Guest post by Annie Novak*
During an adventuresome game of hide and seek when I was a little girl, I sat on a wasp’s nest behind a pile of logs alongside my childhood home. In the slow motion typical of horrifying experiences, I sat to hide, felt a prickle I thought to be patch of thistles then saw the wasps rise singularly, then as a mass, out of the ground to sting me on bum, back and body. I ran into my house screaming, wasps trapped under my shirt. In too much pain and too full of fear to stop her, I ran through the rooms of our house letting my mother beat me with an oven mitt (to kill the wasps, of course). Vividly I remember passing a mirror in a hallway, and catching my unrecognizable face in the mirror, swollen red with stings and panic. Later that night, while I lay in a bathtub full of ice, we counted 31 stingers pin-cushioned into my skin. The thought that later in life I would become a beekeeper was impossible to imagine.
It is stories like this that keep insects at bay in our lives, swatting at any visiting member of the flying, stinging hymenoptera. What you learn too late in life--or never at all--is that this order of insects--including wasps, bees, ants (and sawflies)--are awesome. Most are social, organized creatures; most like the same things we do (wood, sugar, friends) and suffer our same tragedies (power struggles, love). All undergo stunning metamorphoses that take their big-eyed babies into stunningly delicate winged form. Not surprisingly, each plays an important niche role in the ecosystems around us. Ten percent of all species on Earth belong to this order: of the four million-plus species of insects, hymenoptera make up 115,000. (By way of comparison, there are less than 10,000 species of birds.)
The honeybee is hymenoptera’s ambassador. Honey is her gift to us in our kitchens; pollination her recognized skill. I became a beekeeper gradually—dabbling first, drawn into the smoke and suits, the caution and danger, the wildness of the tiny ladies working so fastidiously and furiously in the hive. In the last few years of beekeeping, as my own fears have metamorphosed into affection, I’ve been challenged to myth-bust quite a bit. Here are a few of my favorites:
Honeybees die when they use their stingers--it’s torn from their abdomen when the barbed tip pierces mammalian flesh. One of the greatest misunderstandings of stinging insects is our flailing, arm waving, shoo-flying antagonism. Bees have compound eyes, and while a passive human rarely attracts their attention (likewise any still object), their peripheral vision and sense of motion is quite acute. Since learning this, I’ve had many Zen moments standing before a hive surrounded by honeybees. As long as I’m still, my breathing steady and calm, a swirling column of investigatory worker honeybees can surround me like a fog with no consequences. Just don’t eat a banana or start getting nervous: honeybees have a terrifically complex system for detecting pheromones. Their alarm-pheromone (released in danger, or when they sting) smells like bananas, and they can sense and smell your panic if you stand sweating anxiously by the hive. If you’re not calm, back away until you’re ready.
I fell in love with honeybees because I love honey. Like wine, honey picks up the terroir of its source. I’ve tried honey from the famed manuka tree blossoms in New Zealand, the lighter linden blossom honey common from New York City’s spring harvest, and the dark, velvety honey from bamboo blossom nectar bees draw from the flowering stands of bamboo around Washington, DC. The honeybees I keep in North Brooklyn at the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm draw nectar from flowering street trees through the spring months for a late summer harvest as light as champagne; come fall, the July the goldenrods that grow as weeds along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway have turned the honey to a rich, tangy, dark amber.
Annie's bees at the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm.
The calorie count matters to a flying bee, so if a spill of soda is the closest “nectar” source, they’ll go for it. This was illustrated most humorously a few years ago when my friend David’s honeybees made blood red, cough-syrup flavored honey from the juices of the Maraschino cherry factory dumpsters in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The quality of nutrition honeybees derive from nectar is much higher than what they get from being fed sugar water (true for all of us, really), but they are frugal and precise in organizing the quickest points from A (the apiary) to B (a nectar source)--and around cities and suburbia’s lawns, begging bees can’t be choosers. Ever more the reason that your garden you should plant proximal, delicious, nectar-rich flowers.
Recommended plants for honeybees will vary based on your growing region, but a good rule of thumb is to seek out bee-friendly plants that take turns blooming throughout the year. For example, an apple tree (with springtime blossoms) can be grown in the same garden as repeated, staggered plantings of cucumbers and marigolds (both mid-summer and into fall bloomers), a heavy cluster of sunflowers (late summer into fall), and then clover as a cover crop (whose flowers will appear in the early spring of the following year). Extensive lists of suggested plants can be found all over the internet: the key thing to keep in mind is--
A bee will fly to fifty to a hundred blossoms in each flight, and this journey is repeated at an exhausting 15 mph throughout her month-long lifespan. When I first started gardening, I had the lofty idea that my contribution of pea, peach and mint blossoms were ample supply for the dozens of honeybees that visited them, and that the heavy hanging heads of my sunflowers were enough to get my colonies of 10,000 honeybees well sugared up. Not so: a pound of honey (about three little bear jars’ worth) is the result of two million blossoms of foraged nectar! So get your neighbors growing pears, peaches, cherries, almonds--cucumbers, pumpkins, zucchini--calendula, sunflowers, black-eyed susans--fields of clover and hairy vetch. Every time I bike pass a golf course or sterile lawn, I smell the freshly cut (and deflowered) grass and taste the bitter loss of sweet honey.
We garden for food, for exercise, for the beautiful colors. We garden because we love to bird-watch, or catch butterflies floating through on the breeze. But it all comes down to bugs. One of my favorite gardening books, Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamay, makes the point that you can’t have butterflies without a place to raise caterpillars, and you can’t have many of the birds we love to watch without hosting insects for them to eat. The damage insects do to our crops is far, far less significant in most garden settings than the benefits we derive from their presence in our ecosystems. Plant diverse crop selections, never use pesticides, and aim for a mix of natives in your ornamental and crop beds.