Friday, December 18, 2009

Capturing the Queen

(a little late this post but better then never!)

Today was awesome. With only 4 days left before we swear in as volunteers the days don’t seem as structured, and today we had the chance to do some ‘independent studying’ i.e. language study, talking to tech trainers, napping or washing underwear. I decided to try my hand at beekeeping. Ever since Nick and I learned about them at the New Jersey State Fair last August I’ve been very interested in bees. They are so amazing once you discover the nuances of hive life, like the fact that all worker bees are females and they can grow males (drones) when they need them to mate with the queen who only mates once in her life (after the drones grow they just hang about eating honey and stumbling around the hive. Men.) Or how they dance to tell the other bees exactly where to go to get the good nectar.
Me and four others not from the beekeeping group stayed late at our training center to help capture a wild hive that had set up residence in an old bee box in the back of the yard. Not exactly the most ‘wild’ of captures since instead of hacking into a tree we were just taking them out of a beebox and into another, but still they were wild none the less! The hive had only been there for about a month and we were not sure what we’d find inside, if they’d be more on the docile side or more upset. The bees here in Paraguay are Africanized bees, meaning they have roots with the African bee aka the killer bee that, in the 90s, made the front page because they were heading into the States to chase you into your house, knock down your door, make fun of your carpet and sting you to death. I remember the hype about them back in elementary school and I remember being terrified! (of them and acid rain). But looking at them today they looked cute with their big black eyes and fuzzy vests. They were brought to Paraguay for beekeeping purposes and, like with all introduced species, escaped, mated with the bees here and made a crossbreed of ornery but hard working lady bees.
The first thing we had to do was get the smoker smoking. The smoker is like a mini fire puffer that people used in the old days to blow oxygen into the fire, with the wood on the outside and the middle that would scrunch and stretch like an accordion. Attached to the mini fire puffer is a tin can that you put hot coals or light paper in to burn, then you add woodchips or dried cow poo. Attached to that is a spout where the smoke will come out once you have your woodchips and poo burnin and close the lid. After a considerable amount of forearm work using the mini fire puffer I finally got my smoker smoking. We needed the smoke to puff on the bees when we opened the box to subdue them, I think it makes them think the hive is on fire which makes them want to stay in and eat a lot of honey. I can lay no judgement for them wanting to stuff their faces in bad times, I understand.
After the smokers were ready we donned our beesuits. A baggy canvasy white shirt (because dark colors make bees angry and want to sting) with a screen on the top where your head is, a whole on the top where we put a straw hat in so bees couldn’t get in and it made the screen stick out away from our faces. Rubber gloves went over our hands and over the sleeves and we tucked the bottom of the shirt into our light colored pants, and the end of our pants into our socks. Beeproofed and invincible! (and we kinda looked like those people at the end of E.T.) Now we’re ready to open the box! Jonathan, the bee group trainer, opened the lid and we quickly puffed smoke into the box. The buzzing sound got really loud and made me think of Amityville Horror when all the flies were in the bathroom. But the bees pretty much stayed in the box with their comb and weren’t very aggressive at all. Then we set to work capturing it.
The main thing in capturing a wild hive is you have to find the queen and put her in your beebox, without the queen, there is no hive. Since this hive decided to reside in an old beebox and use the slides that the beekeepers pull out when they want to get honey, our job was pretty easy. All we had to do was pull out each slide one at a time, cut off any excess comb that was stickin out in a weird direction, and ‘sew’ it onto the slide drawer thing. This is how it works. You take out the slide thing which is a rectangle shaped ‘drawer’ with only the edges, which are wood nailed together. The middle has wire going across so the bees can start a comb on the top wood piece and use the wires to build down on. We pulled each ‘drawer’ out of the old box had a look to see what had been going on with the hive since it moved in. They were pretty hard working! They had some big combs with honey and pupas! We had to cut off any moth larva (pesky moths comin into the hive uninvited) and make sure the comb was centered on the piece of wood. We would take a soft string and tie it to the top wood piece, then wrap it around to the bottom and ‘sew’ the comb in place so the bees would continue building it on that drawer and not mesh it into another one so that there wasn’t room to slide it out of the hive later. We did that with all the drawers in the box, and any excess comb hanging in wrong directions we took off and put it in a pot for later consumption.
Each time we took a drawer out it was cooooovered with bees, and we would have to give it a good shake (after looking for the queen) and dump them into the new box so we could get to work sewing and scraping off moth larva. Soon we got to the last drawer with no sign of the queen. Off on vacation eh!? Actually the queen mates once after she has hatched and spends the rest of her life laying eggs from that one mating with a bunch of worker bees at her side feeding her and cleaning her. If anything happens to the queen the bees have the ability to turn one of the regular pupa into a queen pupa by feeding her royal jelly that they can make with a secret recipe. Finally Jonathan spotted her hiding on the wall of the old bee box. She’s bigger than the rest of the bees and her abdomen is kinda orange. He scooped her into a small hair roller with one side taped and the other side he plugged with wax. Then placed her at the bottom of the new hive where she will sit in her new throne until someone chews her out, and she will reign over her new kingdom of beebox in Guarambare.
Then we just had to scoop up piles of bees that mingled about on the outside of the boxes (a very weird feeling to have a jumble of bees in the palm of your rubber gloved hand) and just like that we have transferred a wild hive in an old beebox to… a new beebox. The only difference for them really is their hive will be better maintained with no moths, oh and we’ll be eating their honey, which we got to do today with the pieces of comb we broke off, bit right into it (watch out there’s no pupas first!) with some peanutbutter and bananas. mmm mmmm. And we didn’t have one sting! Until Dan took off all his beestuff and was standing around watching a toad eat some bees, she got him on the back of the neck. Ah well.
Way cool and super jealous of the work the beekeepers get to do, well we could have bees to in our site if we wanted, except I’m in the city so…. But there is a bee here that is stingless and tiny and they live in a little box so hopefully I will be able to get them for my new house! Me and my stingless little bees hangin out at night singin songs and roasting empanadas over the fire, I can’t wait. But until then I have to pack (stress!) swear in as a volunteer (cool) and figure out my living situation in my new home of Carapegua (ultra stress!). Looking back I should have packed an empty duffle bag or something to put the massive amounts of books and medical stuff that we get during training. Who has extra room for 15 books in their bag! Not me!

P.S tomorrow is a holiday for the day of the Virgin of Caacupe. Thousands of people pilgrimage to Caacupe to pay tribute and listen to mass at the church, a bunch of trainees are going, left earlier today and will walk all night to get there then take a bus back home. I decided a religious pilgrimage, while should be experienced once in everyone’s lifetime, was not in the cards for me this year. Maybe next. But think of all the chaffing! Uh.

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