Bee lessons: reactivating old memory and reading wax-combs
Honeybees are amazing. These creatures are living on our planet for a very long time in a very creative manner, highly interwoven with the environment. The Genus Apis is found in all parts of the world. The European Honeybee, Apis mellifera, is a very adaptive species. It has been introduced into world because of its ability to adapt and produce (lots of) honey. F.e. introduced to USA in 17th century and to China in 19th century. Meanwhile it developed into one of the most exploited animals by humans.
Honeybees have an instinct for survival. Each bee knows exactly what to do in the moment it is born. Any task fulfilled is done for the best of the colony. To adapt to an ever changing environment bees learn and build an active knowledge that reflects and find answers to the challenges of the present time. In a world that is doomed by globalization and it’s negative impacts like unforeseen distribution of virus and parasites in a very short time, seemingly too short to adapt naturally, beekeeping shall be as supportive as possible (instead of being exploitive to the maximum)
Each hive develops a type of nature_culture - when left mostly on its own. As a beekeeper I care for the hives in a way to enabling them to reactivate the old knowledge and combine it with small contemporary interventions.
Beekeeping is an activity guided by senses. Reading what’s going on in the hive needs a lot of observation and experience. To support my thinking I leave some extra space in the hive box, so bees are able to build wax-combs. Reading wax-combs reveals some of their secrets to me.
I am a trained gardener and a passionate beekeeper. I like the very „old“ as much as I am fascinated by the „contemporary“. When I started my urban beekeeping enterprise stadtbienenhonig 2007 in Berlin, I put hives on empty roof-tops as a form of an appropriation of unused space combined with the experiment of letting bees fly in open public space. At the time, old beekeepers would not tell their neighbors that they have bees in the garden, not wanting them to be scared and upset. I invited a lot of friends to share the experience and to encourage a discussion about the role of bees and how their lives are connected to ours. Meanwhile I moved to Rome, where I am now tending a small apiary at the German Accademy Rome Villa Massimo. We are also working on transforming the 100year old park towards a more beefriendly urban nature site. The past 3 years of harvesting honey were already interesting regarding the taste of honey but in the future it will be even more exiting, when all the young trees which we planted last winter will establish themselves as nectar sources, not only for our honeybees, but for all bees in the neighborhood. I love honey and I love observing their survival strategies. Some colonies are eternal, others rather short-lived. The less intervention there is, the better, which means, caring and observation on a very high level. Bees are the artists - while making honey, producing wax, building combs and surviving over the years. Together we can make something that is called nature_culture.
Some swarm bees. In the process of reorganizing themselves. They fill the air with the smell of their hive, to reassure each other, where they belong to. I cannot sense the smell but I sense their idea of activity.
Studying best moments for harvesting
Honey is a carrier substance: It’s a natural produce made exclusively by honeybees. Bees forage within 3 km from the hives and collect water, nectar and pollen. They also produce enzymes. Making honey is a complex process within the hive. Each honey tells a story. It is the result of a combination of weather, moods of the hives, diversity of plants and beekeeping activity that leaves traces in the honey. Honey keeps a memory. I did a lot of studies with my 20 beefamilies in Berlin on roof-top-apiaries spread throughout the city.
Mediterranean flora and climate is kind of the opposite. I am still working on the new rhythm of the hives and the new bee flora for making good honey. In Rome we have sub-tropical climate and we experience a second spring in September/October. Last year it was even the atmosphere like early summer. Is it a sign of climate change or was it an exception?
I could harvest honey at the beginning of November. It was surprising: The color, the taste and the time of the year. Eriobotrya japonica was the main nectar source! It’s an introduced tree species, original from Asia, that is flowering in October. The white flowers smell like Marzipan, so did the honey…
Colors of honey
Honey shows transformed sun-light, if the honey ripens in fresh wax combs. White combs are permeable and after the ripening honey keeps a glooming light. When you pour honey in a glass it will form a band. It’s not running like water. It’s folding.
Summer honey includes: Robinia, Ailanthus, Ligustrum, Myrtle, Malva, Thymian
Early summer honey includes the winter flowering and early spring flowering plants: Almond, Peach and Citrus, Rosmarin, Echium, Lavandula, Viola - it’s got much more amber color.
Inside the hive _wax combs
Beeswax is a natural wax produced by honey bees. It has a high level of plasticity but it is also permeabel. The melting point of beeswax ranges from 62 to 65 degree C. It is steady at a temperature of 37 degree Celsius. This is important, because the brood-nest has a temperature of 37 degrees C.
It is insoluble in water and resistant to many acids. In the hive it is used to store and ripe the honey. Nectar with a high percentage of water, ca 70 %, is brought in and dried over the course of days to become honey with a water percentage under 18 %.
Worker bees of the age 12-18 days secrete tiny mirror glands. Then the construction-bees put them together to form the combs. The hexagonal shape is a result of tension and heating. The size fits exactly to the size of the bees (either female or male).
