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The secret life of bees

The popularity of beekeeping yields the sweet rewards of honey and so much more

The Secret Life of Bees, Early Summer 2017 Cape Cod HOME |

In Sue Monk Kidd’s 2001 novel, The Secret Life of Bees, the mysterious world of order and responsibility that bees experience in their day-to-day maintenance of a hive serves as a juxtaposing backdrop to a coming-of-age story in racially charged 1964 South Carolina. The predictable, if not fully understandable, behavior demonstrated by the caste social system of honeybees presents a parallel universe full of subtleties and subtext when compared to the rest of the world’s chaos. An examination of beekeeping on Cape Cod reveals that the novel’s depiction of a complex and intriguing world of activity and purpose is both accurate and perhaps even understated.

There has been plenty of discussion of the precarious plight of bees in the news during the past few years, resulting in a popular ‘buzz’ surrounding the topic of beekeeping, but a thorough understanding of bee behavior and the necessary commitment required to successfully keep bees will either strengthen one’s resolve or just offer a better education and appreciation of everything the humble bees accomplish.

George Muhlebach, a past president of the Barnstable County Beekeepers Association (BCBA) has been beekeeping for over 35 years. He and Jay Hubbell, a volunteer at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster, recently sat down to discuss the surprising and complex aspects that go into beekeeping and honey collection. The BCBA has been offering beekeeping classes for a number of years, with the classes selling out every year. Disappointed future beekeepers asked staff at the museum to augment the access to beekeeping classes by offering some as well, a request that was met with resounding success since the classes for another 40-plus attendees have also consistently sold out as well. Muhlebach and Hubbell oversee the program at the museum that begins every January. “An established beekeeper’s year begins in the fall when you start to prepare the hive for the winter,” Muhlebach explains. “But a new beekeeper must start in January to be prepared for the coming spring and summer. And new beekeepers must be willing to make a commitment before they fully understand what is involved because they must make an investment of about $500, order supplies, build and paint their hive, allow enough time for the paint smells to dissipate, and, finally, receive their bees for installation in early spring.”

A hive is a wooden crate-sized box, called a ‘super,’ with approximately 10 frames that support the honeycombed cells that encapsulate the honey the bees produce. The bees work the entire hive and produce honey by bringing nectar back to the hive. Nectar is essentially a weak solution of watered-down sugars that the bees put into the cells and add an enzyme that converts the nectar into honey. Honey naturally extracts moisture from the atmosphere, so if the bees do not cap the cells with wax to preserve the honey, it will become too diluted and eventually ferment and spoil. The capped honey has been shown to be so perfectly preserved by the bees that honey found in the tombs of ancient Egyptians is still edible. Excess honey is collected by beekeepers in a super at the top of the hive; the honey in the main part of the hive is never collected, but left in place for the hive to utilize as a food source to keep the bees sustained throughout the winter when they are not gathering nectar for production.

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