This is a story of young permaculture practitioners with big dreams, a gang of plucky volunteers, and a wiley Mayan bee man doing the proverbial waggle dance with nature’s best pollinators, in an attempt to monopolise their golden liquid treasure for ourselves. The story takes place in Guatemala, in an extinct volcano that has inverted after collapsing under its own weight. The volcano is now filled with water, forming lake Atitlan. Our little Eden is nestled on the southern slopes of the mountains that surround the lake, a place we know of as the yoga forest.
It all began before the rainy season; this is the time of year that the wild bee hives are harvested in Guatemala and then again six months later. We have around 6-7 wild bee hives living in cracks and crevices of the cliffs and trees in the yoga forest.
Our aim, apart from collecting honey, was to start some hives in boxes so that we could have a greater harvest of honey. When using a man made hive it is possible to cause far less disturbance to the bees by taking combs that only contain honey or combs containing very few larvae. The addition of a queen excluder prevents her from laying in all the combs. This is simply a board with holes drilled in it that are only big enough for the workers to fit through. Thus combs that are not accessed by the queen are filled with honey and no larvae. With this technique bees can quickly replenish their losses without a depletion in the workforce.
So we began our adventure by creating a bee box, refurbishing an original Guatemalan model which is similar to a top bar hive but with straight sides, as apposed to tilted.
This is the refurbished hive. You can see it has a roof with an overlap for
protection from the rain, a landing board beneath the entrance hole
and bamboo legs coated in axel grease to protect against marauding ants.
We then took old honeycomb from a previous harvest and attached it to the frames inside the hives. The old honeycomb is a framework for the bees to start to build their new comb upon. People often buy manmade starters; we decided to use this technique instead because acquiring starters here was unlikely, so we tied the old comb to the frames with a string. Our Guatemalan bee man, Juan, who is our expert, seemed happy enough with our efforts at this.
Haley placing the frames complete with comb into the new hive
Robin and I prepared an area for the new bee hive. We removed all the brush and small trees to provide an open flight path opening out to East, South and West with a cliff blocking north. The area is up on the cliff above the yoga forest facing the lake. It has access to water and is private and secluded.
The wild honey harvest began
The bee man Juan, and Noe, the forest guardian, set fire to logs and had them smoking and smouldering in a bucket. Then they donned their protective gear, which was nothing more than nets pulled over their hats and gloves and thick shirts and trousers.
Petrona preparing Noe for the honey harvest
They used smoke to confuse the bees whilst they sawed open a tree and took out the delicious golden honeycomb piece by piece — the bees swarmed frantically around them, buzzing loudly and ferociously.
Juan and Noe sawing open the tree and smoking the bees to harvest the honey,
the smoke helps to disorientate and subdue the bees.
I stood by watching with amazement that they were not getting stung to death before a bee saw me and proceeded to chase me as I ran screaming up and down the forest garden terraces, until it finally caught up with me and stung me on the face. After realising it wasn’t that bad I went back to the hive and was rewarded with a piece of comb oozing with the best golden honey I have ever tasted. The comb was also loaded with pollen and I ate that too — it tasted so rich; the very best nature has to offer.
We got a couple of buckets of honey from that hive. The bees swarmed all around us for the rest of the evening occasionally stinging people and in particular the dogs, one of which is ironically named honey. But that was not the hive from which we sought our true quarry — which was a queen bee.
To catch a queen or grow one
A few days later Juan the bee man and his friend Pedro returned and harvested another hive. This time it took all day as they had to chisel into the cliff to get the comb out. I made myself a makeshift bee suit in the hope I could get some good snaps and I did.
Here is Juan in the sweltering sun and smoke chiselling into the cliff,
as bees swarm incessantly around him.
This is my makeshift bee suit. Jeremy’s hat and some plastic mesh with a head
scarf and waterproofs; Jeremy nonchalantly eating in the background.
This beautiful golden piece of honey comb was
bequeathed to me by Juan the bee man.
Today our main priority was the queen, the plan was to capture a queen and relocate her to a man made hive in the hope the bees would swarm to her and we would have ourselves an occupied hive. But it turned out the queen was too deep inside the cliff. So instead we took some brood comb, this is comb that contains the bee larvae. The idea was that a new queen would be born from this comb, because some bees would leave the original hive to care for the comb, the larvae of which would be fed royal jelly — allowing some of them to transform into a queen. These queens would fight to the death and the survivor would raise the offspring of the new hive.
This method is tried and tested and known to work. We attached the brood comb to our frames and hundreds of bees followed.
This is the exposed hive after Juan had chiselled away much of the rock
The bees begin to swarm to the hive once the brood comb
had been transferred to it
One of the many pots of honey we acquired that day
The onslaught of unwanted dinner guests
All was going well and the bees started to use wax to secure the combs properly to the hive. But then over the next few days something terrible started to happen. Large black wasps noticed the hive and started feeding on a piece of brood comb that had been left outside the hive to attract the bees. The wasps mercilessly pulled the larvae out of the cells and devoured them. The bees would try their best to fight them off. Individuals would launch into one-on-one combat with the wasps but would end up tumbling off the flight board together because as the bees tried to sting the wasps the wasps would decapitate them with one snip of their mandibles. Juan reassured me all was well but I kept watching in horror as wasps breached the entrance of the hive. Bees would come tumbling out locked into a fatal embrace with the wasps but the wasps kept winning.