Inside the hive, nectarflow (instead of honeyflow!). The superorganism reacts always to the environment. Honey and wax are made out of a state of abundance. If there is a nectar_flow of plants in close proximity to the hives and the temperature is above 15 degree C, then the reaction is enormous. They will build the combs (wax_flow) overnight and fill the new cells immediately (honey_flow). It’s a real flow of energy!
Inside the hive, waves. Bees build vertically oriented honeycombs that are connected to the centre of the earth. They are in the perpendicular. The body of the superorganism is round, they expand in the round. Beekeepers put them in a square box, but they are actually round. Some times I leave them in an empty box to just let them build their round waves like an original nest. Then I will harvest the combs and put them back on the frames.
New wax is crystal-clear, turning to opaque after chewing and then to yellow with the introduction of pollen and propolis. Over the time it will become even brown or black. Then the character will change from being permeable to becoming hard as wood. On a fresh piece of wax you can feel the vibration of one bee’s body moving, if you hold it between two fingertips. White wax combs inside the hive are alive, they are part of something, outside the hive they become fragile objects.
Outside harvested combs_wax is memory.
The immune system of bees is not very well developed. The superorganism maintains itself in good health by constantly adapting. It’s the behaviour that counts. The ability to adapt is very important. Bees can detoxify via wax sweating. In a highly polluted world, it is therefore important for them to detoxify, that is, to sweat out wax. Environmental toxins are stored in the wax bodies. They become a landscape memory.
Honeybees’ ability to learn is exceptional. They will remember the Y on the bottom of the cell they are born in. So they will repeat the same position when they will construct a cell in the future. This brings in a dynamic which is basically wonderful.
The combs are never flat in shape, they develop a spiral shape, because they are a teamwork of worker bees of different origin. The spiral brings out the magic.
Often the question: how long do bees live? comes up ..
The simple answer is: there is short-lived and long-lived female worker bees, that live either around 6 weeks, if short lived, during March and August, or long-lived, for 6 - 9 months during August and March, the queen bee lives 3 - 5 years and the male bees only about 8 weeks, during March and July. But what about the superorganism? How long does the superorganism live?
Some colonies know how to live eternally, others are rather short-lived (it’s a repetition from before, but I think it’s very important)
My aim is to work with long-living superorganism. I want them to accumulate local knowledge and use it to survive as much as for making honey. They should make honey primarily for themselves. I harvest what is left.
Still, some colonies stop their lives earlier on the way. There are many reasons. They leave old frames behind.
The black frames are hard as wood. There is no more transparency left. It’s time for the wax-moth, to get rid of them.
Even older frame. It looks like it’s on fire. To use the old structure for a good hive climate, bees cover the surface of the wax cells with propolis. This brings out a silver and bronze shining. It makes them even stronger. It’s absorbing, not giving any longer. We want a giving material for the ripening of the honey.
Here, the colony has problems within the brood area. A last young bee hatches. No life energy left. There needs to be a new beginning. As a beekeeper I am here to help out.
Transiency, collecting wax_combs, melting
I love collecting white combs. Over the time they transform into something paper_like, even more fragile than right at the beginning. Only for a short time, they seem strong.
Melting wax combs is a process of different steps. Soft water and patience is needed. The white frames become milky when they melt.
Transiency. Wax can be reheated again and again. It’s not loosing its ability to harden. It’s a very strong material, that will last forever. In former times some cultures appreciated the wax over the honey. This is when they used candles for light.
Each wax_blocks is manifested energy. At the beginning it is even warm. For the production of 1 kg of beeswax the superorganism needs 5 kg of honey or 15 l of nectar. It’s precious. If 150.000 km of flight are needed for 1 kg of honey, then for 1 kg of wax there will be more than 500.000 flight kilometers needed… (crazy numbers).
Candle, eternal light
The spirit of the hive touches the soul during the winter months, when the colony is on its own. There is still a connection. The connection of light. It did not change over thousands of years. Still the same.
Erika Mayr is a trained landscape gardener, horticulturist and urban beekeeper. While working on a project for Detroit in 2004, she discovered various aspects of urban beekeeping. In 2007 she started her own beekeeping enterprise stadtbienenhonig for small-scale productions of special urban honey. Over time she developed a specific taste and expertise about honey and a way to share with people. She acknowledges the potential of informal urban nature sites for the world of bees and for human inhabitants.
As a co-founder of Stadthonigfest (2011-2018) she organized a yearly honey market at Prinzessinnengarten, at its first location in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Her book: "Die Stadtbienen" (2012/2018) was an inspiration for many people to start with bees. In 2015 she was invited Bee-Ambassador at the German Pavillon "Be(e) active" at the EXPO in Milano. In 2020 she relocated to Rome, where she is transforming the green areas at the Accademia Tedesca Roma Villa Massimo towards a more bee-friendly and sustainable garden. She also installed her apiary of 6 bee-families.