Last night, Friday night, I attended the Geelong Beekeeping Club meeting for the first time since November. They meet 8:00 to 10:00pm on Friday nights which I find quite rather inconvenient, especially since it's an hour drive for me. But having not been in some months I felt I should make an appearance.
As always, regardless of who was speaking the meeting was dominated by two guys who, even when they didn't have the floor were strongly of the belief that everyone needed to hear their opinion. The feature presentation of the evening was by the former president, a nice fellow, about "pack down." I was a bit curious to find out what htey meant by this because they really seem to go on about it this time of year (the end of summer).
Apparently it hinges on the assumption that they've been heretofor for some reason giving their bees too much space and it involved merely taking off the top box and rearranging the frames inside in some hotly contested manner (one of the two opinionated guys voiced his opposing opinion on every point from the back). The general opinion in the club seems to be to automatically do pack down on some (hotly contested) specific date.
I call this doing of things sight unseen by dates "paint by numbers beekeeping"
Me I'm still _adding_ boxes as many of my hives are _still_ expanding on the sugargum bloom, which is great. When they stop expanding I'll stop adding boxes and when I see its become cold nd the bees have consolidated out of the existing 3rd and 4th boxes I'll remove them, but hey what do I know?
Talking to a friend after the meeting I found myself frequently laughing and mentioning new things I've tried this year which may or may not be a mistake. I changed a fair few things this year -- relevant to "pack-down" I started putting queen excluders over the bottom brood box instead of the bottom two -- I suppose I will remove the QXs once honey production ends.
After the rest of club business was over the loud guy from the back asked to speak for two minutes and proceeded to harangue the entire club about how he's been misquoted and there's rumors going aorund that he was completely against feeding the bees sugar syrup to get them through winter, that he is NOT against that but he IS against that BUT only in the following complex specific circumstnaces and... ::collective eyes glaze over::
One of the reasons he listed against this was that then the sugar syrup ends up being harvested as fake honey, but the universal advice is of course that you never feed sugar syrup when you're going to pull honey. It's just to get them through the food deficit in winter. I mention this though because another experimental idea I had already thought of is mixing blue food coloring in with my sugar syrup so it makes "blue honey" which I'll know not to harvest if it somehow stays around till harvest time (since I'm now harvesting from the 2nd box (in re QX over 1st box as mentioned above) there is now a remote possibility of this that there wasn't before.
Continuing Nicaragua Article
Continuing the article from last entry. This is kind of the heart of the matter, trying to disguise a travelogue as a technical account. ;) (but seriously)
As before, I'll use strikethroughs not to denote deletions but what you've already seen. Also have included the final two paragraphs because they're just two short paragraphs. I might post another entry dedicated to the conclusion because I really want to strengthen it.
Ironically, despite spending some 30 years of my life in Southern California, I had made my first visit to Central America by traveling the wrong way around the world, traveling two thirds of the way around the globe from Kyrgyzstan to Nicaragua via Australia. This occurred because the Nicaragua project had been planned and tickets purchased before the Kyrgystan project (see June American Bee Journal), and changing the flights turned out to be exorbitantly expensive, so I had to return to Australia (where I've been living), not even long enough to return to my house before catching the flight on towards Nicaragua.
Partners for the Americas is a US based non-profit NGO founded in 1964 dedicated to development and aid in the Americas. Among other things, they administer USAID funded Farmer-to-Farmer programs. After a day off to “adjust” during which I joined Vincent and Dr Van Veen, I was off to the north of the country!
It was a four hour drive from Managua. Halfway we stopped for lunch in the town of Esteli, where a wall covered with a mural depicting the civil war (1978-1990) was also pockmarked with bullet-holes from that same war. An air raid siren began its banshee wail and I quickly scanned the horizon thinking one of the numerous smoldering volcanoes had finally erupted, but no one around me seemed phased.
“They just do that to mark noon” my driver said after it ended and conversation could resume. Then the bells of the nearby cathedral began to toll. “they do that too” he added.
