Ed Colby: Drones get the boot
This time of year worker honeybees evict the drones from the hive. Sometimes two workers team up to drag out their unwanted brother. I can’t stand to watch.
Drones are male bees. Their only duty is to mate with the queen. Since queens only take mating flights in warm weather, drones become superfluous when it turns cool. They get the heave-ho. If you stopped by, I could show you.
Honey production normally shuts down after Labor Day, although this year the little darlings made some late honey on rabbit brush. Rabbit brush, or “chamisa,” as they call it in New Mexico, kind of looks like sagebrush, and it grows pretty much where sagebrush does, which is about anywhere. It has thick clusters of feathery, yellow flowers.
Rabbit brush honey tastes like butterscotch. When I sold honey at Potato Day in Carbondale last month, I offered three varieties ? rabbit brush, Flattops high-altitude wildflower and alfalfa/sweet clover. The wildflower gets a kind of smoky flavor from coneflowers, but this year the Flattops bees also got into some rabbit brush. My customers agreed that the rabbit brush honey and the wildflower honey tasted pretty similar, although the wildflower maybe tasted a little sweeter.
I could hardly sell a jar of alfalfa honey until I sold out of the other two varieties, even though I charged a little more for them, and even though that alfalfa honey is very good indeed.
Speaking of the price of honey, the wholesale price doubled this summer ? to $1.50 a pound. The grocery stores apparently haven’t figured this out yet, because the shelf price of honey hasn’t budged. They will, however, and the store price should hit the stratosphere. You might want to stock up now.
All this isn’t necessarily great news for beekeepers. The price is high because of short supply stemming from an economic embargo on honey imports from Argentina and China, along with widespread drought and decreased production in the United States. With Free Trade the economic mantra of the Bush administration, and with the inevitable eventual easing of the drought, supply will increase, and prices will drop. But in the meantime, bakers, cereal makers, and restaurant cooks may discover they can get along just fine without expensive honey as a sweetener. Commercial honey users account for 40 percent of honey sales in this country. If we lose these buyers, and the market floods, honey prices could plummet.
As it stands right now, beekeepers whine about fluctuating prices all the way to the bank.
I had a very good honey crop this dry year. Drought sometimes seems to stimulate honey production ? to a point. Obviously dried-up flowers won’t produce nectar. But I average 50 pounds of honey per year per colony. This summer I got 70. You tell me why.
The smartest thing I did this year was spend $900 for 18 pollen traps that produced 500 pounds of pollen at $4 a pound. Do the math. Obviously I wish I’d bought more.
The traps force pollen-laden bees to climb through a wire mesh in order to return to the hive. This knocks some of the pollen off their little legs, and it drops down into a drawer. All I have to do is empty the drawers every week or so. It just takes a few minutes. I have to check the bees anyway. What could be easier than this? There is no heavy lifting, no extracting, and no bottling involved. I get together with another beekeeper and ship it in drums to a buyer in Arizona.
Honeybees always do what they need to do. When I rob them of some of their pollen, it stimulates the bees to bring to the hive yet more pollen. Bees that might otherwise carry nectar to make honey instead become pollen gatherers. Bottom line: I get a little less honey, but it’s worth it.
This is about the end of the pollen season. I’ll go up this afternoon and maybe get a bucketful. I’ll check the hive entrances to see if the bees are bringing in any more. I’m sure I’ll see drones getting dragged out kicking and screaming, but there’s nothing I can do for them. I’ll have to keep moving, because I can’t stand to watch.
[Beekeeper and ski patroller Ed Colby’s column runs on Tuesdays. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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I find myself feeling overly tired these days, which I don’t think it’s simply a consequence of nearing the beginning of my seventh decade of existence on this planet.