A day with Dee – 4/27/10
(Dee Lusby, a commercial beekeeper and founder of small cell movement – I wrote about her in my post on Organic Beekeeping Conference)
I realized that since I was already in AZ, I could spend a day with Dee in her bee yards – I call her & she agrees. I get to Dee’s farm near Amado AZ at 9 am; she and David (a beekeeper from Tucson, who has come out for the day as well) are already loading the truck. She gets me a bee suit and we are off. After 45 minutes of driving on desert roads (often only tracks) we arrive at the first yard. (Dee disputes my calling this area a desert – she says there is a lot of vegetation here. And really, there are wildflowers everywhere!).
Dee is very excited about the prospects for her bees this year: due to rain this winter -she is seeing more flowering plants now than since the 1980s. I am constantly asking her to identify various wildflowers. My favorite is the fairy duster (aptly named); Dee: “oh yeah, that blooms only about once every ten years.” According to David, this is the first time he’s seen it bloom. Dee muses: this is the kind of year we dream about – with all the wildflowers, the bees are building up fast and with the rain we are having, the flow is likely to go on all summer. I get to build my bee numbers back up AND get lots of honey – maybe 60 barrels this year! It’s the year to break even and then next year, actually, make a profit!
At the bee yard: this is the first visit of the season – very different from our system where from April, we visit our bees almost every week. In contrast, Dee visits her bees once in spring and then for honey harvest in July and again in the fall. She uses only deep (brood) boxes – no supers; the hives have 5 boxes each; in our system, we get our hives down to 2 or 3 boxes for the winter and then add boxes as they build up in the spring.
Time to get to work: several hives had died last fall and are marked. David and I pull apart the boxes from those hives and prepare them for divides. Dee is inspecting the rest of the hives to see if any more died – a few have: there are 20 hives, Dee wants there to be 30. We prepare places for 10 more hives.
Dee: “ok boys, you ready for action?” Sure – yikes, she’s not kidding! Once she gets down into the brood in the hives, bees are in our face – big time. We work fast and by the time we open all 20 hives, we have halos of bees around our heads and my veil is crowded with bees. I’m not used to this kind of bee frenzy – and I’m on edge; but there’s no time to reflect. Dee does all the deciding – this one is ready to be divided: she takes off the top 3 boxes, then “OK, take it away”. David quickly grabs the next box and carries it to one of the empty spots. I follow and place other empty boxes on top and number the hive. Sometimes, Dee yells “Wait, I’m not done with that one.” I have to take off the boxes again, and she pulls out several frames of brood to take back to the old hive or to start a new one. I’ve done this work myself for years and after awhile, I start pulling some frames out to help her. “Please don’t do that – you can’t anticipate what I want” she admonishes. I get it: she does not easily delegate work and is particular about how she wants things done; however, after awhile, she gets that I know Housel positioning and trusts me to place the frames properly.
We are done fairly quickly. We get in the truck – bees swirling all around us. It takes 15 minutes of driving before the bees clear out and we can take off our veils & gloves. David asks “did you get stung? What do you think of these Africanized bees?” I realize that I had no stings and they are waiting for my answer. (I remember that this is a sore point for Dee – many in the commercial and scientific community dismiss her success in beekeeping to having africanized bees; she is convinced that it’s their way of dismissing the real reasons – the fact that she uses small cell, is organic and practices no treatments at all.) I answer carefully: I was surprised by how defensive the bees were. Dee comes right back: “you didn’t get stung, right? The bees get all disoriented when I rip apart their brood nest and I deliberately did not use smoke because I don’t want the nurse bees to leave when I am dividing hives. The bees are disoriented – not angry.” Ok, that makes sense.
It takes at least an hour to drive to the next yard – plenty of time to admire the scenery: mountains all around, landscape is green and full of wildflowers. David muses “a bee paradise”. And so the day goes. We spend as much time driving through the desert, canyons, washouts, etc as actually working the bees. We work easily together, settling into the routine. In between, we enjoy the scenery and discussing bees and their keepers. I’d hoped to get photos from David for this post – no luck so far.
The third yard is different: there were 17 dead hives and only 7 alive; further, the survivors have fewer bees than in the other yards. Dee shakes her head in disgust: “bee wars – this happens every year. That jerk across the valley (another beekeeper) comes in every winter and steals my queens and bees. He needs bees to take to California for the almond pollination but can’t keep his bees alive because he dopes them up constantly.” I reply: “I think I’d leave – there’s lots of room out here.” Dee is adamant: no way – I am staying here – just to be in his face. Me and my bees – we’re survivors. She’s got that right! She is undaunted and starts a bunch of new hives there.
End of the day – we are tired but satisfied with what we accomplished. When bees are doing well, it’s a joy to work with them. Dee’s enthusiasm is infectious: I feel energized and blessed with ideas of how to work with bees more efficiently.