We use the smoker, a bellows and chamber for blowing smoke, to briefly dissipate the bees from the area we want to work and calm them down. We use any organic matter we can find to light the smoker, and it apparently works for two reasons. When bees smell smoke, they instinctively fill their bellies up with honey as a precaution if they were to have to leave the hive, possibly an adaptation to forest life and the regularity of forest fires. Secondly, the smoke masks the alarm pheromones they release when threatened. Playing with fire everyday, for those of us that love to do so, is one of the many extra benefits of beekeeping.
Down the street from Marshall is Cristy Webber Landscapes, a local natural landscaping company, which has a green rooftop where Honey Co-op Bees are living. One day we went there to check on the hives. It was wonderful weather, and we enjoyed the panoramic view of the city and the silly sounds of the rooster who lives up there. The first thing we did was level out the hives and give them some racks of honey from last season for a general boost of energy. If you don't give them some help early in the season, and too much time is spent foraging, the hive may suffer. As we worked we found lots of drone larvae, which is a developing male bee. A worker at Cristy Webber and I decided, when told that these larvae were a delicacy in other places, that we had to try them. It wasn't bad, as far as larvae go - a sort of milky sweet, slightly acrid taste - but the “pop!” of the developing exoskeleton as I bit into the drone was a little too much to handle. I hear they are a lot better stir-fried.
We also had a chance that day to taste some royal jelly, a secretion worker bees feed the queen larvae, and a bee product that sells for a lot of money at health food stores. The supposedly active component is Royalactin, which possibly sets off an epigenetic signal for the egg to become a queen rather than a worker. It tastes kind of like the larvae, but sweeter. It makes you feel like you are eating something you shouldn't, like some stolen magical potion.
Somehow, in the midst of working, which often includes talking, Michael and I got onto my schooling and what I am doing with it. I told him more about Shimer, and my particular interests and aspirations. He surprised and delighted me when he said that he loved Theodor W. Adorno. The same worker I shared the larvae experience with, who is a biology major at Northeastern, joined the conversation as well, sharing his hopes for a more sane and ecological society. I am still perplexed and delighted by that day of eating bee larvae and talking about the Frankfurt School on a rooftop in Garfield Park.
The most iconic and exciting recent workday involved me carting the hive boxes I refinished the week before on my bike trailer to City Hall, and installing them in the garden on the roof. Needless to say, this was by far the most beautiful setting we had worked in yet. In the middle of the Loop, a veritable Illinois prairie sits hidden away, with two thriving beehives. In fact, as we worked on the hive we were putting the new boxes on, we realized that they were already producing loads of honey! This is fine, early season honey, perhaps from the pollen of black locust trees or other earlier blooming flora. It had a light, rich but calm flavor. There is really nothing more exciting than taking a huge gulp of honey, right off the comb, on top of a massive building in the middle of downtown Chicago. The hard clean glass and old worn concrete of the city makes a wonderful, challenging contrast to the ordered chaos of the garden and the wandering bees. I don't have my own photos of this, but here is one that's way better than anything I could take anyway.
So now honey production is way up, and just yesterday we extracted the first batch of the season. The bees are busy, and so are we!