Fact: honeybee pollination results in about one-third of all the food you eat. The long list of crop plants pollinated by honey bees, directly or indirectly, includes: grapes, apples, pears, cherries, cantaloupes, blueberries, cranberries, plums and other fruits, cocoa, cashew, almond, macadamia, walnut and other nuts, coffee, many vegetables and beans, carrot seed, seed onions, avocados, clover, kiwi, various peppers (hot and sweet), and tomatoes, to name a few.
Joan G. Gardiner combines creative artistry and craft with science. A potter and skilled tile maker, she has a lot going on in her bee yard where she tends 28 hives, each with 50-60 thousand honeybees, maybe more. “In the spring, when the autumn olive and the black locust are blooming, you can take advantage of the bees’ hoarding instincts,” said Joan. “You put more “supers” — box-like layers — into the hive and the bees will keep filling them with nectar. A strong hive will produce 50 to 100 pounds of honey.”
After the bees add an enzyme to the nectar and it’s been dehydrated, they cap the super with wax, a signal that the honey-making process is complete. Joan takes the super into her workshop and puts it into an extractor (centrifuge) that spins out the honey. Next, she sieves the raw honey to remove bits of wax or bee parts. She sells her raw honey in various sizes from 13.5-ounce glass bear jars up to half-gallon “growlers.”
“This was my 11th spring,” said Joan. “I always wanted to get into beekeeping, and when my father needed more attention, I thought if I had bees at his place, it would be something to do when I was visiting and helping him out. That’s the idea I started with. I went to Bluemont and signed up for Loudoun Beekeepers Association and took their course that winter. In the spring, I got my bees, and I’ve been going with them ever since.”
The bees keep her very busy, especially in the spring and summer when everything’s in blossom, and they’re making a lot of honey. It’s year round to keep bees, all the while paying attention to weather changes, what’s blooming, and does the colony have the urge to multiply and swarm.
“You’re just catching bees and busy non-stop everyday,” said Joan. “You could live in your bee yard, there’s so much to do. You have to make sure they have enough food for the winter. If they don’t, you make them “candy” from cane sugar syrup. If there’s snow, you make sure they can get out of the hive. When the temperature rises above 47 degrees, they go for a “cleansing flight” because they won’t go to the bathroom inside the hive.”
Joan’s totally dedicated to helping her bees maintain healthy colonies. “Our biggest concern is the Four Ps — parasites, pathogens, pesticides, and poor management,” said Joan. “Pesticides are bad, but parasites are the worst — the varoa mite is a killer. I rotate treatment with several chemicals that have the least negative impact. You have to be careful, because every treatment has pluses and minuses. There’s no such thing as “organic beekeeping” because you can’t tell the bees what to eat, but I’m definitely of the school of science. If you don’t treat your bees, you will lose them — the varroa mite is what we fight.”
The domestication of wild bees in artificial hives dates back to antiquity, in ancient Egypt, Middle and Far East, in Mesopotamia and Babylon, proven by all sorts of historical/biblical references and archaeological finds, including paintings. As far back as 7000 BCE, they knew about blowing smoke into hives to calm the bees, how to harvest honey and wax. Sealed pots of honey were found in tombs of Tutankhamun and other pharaohs. Cleopatra used honey on her skin.
Historically, honey is valued for taste, nutritional and health benefits (but never to be consumed by children under 12 months old). Raw honey has anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s used as a sleep aid, to calm coughs, alleviate allergies, treat burns and wounds, improve memory, treat dandruff, and wash your face, to name a few.
“I’m always learning more amazing things about the complexity of the honeybees and their lives,” said Joan, who recently finished a two-year term as vice-president of LBA and continues to serve as a mentor in the new beekeeper program. She also sells nucs — nucleus colonies or starter bees. A lively conversationalist on any subject, when it comes to honeybees, she’s a natural ambassador, sharing enthusiastically all sorts of insider knowledge and facts.
How the average life of a worker (female bee) lasts about 35 days, yet the queen lives three to five years or more (unless she’s nasty and needs to be “deposed” by nurse bees or by the keeper)… That drones (male bees) do nothing but hang around the hive, waiting for the mating flights of a new queen whom they pursue to engage in aerobatic nuptials, then die… How the queen stores sperm from several suitors in a special organ in her belly, then spends the rest of her life laying eggs…
A few years ago, researchers at Uppsala University (Sweden) studied the global variations of honeybees via modern genomics. Among their findings, they traced the origin of today’s honeybees to cavity-nesting bees about 300,000 years ago in Asia, from where they quickly spread throughout Europe and Africa. The hives have evolved over the centuries to high standards to make apiculture as easy as possible, but here’s the caveat: you’re going to work for that elixir.
Or you can contact Joan at Unison Pottery and Tile Gallery and try some of her Unison Honey —enthusiasts call it “liquid gold” for good reason.