I have spent much of this month noticing, reading and photographing sugar in various forms. Spring has been very late this year and we still haven’t really seen the maple sap begin to flow, although our trees have been tapped for 3 weeks. On March 11, we had a seasonable warm day where it hit about 50 degrees, the minimum honeybees need to fly, I looked out the window and saw bees flying around their hive. I was thrilled!
On a warm Spring day honey bees will emerge from their hive for a “cleansing flight” which is a polite way of saying they need to defecate. Like most of the natural world, bees don’t poop where they live. In New Hampshire where it has not hit 50 degrees since October, these bees have actually waited 6 months for a bathroom break. How do they do that? I’m guessing when you expend so much energy shivering to heat an uninsulated hive, there isn’t a lot of waste product. Nevertheless, the line between survival and death for a New Hampshire honeybee hive is very thin. So thin that between the two hives we went into winter with, only one survived.
When the bees are flying it also means they are burning calories, which means it’s a beekeepers job to make sure they have enough food. Beekeeping is a form of “insect husbandry” we are stewards to the bees but we are also cultivators. In any kind of cultivation there is a form of manipulation. We manipulate the bees to live in a man-made, wooden hive, that is easy for us to manage, inspect and collect their honey. We manipulate the bees to live off of the least amount of their own honey as possible, by feeding them sugar water, fondant (essential frosting for bees) and pollen patties (frosting with imitation pollen). We trick the bees into staying in their hive by managing their “swarm cells” (the hive can make a new queen when the population is thriving to split themselves to propagate). We care for the bees by managing and often treating for diseases and pests. Inevitably, we like our bees, although they don’t show affection like other livestock.
The worker bees life span is only 6 weeks during the summer season. Over winter they actually live longer, because they are not working as hard. During the summer months the worker bee will fly miles/day gathering pollen and nectar that eventually their wings begin to tear. I am reminded of Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire. “Design in nature is but a concatenation of accidents, culled by natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem a miracle of purpose.” Is it purely coincidence that sugar has driven both bees (and humans) to such lengths? Or is it a “miracle of purpose.” During our current obesity and diabetes epidemic, the world's richest and most powerful nations are being killed by sugar - just like those worker bees. And yet our government subsidizes its production. And we consume it.
I plan on spending the next month trying different angles of photographing my relationship to sugar.