“I much prefer the cathedral bells” I commented. [***like this bit, too obviously in the realm of travelogue? May possibly delete the cathedral bells. I general I think the bullet holes and air raid siren are relevant ot the sense of potential euroption of violence pervasive to the place***]
To get to where the project would be based we continued up into forested mountains in which pink-tiled adobes peeked out from among the trees, until we came to a town named Somoto. It had quiet cobbled streets with more pedestrians than cars, in which shopkeepers and residents often could be found sitting on their streetside steps in the evening.
The local host organization was Fabretto – named after Padre Fabretto, a much beloved priest who had worked tirelessly and selflessly to improve conditions for the children and youth of Nicaragua. When he died suddenly in 1990, the Fabretto organization continued to operate the many schools and projects he had run.
Marcus, my Fabretto liaison, gave me a tour of their Somoto headquarters, which was also a primary school, and then we headed out to visit some beehives! A few kilometers out of town, by a mud adobe house, we pulled on yellow bee suits as chickens pecked around us. And then … we pulled on second bee suits over the first. Yes. Africanized bees.
From my personal experience, purebred African bees in Africa are not as bad as the hybridized Africanized bees I became extremely familiar with in California. The bees in Africa are certainly more aggressive than good gentle European stock, and I always approach them fully suited, but I can usually take off my gloves if not the veil, while around me beekeepers are usually wearing all kinds of haphazard homemade suits. Approaching an Africanized hive in California I always wear a full suit with duct tape over the zippers and ankles and wrists, and often that is not sufficient as the angry whirlwind of bees pelts my veil like someone is throwing gravel at me, and by sheer force of will bees end up in my suit anyway. No one has ever proposed wearing two layers of suit in Africa, but here we are, in Nicaragua.
In California we still fight it. We religiously requeen any swarm we catch in Southern California, we make sure we have the marked queen we know isn't Africanized, and if we find they've requeened themselves we re-requeen with a marked European queen. Not here in Nicaragua; they've accepted that Africanized bees are what they have, and so, double suits. On the plus side Africanized bees are much more resilient against pests and they don't seem to have to worry about varroa.
This first set of bees we looked at, I could tell the hives were very badly looked after. The dark burr-comb connecting frames was so thick and solid it was clear these hives hadn't been inspected in months. One was laying on its side nearly submerged in tall grass; another leaned precariously on a failing stand. Several didn't have enough frames in them, the extra space filled with robust buttresses of burr comb.
“Let's fix this toppled hive,” I say
“They say they will do it later,” says Marcus.
“You see a problem like this, you should fix it immediately,” I say.
“They call him 'el Gato'” Marcus tells me the next day as we're headed to another bee site.
“The cat?” I ask.
“Yes, the cat” he says, chuckling.
“Why?” I ask.
We meet el Gato by his family home, another adobe farm-house in the quiet shade of large trees. Unusual for the area, his eyes are green, and they gleam intently. Cat-like. He is very young, maybe 18. We look at the fifteen hives he runs. They're perfectly maintained, standing straight and clean, everything in order inside and out. His enthusiasm is apparent in his gleaming eyes as he answers my questions through Marcus' translation, and talks about his bees. We grin at each-other, the mutual love of a craft transcends language.
In these training projects I sometimes talk about “aptitude” for keeping bees. You can train someone without the aptitude until the drones come home, but someone who isn't enthusiastic, can't overcome their apprehension of working with bees, will never become a beekeeper. Someone like el Gato is a real resource. He'll do great, he'll inspire, encourage, and ultimately train others around him. Later Fabretto transferred the hives from the first family to el Gato's care. I never did learn his real name, no one called him anything other than el Gato. At least he still has a name other than “the bee guy,” as so many of the rest of us are known in our local communities.
El Gato also showed us two stingless bee hives, they were small and oblong, like a large shoebox. He had gotten them pre-made from another organization. The bees (a melipona species) were only filling a third of the box and seemed uninterested in the rest. I was able to transfer some knowledge I myself had only picked up the other day – in Dr Van Veen's stingless bee presentation the hives had all been longer vertically than horizontally; I suggested that maybe these hives were made for a different species and the local stingless bees would prefer a more vertical arrangement.
