Taking care of bees-ness

In Egyptian myth, the gods authorized the pharaoh Osiris and his wife Isis to travel like a pair of honeybees and make the earth a paradise.  Osiris’ heirs wore a crown studded with a bee’s curly tongue, its proboscis, and referred to the founders of Egyptian civilization as The People of The Bee. Today, five thousand years later, honey still has a reputation just this side of The Elixir of Life.

Got pollen allergies?  Take a spoonful of local honey daily.  Got diabetes?  Feed your sweet tooth honey.  Got skin ulcers, bedsores, or a wound?  Pack it with honey-saturated sterile gauze.  How about a common cold or sore throat?  Drink hot tea and honey.

Four years ago my Lantana, Texas backyard garden buzzed with little brown honey bees and big fat bumble bees, then builders erected new houses down the street and over the hill, and the bees disappeared.  I resorted to hand pollinating my vegetables by giving the plants a good shake each week.  The routine worked, but lacked nature’s romance.  Then I hit on the idea of a backyard beehive.

My kids bought me an introductory beekeeping class offered by Texas’ own Round Rock Honey, and I met Will Branstetter who owns the company’s new honey operation in Copper Canyon, just a stone’s throw from my back yard.

Technically, Branstetter is an apiarist, and his bees live in an apiary, but he prefers plain talk about “beekeepers” and “beeyards.”  He started about four years ago as Round Rock Honey’s sales rep in the Dallas area.  It didn’t take long to get the proverbial bee in his bonnet, and last year he acquired enough equipment to furnish the fenced beeyard located between Chris Lucido’s organic vegetable farm and horse pasture off Copper Canyon Road.  Now Branstetter divides his time between bee management, honey sales, and a weekend schedule of introductory beekeeping classes.

His beesuit looks like a hermetically sealed white coverall with a screen hat.  Branstetter’s Italian honeybees are docile, but he says, “Upset bees can find even the tiniest opening in your clothes, and you don’t want that.”  He never works the hives without being fully suited up, and says, “I haven’t been stung once in the four years I’ve been working with the bees.”  His thick leather gloves stretch from his fingertips to the middle of his biceps.

I noticed he wears a fashion-forward bandana tied over his bald head.  He confesses a practical purpose:  the bandana absorbs sweat that would roll into his eyes.  The beehat is a contraption that encloses a beekeeper’s head inside a wire screen cylinder. It is impossible to wipe a sweaty face without leaving the beeyard to remove the hat.

Pioneers in this part of Denton County nicknamed the area “Copperhead Canyon” for a reason Branstetter and his team respect. He and his assistants clomp around in stiff rubber boots to protect them from possible snakebites.  Beesuit legs zipper tight around the boots to keep beekeepers inside, and stray insects and reptiles outside.

Branstetter’s beeyard houses ten Langstroth hives, those familiar wood box hives designed in the 1850s.  The Round Rock Honey team always begins work at the hive farthest from the beeyard gate, “so if a bee problem crops up there are no bees between us and the gate,” Branstetter quips with a smile.  The key to getting along with bees, he says, is no sudden moves.

The “front” of a box beehive has a long opening so the forager bees can come and go.  The beekeepers work each hive from the “back” so they don’t move into the beeline, the invisible flight path used–and jealously guarded–by foraging bees.

Branstetter’s bees chow down on a line of honey he squirts along the hive entrance.  The insects scramble inside after he puffs smoke into the hive entrance.  He lifts off the hive’s flat roof then puffs more smoke through a hole in a second removable roof called the inside cover.  When he lifts the inside cover, bees carpet the suspended frames of beeswax comb housing larvae.  The Copper Canyon beeyard is only six months old, and hasn’t started producing honey yet.  Each mature colony/hive contains 30,000+ bees with a lifespan of about 30 days each so the queen, who may live several years, and nurse bees are busy all the time.

“The biggest mistake new beekeepers make is not giving their hives enough attention the first year,” Branstetter says.  The beekeeper fends off natural bee enemies like fire ants, mites, moths, wasps, roaches, and in Branstetter’s case, local horses and raccoons.  Each Round Rock Honey hive is bungeed to an old shipping pallet that rests on a quartet of gray cinder blocks.  High water, storm winds, and wildlife with a sweet tooth will knock over unsecured hives.

Farmers volunteer their land to beekeepers in exchange for free pollination and a share of the liquid gold harvest.  Branstetter met farmers Chris and Lisa Lucido at the Dallas Farmers Market where they have neighboring stalls.  “We thought about bees, and decided to bring in the professionals,” Chris Lucido said about the venture.  He said bees are now present all around the farm since Branstetter’s hives moved in near Lucido’s big organic vegetable field.

The average honeybee buzzes along at 20-30 miles per hour, and forages within a four mile radius of the hive.  This is good news for gardeners on all sides of Lucido’s farm.

Round Rock Honey specializes in raw wildflower honey.  They site beeyards so the final product does not contain agricultural pesticides or corn syrup from garbage dumps.  The company uses Texas A&M and two independent labs to test semi-annual honey samples for unwanted chemicals, and to identify and count pollens.

Raw wildflower honey contains anywhere from 200-500 pollens depending on the microclimate around each beeyard.  The honey is strained of beehive detritus, never filtered through diatomaceous earth, and Round Rock Honey is never heated above the natural 92-98? temperature of a beehive.  The product received the Dallas Observer’s “Best of Honey” award in 2008, “We’re proud of that,” Branstetter beams.

Branstetter teaches Round Rock Honey’s introductory beekeeping classes most Saturday and Sunday afternoons in the Copper Canyon beeyard.  As the hives mature, he will offer advanced classes.  Adults and children are welcome, and the company loans complete beesuits to all participants.  Potential beekeepers can find out about classes and registration at www.roundrockhoney.com.

Round Rock Honey is for sale in the DFW area through the website, at Central Market and three Whole Foods stores, and at many DFW farmers markets including the Bartonville Farmers Market which is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays.


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