The wasps taking the larvae out of the comb and eating them, observe the
wasp back centre. As the days went by less and less bees were coming
out of the hive, so I began to lose hope that the bees would survive.
Capturing a swarm
Then just a few days later we could hear a deafening buzzing sound coming from near the kitchen in the yoga forest. Thousands of bees were forming a swarm around a tree branch about 20 feet up.
After about 20 minutes the swarm settled on the tree branch in a cluster. This was a golden opportunity to finally gain our own swarm. Hope was not lost and we were in luck. When swarming, bees are incredibly docile and can be captured and transferred to a hive with minimal if no stinging, depending on how long they have been swarming for. These bees had just settled so they were prime for capturing. Jeremy bravely donned a protective head net and began to climb the tree whilst we made him a net on a stick to catch the swarm.
Jeremy preparing himself for the ascent
The bee swarm clustered on a branch
The swarm forms a tight cluster around the queen. If the swarm is knocked they will fall off a branch and remain clustered around the queen or will fly back to her to reform the cluster. Jeremy gave the branch a sharp knock whilst holding the net beneath it and most of the bees fell off into it.
The bees in the net after the branch was knocked
Putting the net into a box so the bees can be contained until night fall
Immediately after capture the bees flew of out the box
and back to the original branch
The bees back on the original branch
So Jeremy sawed off the branch and lowered it down with the bees still clustering and buzzing around it. I gave it a sharp knock and the majority of bees plopped into the box whilst the rest buzzed frantically trying to find the queen again.
I had bees crawling all over my arms — their buzzing sounded incredibly threatening as I covered the box with a towel, yet I did not suffer even a single sting. Many of the bees continued to swarm around one section of the branch, perhaps because the queen’s scent was still present. So we put the stick in the box to make sure we had her.
Bees still clustering around the fragment of branch
Gourmet holding the fragment of branch covered with docile bees
Eventually all the bees found their way into the box and formed neat clusters hanging from the inside. We had captured a whole swarm of bees successfully, now we just needed to keep them somewhere cool and shaded whilst we built a new beehive.
Hiving in the Night
We had only a few hours for preparation as the bees needed to be hived that very night. The new hive we built was better than the last one, with an extra small entrance hole so that the bees could easily protect it from wasps. We also used wax from the harvested combs to glue neat strips of comb to the frame inside the hive. These would serve as perfect starters for the bees to base their combs on.
So we set about making some more superior wax comb starters using comb from the hive we had just harvested. We believed the bees we had caught were from this hive, and thus would feel right at home with their own comb.
We made wax from the combs and used it to glue strips
of comb to the wooded frames
Hold the comb in place whilst the wax sets
The finished product. The bees will continue to make cells from this strip
The new and improved hive in place
At about 11pm we finally finished the hive and seven of us steadily began climbing the winding path that leads up onto the cliff where we had prepared an area for the bees. As I climbed the towel slipped off the box and the bees began to wake up — they began crawling up my arms, buzzing loudly. Everyone hung back so the light from the torches did not disturb them further. I turned off my torch and made my way up the rest of the treacherous steep path in the dark with the box, this involved climbing up a ladder and negotiating trees roots before finally navigating my way over a steam onto the cliff where the bees would be based. It had begun to rain but this was good because it helped to calm the bees.
We lifted the lid from the bee box and I removed the towel completely and shook the bees off the towel and they fell into the box with a thud. Then I shook the rest of them out the box and into the hive. Many of them fell on my trousers and I found myself crawling with bees, by now they were buzzing loudly and angrily and I felt myself getting nervous. But remembering what Juan said about how your pheromones affect them I calmed myself before quickly replacing the lid of the bee hive and triumphantly making my way back down the mountain in the spring rain. When we got to the bottom we all hugged and jumped around for joy that we had captured a swarm and hived them in a night. Then I received my first sting! And I realised I still had bees down my trousers….
The next day I merrily went about my business in the garden until Mark came running up and told me the bad news that the bees had absconded…. I am not sure why they left but there are a number of possible reasons. Those being that they did not like the smell of the wood in the hive because some of it was pine or because the honey and wax we used was possibly not from their hive and they fled for fear of causing offence to other bees. (Bees are only allowed to enter other hives if they are carrying nectar.) Otherwise it could be because we had put the box in an unfavourable location.
Mark and the volunteers had also checked the first hive and had found the horrific truth awaiting inside — maggots, or some kind of larvae, poured out of the hexagonal bee cells, and the hive stank of rotten flesh. It was very sad — it was over for the brood comb and the bees caring for it. So in true permaculture fashion I fed the wasp larvae to the chickens that thoroughly enjoyed them.
Here are the grubs hatching out of the cells. We are not sure if they were
parasitized by the wasps or whether these are fly larvae. Either way the
chickens enjoyed them
Days later Mark spotted our bees swarming on another tree — this time twice as high as the tree before and over a large ravine. No one had the guts to go after them this time. For now the bees have defeated us but we will not give up. I shall get my queen and one day soon we will have our own hives.