We were able to try some of the stingless bee honey (they produce only a few cups of honey each per year), which was very tart. I've always found it very interesting how different stingless bee honey can taste from honeybee honey from presumably the same plants.
On the weekend we drove an hour deeper into the mountains to the tiny mountain town of San Jose de Cusmapa, draped over some ridges high in the mountains. In this very quiet town there seemed to be fewer than half a dozen vehicles, and the clip-clop of horse or donkey down the cobbled streets was very common. While Fabretto's headquarters is in the national capital, this small town, founded by Padre Fabretto himself, I gather is kind of its heart and soul. I stayed in a guest house with several European volunteers working for Fabretto as teachers at the local school. One day while exploring the outskirts on horseback with a french volunteer, our local guide said
“It's two more hours this way to Honduras”
“By car?” I asked naively,
The French girl laughed “no one drives here. By horse.” [again not beekeeping related but I feel like I have the momentum for it to carry through here]
We did drive on one of the days, up and down some absolutely hair-raising narrow dirt roads on the mountain slopes to a very remote community called La Naranja. There, at the end of the road, we found three adobes with the cracked plaster of a zorro film, under a lush tropical canopy and surrounded by banana trees (but no oranges that I recall, despite the name). Several young men came to receive bags of flour and supplies that Marcus was unloading from the back of the landcruiser for them. Then he looked at me with surprise,
“This boy says he knows you”
It turns out he had been at the Sweet Progress training I had gone to. Small world.
As Vincent later explains to me, Sweet Progress actually partners with Fabretto, inviting Fabretto beekeepers to come down to training seminars and including Fabretto honey in their packaging since they are able to leverage a better price for the beekeepers.
The hives in La Naranja were pretty good, though with a bit more small hive beetles than I'd quite like to see. I prescribed rotating out the dark comb a bit more. Small hive beetles really love dark comb.
Back in San Jose de Cusmapa, we later visited the Fabretto hive-making carpenters in their workshop. Sometimes there is a big disconnect between people making hives and the beekeepers, but it was nice to see they had already tweaked the design and were very willing to discuss potential improvements. Returning to Somoto we visited some other beekeepers, and another nearby organization that made and sold beehives. Both the technicians this organization sent to the field with us were women, and we worked for the longest sustained time of this trip going through hives. I had been concerned in the tropical heat it might be impractical to spend hours working bees wearing two layers of suits, but it proved doable.
I made a presentation at the Fabretto headquarters. It was supposed to be for the students but apparently there was a miscommunication and no students were informed. Instead all of Fabretto's teachers came. My computer, which had worked an hour earlier, of course chose the moment we started to fail. Par for the course in aid work. Presentation goes on without powerpoint. The fallback plan for a fallback audience. This is aid work.
As I watch the volcano smoke plumes recede below from my airplane window, I think about the turbulent recent history of the country. The violent civil war from 1978-1990, illustrated with bullet hole riddled walls and murals, and personal stories everyone has. The unrest in 2015 and 2016 which affected me by the cancellation of my project. Despite this violent background, the persistent kindness of people like Padre Fabretto and Vincent Cosgrove, the charitable organizations they build around them, and the volunteers that flock to help are truly an inspiration.
In mid 2018 violence again erupted. 300 protestors were killed in the course of three months, paramilitaries besieged a church in which protestors took refuge, more black columns of smoke in the sky. But Sweet Progress, Fabretto, Partners for the Americas, and many others keep on working to help the people.
*"drones" was originally "proverbial cows," this isn't too contrived a hijacking of the usual phrase is it?
So there you go. I guess really I am more interested in thoughts on the pacing, thematic arrangement, various big picture things like that, then commas and grammar which I'll sweep up as I go through it. Anything ring off to you? Anywhere you think I could insert a better description? I really want to strengthen the end a lot more so I still might post another entry dedicated solely to it. The end is important.