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BEE RANCHER: Keeping the buzz alive

By on July 25, 2017 in Articles with 1 Comment

All suited up and looking a little like an astronaut, Maria Langer tends to one of her hives. Photo by Donna Cassidy

By Jaana Hatton

I learned about Maria Langer’s interested in beekeeping while we were both taking a course this past May about local wildflowers, taught by Susan Ballinger.

“I’m going through this weird phase in my life,” Maria mentioned to me. “I feel really connected to nature.”

But is that weird? Only a few generations ago we lived with nature, we survived through nature, yet in the modern world it is something we have become strangers to. Removed from our daily realms filled with technology and machines, sadly we can feel weird when walking amidst the trees and suddenly unable to have a cell phone connection.

Maria enjoys mushrooming, making her own cheese, keeping chickens and growing vegetables. Her approach to life has become natural and sustainable.

You wouldn’t think she is also a helicopter pilot, knowledgeable of all things mechanical and no stranger to blinking buttons and switches that make things fly. When she isn’t busy operating her helicopter as the chief pilot of her company Flying M Air, she tends to smaller air-borne things: much smaller, namely bees.

Beekeeping suits her annual migration schedule well. Maria leaves her Malaga home in the fall, which is also when bees go dormant. While Maria spends the winter in Arizona, the bees sleep, never knowing that their caretaker is missing.

I visited Maria’s property to see what is involved in keeping bees. She lives on 10 acres that offer expansive views of the Wenatchee valley and flowering hillsides where bees can happily harvest nectar.

“I became interested in beekeeping when I was going through a divorce in 2013,” Maria said. “The bees were a new focus, a distraction from the stress.”

She had friends in Wenatchee, beekeepers themselves, who helped her get a start. Maria is now a seasoned apiarist and was glad to explain about the process and even show me the little buzzers.

Bees naturally like to store their honey in the tiny honeycombs. There can be upwards of 30,000 bees in a hive. Photo by Jaana Hatton

That is when a cold stone settled in my belly. When Maria brought out the beekeepers white suits I realized I would have to get up close and personal with possibly thousands of bees. “Wear socks and closed-toe shoes” had been her instructions in the email. I certainly was, but still… they get your toes?

Maria reassured me it was okay, so off we went in her red Jeep, bouncing along the dirt road to the site of the swarms. My hands were beginning to sweat but I forced a smile. I had to convince myself this was purely fun. Maria wasn’t sweating at all.

As we reached the bee colonies, Maria lit up the smoker and suited up, then helped me to get inside my outfit and zip and tie every possible bee-sized passage on it. We looked like two astronauts ready for lift-off.

I followed my host as she confidently strode towards the bees. I could hear the steady buzzing ahead. Or was it the elevated blood pressure that caused the whooshing in my ears?

As Maria lifted off the cover of the wooden hive, she released a quick puff of smoke into the hive. The smoke is not harmful to the bees, it only confuses them temporarily.

Let me get scientific for a moment: bees react to scents they emit as messages to each other. When they are alarmed, they produce pheromone and when other bees smell it things start happening. The bees will start eating honey as fast as they can in order to store it and then start moving it. You had better not get in the way.

However, the smoke disguises any other smells and the beekeeper can go about his or her business.

Maria pulled out one frame at a time, inspecting it for the quality and quantity of honey. The frame is a rectangular piece with tiny honeycomb shapes imbedded on it. The bees naturally like to store honey in such a form. She seemed satisfied with the product, which she keeps for her own use and to give to friends.

“Look here,” she said, pointing at a fairly full frame. “This one is ready. They have put wax on it.”

Once the honey-making process is done, the bees cap the product with wax in order to preserve it. Clever little guys.

Maria said that she checks the hives once a week or so.

“This spring was the first time I had an empty hive. I mean completely empty: no bees, no honey, no dead ones left behind. I don’t know what happened.”

Maybe somebody else does. It must be quite a sight when the swarm takes off and moves. There can be 30,000 bees in a hive. That’s a cloud of bees, clearly visible to the naked eye.

“Bees swarm because they run out of space,” Maria said.

If her missing bees had suffered from some kind of a disease, there would have been some dead ones left in the hive. The most common maladies for bees are varroa bee mites and nosema, which is a fungus.

Varroa is an external parasite which sucks the blood out of bees and the larvae. The problem can spread from one colony to another with drifting worker bees. There are medications for it, and early detection is the best cure. The most harmless way to treat it is powdered sugar treatments, which the bees actually like. The beekeeper simply dusts the hives with powdered sugar that activates a grooming behavior in the bees and they also scratch off quite a few mites in the process. The sugar is also food for the bees.

It is customary to have a screened bottom under the hive, sized exactly so that the mites fall through and bees do not. Under that is a sticky board where the corpses rest.

Nosema resides in the gut of the bee and is impossible to detect. One sign is brown spotting on the outside of the hive. The nosema spores are passed around within bee waste. There is also a chemical treatment for it, but as the fungus is hard to analyze, many bees may be lost before the cure is given.

Maria showed me the basic tools for beekeeping, which are few: a suit, a smoker, a brush and a scraper-looking tool which is handy for opening hive covers tight with honey as well as for a multitude of other tasks.

The hive is quite simple, too. It is a stack of wooden boxes with 10 frames inside each container for the bees to store honey. The rest is up to nature and good luck.

“I am not so much a honey producer as a bee rancher. I would like to grow bees to sell,” Maria explained about her passion. She was getting ready to fly to Stehekin the next day to deliver bees to replace the ones that had died over there this past winter.

What Maria does is no small thing. Bees are dying all over the planet from known and unknown reasons. Bee ranchers like Maria are keeping their buzz alive.

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