While many folks know that we are farming organically here in Albany – currently producing blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, hops, 6 row and 2 row barley as well as emmers, a biblical wheat variety – many people don’t know that we also keep honeybees on our property. The image below is symbolic of how intertwined our agricultural practices are with the natural world, and specifically, the honeybee: apis mellifera. In this image, the bee’s wings are stalks of grain, and remind us that we all rely on pollinators in order to eat many of the fruits and vegetables that we love (and depend on).
One of the fascinating things about honeybees is that they are classified as a “superorganism.” This term is used to describe a social unit of eusocial creatures which have highly organized division of labor, and where individuals are not able to survive by themselves for any length of time. In 2007, Jerry Seinfeld voiced the lead character in “Bee Movie” which offered an animated peek into the lives of bees. While a few facts and details were exaggerated for dramatic effect in this children’s movie, a lot of viable information was shared with viewers who otherwise wouldn’t have learned about the highly organized life of a honeybee.
Throughout the year, it is the duty of a beekeeper to maintain the health of a hive, while doing his or her best job to limit interference with their natural cycle. In colder months, when there is less forage (pollen and nectar) for bees, their colony numbers diminish as the queen bee slows her egg production; she will stop laying eggs completely in some climates where temperatures become too low. As the winter changes to early Spring and flowers begin to bloom, the colony will grow again. It is the beekeeper who must monitor these changes and react by making the hives larger or smaller in size to accommodate the colony.
Most commercial and hobby beekeepers use a hive design called “Langstroth frames” which are stackable boxes that have four sides, and no top or bottom. These boxes hold up to 10 vertical frames of honeycomb inside, and the beekeeper can easily add/remove entire boxes, or simply swap out frames that are filled with honey for empty frames. Bees are a complex society, and even those who have been practicing beekeeping for decades often report that every year they learn something new about bees and their behavior.
This Spring, as our hives grew in size, our beekeepers decided to perform two “splits” in order to create two new colonies. This is done by locating the queen bee and moving her, along with plenty of eggs, larvae, honeycomb, honey and adult bees, into a new box. As they continue to grow their colony in the new box, the bees left behind will create a new queen by feeding only royal jelly to a chosen larvae. Our brewmaster, Eric, and our marketing director, Jennifer, are our beekeepers along with the director of farm operations, Harris. Together, they monitor the bee hives and ensure that they have ample room to grow and fill with honey. Although we don’t harvest much honey from our hives (they NEED that honey to get through winter) we hope to one day brew a braggot (which is a beer made from barley and also honey) to continue to celebrate these incredible creatures and spread the word about the necessity of protecting bees!