OK, no more puns.
So I’ve spent the last couple of weeks WWOOFing for a family honey company on Waiheke Island. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Bees are cool
Seriously, people think bees are dicks, but they’re not. Wasps are dicks, but bees are super friendly and awesome. I mean, if they sting you, it kills them, so it’s not really in their interest to bother you, and as long as you leave them alone, they’re quite content in your presence, even when they accidentally collide with your face. During beekeeping, you often end up with bees crawling over your hands, and they’re perfectly happy. In fact, once your hands are sticky with honey, they’re a little too happy and refuse to leave.
But still wear protection
You wear a suit when you work with bees but it’s not needed most of the time. The main reason you wear it is because it turns you into a badass astronaut. You also use the ‘smoker’ to protect yourself when you open a beehive. A few squirts of smoke inside the hive makes the bees think there’s a forest fire. This is hilariously mean and confuses the bees, putting them into a mode that means they basically ignore you.
Things not to do before you work with bees: put on deodorant, eat bananas. Both these aromas make bees unhappy. This means that all beekeepers are smelly and potassium-deficient.
Like I say, wasps are dicks
The photo on the left shows the aftermath of a bee-wasp war. Carnage. All the bees were doing was minding their own beesness (this doesn’t count as a new pun, I already used it) when a gang of mob wasps tried to break into their hive. The guard bees buzzed into action and a vicious battle ensued. On this particular occasion, the guard bees successfully repelled the wasp invasion, although at the cost of many bee lives. When worker bees get older, they are retired from active service and become guard bees instead. If I was in charge of Bee Defence, I would be concerned that my whole security force was made up of geriatrics, but I guess they’ve got their systems. Beekeepers can help with bee defences by making the hive doors smaller; this makes it easier for bees to defend the entrance points. And it’s critical: if wasps break through the perimeter, they can ransack the hive and crush the colony. Bastards.
The colour of honey (OK, no more puns from now)
Honey varies enormously from hive to hive. It depends on what time of year it’s made, where the hive is and what flowers the bees are pollinating. Honey made by two different hives in the same location at roughly the same time can still turn out quite different. Generally speaking, the lighter the honey, the sweeter it tastes. Darker honey has a stronger, more complex flavour, with caramel undertones and more antibacterial health benefits.
The honey with the greatest health benefits is generally considered to be manuka honey. It’s sold all over the world but is only made in New Zealand. It occurs when honey is made by bees from the nectar of the manuka tree. If you suspect your honey may be manuka honey, you send it off to be tested by a laboratory, and it returns with a score for how much active manuka is present. Despite the ambiguous and unproven nature of manuka’s benefits, it is widely valued by the general public, and can therefore be sold at a much higher price. (As an example, we sell a 165g jar of regular honey for $11, and a 165g jar of strong manuka honey for $40.)
Once you have bees, you can make plenty of products other than honey, such as beeswax candles and lip balm. The Waiheke Honey Co. also sells tea towels and aprons, although it’s worth noting that these are made by the humans and not the bees.
Mixing honey with water and then fermenting it creates mead, which can either be drunk (yay!) or used to create experimental bourbons (boo!) in huge warehouses tucked away on the island.
You can call me Queen Bee
All the honey that the Waiheke Honey Co. cultivates is single-hive honey. That means it’s made by one hive that’s occupied by a single queen bee. In fact, we put a sticker on each jar of honey with the name of the queen responsible for it. I lobbied to have a new queen called Queen Jonathan, but apparently that was never going to fly. (Get it? Fly!)
The queen is a critical part of the hive: if you have a rubbish one, the honey manufacturing will be rubbish as well; if you have no queen at all, the hive is screwed. In New Zealand, there are strict rules against importing bees, which means strong genetic queens are much-prized. The most expensive ones that we have cost around 300NZD. That’s £150 for a single bee! An important part of checking hives is carefully going through the racks until you find the queen, who has usually been pimped out with a dot from a marker pen.
When you introduce a new queen to a hive, you put her in a plastic box sealed by a wall of ‘candy’. By the time the bees have eaten through this wall, they’ve adapted to her scent and they accept her as their queen rather than executing her as a usurper.
Bees are hilarious
Check out this pineapple of bees. It’s a swarm. That means a group of bees were in their hive and it was all going so swimmingly and they were so honey-rich that they decided to breed a new queen bee. This upset the old queen bee, who abandoned the hive and took about half the workforce with her. Now they no longer have a hive, so they’ve set themselves up in a tree and are milling around in general confusion.
This one’s manageable, but they can get pretty enormous and unwieldy. If you don’t get to them quick, they also get increasingly grumpy through lack of food and are more likely to attack you.
We were called to remove this swarm at Whakanewha Regional Park. I bring this up because Whakanewha Regional Park is the best place name ever. It’s pronounced Fok-a-nee-fa (‘wh’ in Maori is pronounced ‘f’) which makes it a great substitute for swearing.
Stubbed your toe? Whakanewha Regional Park!
Wife cheating on you? Whakanewha Regional Park!
Spider in your pavlova? Fuck. Because some things are too serious for joke swear words.
To keep bees or not to keep bees
I really kinda do want to keep bees, at least as a hobby. Bees are fascinating and beekeeping is complex and satisfying. It’s so different from what I usually learn that it’s helped me reflect about myself as a learner. I pick things up very quickly, but I’m not a good lateral practical thinker. By that I mean that you have to show me how to work practical machines or I’m just going to sit and stare at them mournfully forever. But at least you only have to show me once.
Just for pun
Hive really tried not to wax lyrical about bee puns, but they’re unbeelievably hard to ignore. I’ve bee-n good until now but I’m practically bur-sting. Wasp’s the matter? Comb back, I mead you to listen to my hilariously unhunny jokes!
Q: What’s a bee’s favourite mode of transport?
A: A double-decker buzz.
Q: What did the bee say when it turned into a brand-new car?
Oh thank god. I feel so much better now.