Friday, June 20, 2014

The Scent of Beeswax

Honeycomb built over wax foundation, which can be seen along the lower edge of this photo.
There is, in beekeeping, a sense of providing a place for the wild in the midst of everyday domesticity.  I spent Saturday morning putting wax foundation in frames for the bees, working on my back patio, as the bees gathered nectar from nearby cranesbill geranium and raspberry blossoms. Occasionally, a forager would come investigate my work, and I felt for the most fragile moment a sense of connection. We were all working together toward the good of the hive. They hummed like violins while I organized my supplies.

Within the traditional hive there are eight to 10 frames that bees build their comb on. They build with stunning geometric precision. Some beekeepers simply provide bars (horizontal wood slats that serve as guides) or empty frames and allow the bees to build comb as they like.  Others place “foundation” into the frames. Foundation can be made of beeswax that’s molded in the honeycomb pattern, or it can be honeycomb imprinted plastic or wax/coated plastic.

A single bee visits 50 to 100 flowers on each collection trip away from the hive, and bees travel the equivalent of twice around the world to make one pound of honey. It takes them eight pounds of honey to make one pound of beeswax. To try to give my bees a head start on wax production, so they can put their energy into foraging and hive strength, I have chosen to use wax foundation. I don’t really care for the plastic foundation, but every beekeeper has an opinion on foundation.

To put foundation into a wooden frame, I tap brass eyelets into the sides of the frames, then thread a fine wire back and forth across the frame. The wafer-thin sheet of wax will be placed against the wire, then the wires are embedded into the wax by heat. The wire gives the foundation stability and strength. It’s a slow process, and the smell of beeswax drifts up to me. It’s a scent that my DNA seems to recognize built on generations of humans who’ve benefited from the grace of bees.

Beekeeping is different than caring for livestock. My chickens depend on me for water and food. They range only as far as my fencing allows. I feed them, provide calcium for them, make sure they are in at night for safety.

But if I didn’t create a hive and place frames in it, the bees would still do what they do. They go where they wish to go. They raise their queen and gather nectar and pollen with or without me, and they aren’t domesticated creatures bent to my will. The only insects that produce food humans consume, they haven’t evolved over centuries to serve humans, in fact the opposite could be said. Humans have developed systems—different hive designs and methods—to fit the bees’ needs, not vice-versa. We have created ways to contain them for our convenience. But the beekeeper is a steward, not a director.

 I twist a wire around a nail and watch as a bee supervises my progress. She clambers over the stack of waiting foundation, drawn by its beeswax scent. Then, as if reminded of her own work, buzzes off to gather nectar or pollen—possibly to build more honeycomb over the foundation that is already in place. It is an industrious peace we share.

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