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G9 Guide: The Life of Bees

June 21, 2012

A couple weeks back, we were invited to a very special excursion deep in the Lombardia region of Italy, at a place where vineyards line the hillsides leading up to exposed marble bluffs. We arrived at a beautifully preserved hundred-year-old home constructed purely out of timber and stone. The owners specialize in wine and locally-produced honey.

Gino, the master beekeeper, has been tending to his hives for almost 10 years, and invited us to take an up-close and personal look at the interesting lives of bees.

It all starts with donning of the proper protective clothing and developing the mental confidence not to panic or move quickly when hundreds of bees are circling your head.

Gino prefers not to use smoke to calm the bees, as over-smoking causes the bees to become too docile, thus interrupting production days. Smoke also effects the flavor of the honey.

Under the lid.

Stackable hives.

The hives are modular and allow for growth of the hive throughout a colony’s typical 5-year life cycle.

Single point entrance

The bees are constantly coming and going. They can travel up to 2 miles from their hive. Amazingly, on each journey, a bee carefully collects only one single type of pollen.  The typical life-span of a worker bee is 3 weeks, whereas the life span of a healthy queen is 5 years.

Under the lid

In the image below, this layer is a new expansion of a previously overpopulated hive.  Young worker bees are working hard to create new honeycomb in it.

Honeycomb is created on vertical boards and serves as both the incubator for larvae, and to house the pollen that creates honey.

The wax honeycomb is produced and shaped by the worker bees and then the queen lays at most one egg per cell.  In the image above, the bees utilize the center portion of the honeycomb for the housing of eggs. The upper corners that are used for honey production are sealed in wax.

Eggs and larvae

Larvae typically develop into bees with 3 days.

Gino checks the integrity of the hive.

Under the lid of each hive is a record of the history of the hive and its queen.

Do you see the queen?

Each queen is marked with a color dot to make it a bit easier for the bee-keeper to check on her progress.

Using her spermatheca, the queen actually can choose to fertilize the egg she is laying, usually depending on what cell she is laying in. She also regulates the quantity of drone and worker bees. Larvae are initially fed with royal jelly produced by worker bees, later switching to honey and pollen. The exception is a larva fed solely royal jelly, which will develop into a queen bee. Typically a hive will preserve a single larva that is only fed royal jelly to ensure a new queen is ready in case anything happens to the current one.

The bottom of the hive

At the bottom of the hive is a metal grate.  This grate acts as a floor board and a screen to filter out the dirt and loose pollen that falls from the honeycomb above it.

Gino evaluating the health of the hive. He looks for loose pollen and virgin honeycomb crystals that are produced by recently hatched bees.

Virgin honeycomb crystals look like small pieces of glass. They are a key indicator that the hive is growing and healthy.

Within this hive, Gino collects honey from the bees on four separate occasions from Spring to Fall. The first season comes from the Acacia tree flowers, and happens typically in early spring when the bees travel down into the Acacia orchard for roughly two months.

Acacia tree

The second season produces a more typical type of honey called “millefiore”. During this production phase, the bees collect pollen from the spring bloom of the many wild flowers and roses that blossom throughout the late spring months.

The third season produces similar honey as the second, but with a different variety of flowers and pollen.

The fourth season produces our favorite honey variety: “Melata di Bosco”. This is a much darker and more concentrated variation of the millefiore type.  After a hot and dry late summer, many of the flowers have lower water content in the pollen, which helps create this intensely sweet molasses/maple syrupy type of honey.

Local honey

Stay tuned for more recaps and behind the scenes of our adventures and travels.

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