The Buzzing of The Bees

Steve and Lilly are two self-described hippies living on a 10-acre “lifestyle block” (homestead property) about 45 minutes drive from Auckland. How they came to own this land, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. They, like most people, defy stereotypes. But, “hippie” may at least draw us a black and white coloring book outline. We’ll paint in the colors as we go. Lily is dark complected and carries herself with the kind of confidence of a women who has seen and done her share of work and adventuring. She is, it appears, not easily impressed. Especially by 20 something Americans naively cavorting around New Zealand with back packs. She is the kind of person who makes me desperate to find ways to make her laugh. It is not easy to do, but what joy there is when you see her crack a smile and her eyes dance with amusement. Steve has the most intense, piercing blue eyes I have ever seen, a head of gray streaked hair tied back in a ponytail, and a smirking, jocular delivery that accompanies most of his speech. He also has an affinity for t-shirts emblazoned with faded images of motorbikes. Steve and Lily are the kind of people you hope to luck into staying with.

They met through mutual friends in the sailing community and soon found themselves living together in an intentional community on the Great Barrier Island (a small island off the coast of NZ near Auckland). Fast forward a number of years and with the money from their house on “the barrier” plus savings from their business they’ve bought this 10-acre piece of land on which to live and farm. The business that made this possible? For 2 months out of the year, Steve and Lily run motorbike tours through India. They rent these oldish looking Ron Enfield (originally English made) motorbikes and cruise around on seemingly unrideable roads. All the while, steeping their rich kiwi clients in equal parts authentic Indian culture and pandering hospitality that a tour with this price tag necessitates. And, presumably, having a manicly paced good time. As you can probably imagine, they are very competent people. They represent well the generalist mentality eschewed in one of my favorite quotations:
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” –Robert A. Heinlein

Even though they don’t know Joel Salatin from Adam, in my mind, they’ve embraced wholeheartedly the advice in his book, “You Can Farm.” In a nutshell it is: It doesn’t matter what your situation or background, if you want to farm go DO IT! What they lacked in experience, they made up for in a desire for self-sufficiency and a willingness to “stuff up” (or muck up, well you know what I mean). Their property is a testament to that ethos of learning by doing. They have a young orchard of fruit trees, veggie gardens, chickens, a handful of avocado trees, sheep, a milk cow, and an escapist pig. They are busy as bees, which they also have.

The bees they have are an interesting case study in community structure. They work in a decidedly utilitarian fashion (like we are told we should), gathering nectar, building comb, making honey and brood, and taking care of the queen. Without a queen the hive will die, a process that Steve explained to me as we were checking on the three hives he keeps. After donning our equipment, picture a car mechanic’s jumpsuit with an attached hood-like facemask, we had a couple of bee missions. We checked for honey in the first thriving hive and I got kind of comfortable with having hundreds (thousands?) of bees flying around me. On a side note: one of my previous hosts had told me that bees can sense fear and anxiety, so, if you are calm they are calm. My internal dialogue had a lot of reminders to relax and be cool. For the second hive, we wanted to move it from the ground up on to a platform and restack the boxes. This was a bit tricky and we disturbed the hive enough in this maneuver that we definitely had some very bothered bees. The steady drone of buzzing had suddenly become an urgent and angry whir of annoyance. It is hard to describe, but try to imagine the tonal change when vigorously humming a mellow John Mayer tune and then suddenly switching to a raucous heavy metal riff. You can’t miss the difference.

The third box we looked in on was a hive that had recently lost its queen. Steve had been hoping it would get (grow?) a new queen (not really sure how this works) but it had not. This was evidenced as we lifted the top off of the hive. We saw few bees, no brood (young bees, which are a sign of reproduction and hence a queen), and a fair amount of honey. Steve told me that one of the responses that bees have when there is no queen, and they aren’t putting energy into breeding and taking care of the brood, is to make honey. The hive would die but we would be left with all that honey. A very bittersweet scenario for a beekeeper. And so, this was how I found myself on my last day with Steve and Lily: scraping honey comb to get it ready to extract the honey. The honey comb the bees create in each frame of a bee box has cells in it, like you would picture honey comb to have, and the cells filled with honey are capped with a fine layer of wax. The trick when extracting honey is to scrape off this outer cap to get to the honey without totally wrecking the waxy cell and creating a big mess of honey and wax. After, “uncapping” three frames we put them in this hand-cranked, spinning drum that acts as a centrifuge and pulls out the honey from all the exposed cells. It is a pretty cool process and I did my share of carefully scraping away the delicate waxy caps. Now, that I think about it I may have gotten Huck-Finned twice in one day because later that day I found myself the main worker again: milking their friendly cow Jessie. For my first time doing an entire milking, I think I did okay. I mean, I was a bit clumsy and definitely had no rhythm (I blame that on my ethnicity) but at the end of my 20ish minutes the milk jug was full. Tell you what, if I was conned, that’s the most fun I can imagine having and I’d gladly do it again. Steve and Lily sure have created a special place here. Would I call it the land of milk and honey? You bet I would!

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Dave Swietlicki
    Jan 26, 2012 @ 05:46:56

    Very nice! It was well articulated…Almost like being there! Thanks Leda!

    Like

    Reply

  2. Andrew
    Jan 26, 2012 @ 17:21:39

    Tom-sawyered

    Like

    Reply

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