elbow-length leather gloves and a wide-brimmed veiled hat. Besides all this, at my request, she has duct-taped a belt to hold my pants up and blocked every other conceivable point of entry, including around my ankles, which came already outfitted in hiking boots and serious socks. Still, my mind plays tricks on me. Periodically, for the next hour, I feel a creepy-crawly sensation on my skin, like tiny bee feet on my thigh and my back. No way am I scratching at it, just in case.
Claudia is outfitted identically (without the duct tape), as is non-beekeeper Julian, a local farmer who has come to help schlep the hive tools and start the pot smoking. Yeah, that got me too, for a second. But when Claudia calls out “smoke pot, Julian,” it’s a noun, not a verb. She’s referring to a cylindrical canister with a large bellows and a nozzle to direct the smoke.
Smoke, it turns out, causes bees to become disoriented, rendering them incapable of sending such signals to their hive mates as, “Intruder alert! Mobilize the forces!” and “Commence attack!”
Julian stuffs a handful of straw into the smoker and strikes a match. Soon, ribbons of smoke waft in the shards of sunlight around our heads and settle over the hive. As I gawk, Claudia uses tongs to carefully lift the vertical frames out of the hive box, one at a time. She gently brushes away any bees in danger of being crushed. She points out some empty queen cells, some capped honey cells and a clump of treasured bee propolis, which looks like what it is: chewed-up tree resin. She has time to pick out a few dreaded hive beetles and do some harvesting before the bees regain full use of their faculties.
With winter honey production over and spring nectar collecting still weeks away, Claudia is gathering honeycombs, rich with bee pollen as well as honey, to cut into blocks to sell at market. She also looks for emerging queens so she can separate a hive box and start a new colony. One queen per hive, you know.
Once Stung, You’re Marked
Claudia would rather work without the encumbrance of gloves, but this morning an overzealous scout has deposited a warning stinger into her thumb. With their remarkable ability to recognize faces, she says, her bees usually know she’s a friendly intruder. But once stung, you’re marked. So the gloves go on.
If she thinks handling a pair of tongs is awkward in bee gloves, she should try to press the shutter of a camera, or maneuver the viewfinder anywhere near her eye with a 6-inch hat brim and a net veil in the way. Just saying.
Alas, time has flown and there’s so much more to see. Like the waggle dance, performed by scouts that have found a delicious patch of nectar-rich flowers. The complicated figure-eight choreography tells their audience of thousands the exact location of the find, including how many degrees it stands to the left or right of the sun at any given time of day. It’s true. You can Google it.
If they’re doing The Waggle on company time, what kind of dance goes on after hours, is my question. That’s definitely going into my 50 Shades of Black and Gold.
As I peel off my duct tape and wiggle (not waggle) out of my bee suit, I tell Claudia and Julian about my tickly bee feet sensation.
Claudia says, “I doubt anything can get through all that.”
Julian says, “Look there!”
We look. One lone bee is taking a stroll, nonchalant as you please, inside my recently vacated pants. I assume she memorized my anatomy for next time, so she can tell the others I come in peace.
• Yes, bees have knees. Hairy ones.
• Find Lee Queen Bee’s honey products, workshops and market locations at facebook. com/purerawhoney or call 645-2170.