Northern Story #7 · Juan Prado, BEEKEEPER


Texts and photography: Mónica R. Goya

We are heading to meet Juan Prado, a bee lover who moved back to his hometown after retirement, in a privileged location at the foot of the Tanes reservoir, in the Natural Park of Redes, Asturias.

Juan’s home, surrounded by a wonderful supply of wood for the winter, is very close to the Apiculture Museum, in the same county of Caso. It is there where we do our first stop so that Juan can explain to us the basics of apiculture. The museum, only open by appointment (+34 985 60 80 97), is a great source of inspiration for anyone who is thinking of getting into the world of bees.

Juan, with a smile on his face, opens the main door of the museum, a rustic country home typical of Asturias, and tells us that he owes his passion for apiculture to his brother-in-law, who almost two decades ago gave him a book about apiculture, and according to Juan “my hobby has never stopped growing from then to this day”.

The Museum and the Beekeeper
The museum is our first contact with the bees. On the top floor there is a beehive behind a slim glass curtain-wall. We can listen to the bees’ buzz from the stairs. Juan wants us to see this beehive to tell us the organisation of the bees. Queen, worker bees and drones are the inhabitants of the beehives. It is a privilege to see them work so near knowing that there is no risk of being attacked. Juan holds a worker bee and provokes her until she attacks him. He teaches us how to scrape the bee stinger off quickly to get as little poison as possible.

“this comes with the job, I barely feel it now”.

The bee that stung him was flying back to the beehive and she carried pollen in the little baskets they have next to their abdomen to transport it. Juan comments that the tasks of the worker bees, sterile females, vary according to their age and we know they are worker bees because they are the smallest. The queen bees are the biggest ones and the only fertile females. Even though more than one queen bee could cohabit in the beehive, as soon as one is pregnant she kills the others and therefore normally there is only one queen bee in each beehive. It is difficult to spot them because they hardly ever leave their home.

Suddenly Juan points out at the floor and we see how a few worker bees are attacking another bee. He tells us that the attacked one is actually a drone. We can see that because it is considerably bigger that the rest of the bees which are attacking him. When the drones don’t work anymore, the worker bees –as cruel as it sounds – kill them.

Beehives with a view
We leave the museum through the same door that we got in and we head towards Juan’s house, to pick up the beekeeping gear and drive up to the top of the village, where Juan has his beehives.

“When I am here I forget to eat, I forget that the time passes”.

We aren’t surprised. The view is breathtaking and despite the bees’ buzzing, or maybe because of it, up there you can feel nature’s peace. We put on our protection, including the beekeeping face mask and hat, and we approach the beehives.

Unexpectedly Juan spots a bee colony on the branch of a tree, outside the beehive. “This doesn’t happen every day –he warns- you have been very lucky”. And that is how we feel. We are going to see the process of hunting a colony! The bees cluster on the limb, two or three metres away from Juan’s beehives. While we become more familiar with the beekeeping suits, Juan comes back from his Jeep with a wooden box in his hands. “What’s that for?”, I ask him. He tells us that it is a handmade box that he made himself to hunt bee colonies. He places a white blanket on the grass –it is believed that that colour calms the bees- under the limb of the tree where the bees are. He puts the wooden box in the middle of the white blanket and he shakes the branch powerfully. As he predicted, most of the bees fall down on the blanket and start getting inside his handmade box. We come closer; Juan is looking for the queen bee to mark her so that he can identify her easily later on, when they are all inside the beehive. We don’t find her. He shakes the branch again. More bees fall down but the queen bee is not there. Juan asks us to pay attention to their buzz, he tells us that when the workers bees know that the queen is safe, they don’t fly nervously and the buzz is softer and less aggressive. After a while wondering where the queen bee would be, we spot a small group of bees, the size of a tennis ball, on short grass near the white blanket. Juan smiles at them and says “there you have the queen bee”. Then he picks up his yellow clamps that look like hair clamps and he puts the queen bee with a couple of workers bees inside. Alfonso and I can see that the queen is visibly bigger than the rest. In the meantime, most of the other bees are already inside Juan’s wooden box. When they finish entering and the queen is marked, Juan lets her inside the beehive with the others. Having the queen bee inside means that the rest of the bees won’t abandon the beehive.

Bees and honey
In order to move the bee colony to the beehive that will be their new home, we put Juan’s wooden box next to it and the bees start entering instinctively. When we have the whole colony inside, Juan explains that ideally, we should look at the young larvae after 20 or 25 days, to make sure that everything is fine.

Modern beehives consist of the brood chamber, and then, when the spring starts, the beekeepers add another box on top, the shallow supers, which is what bees considered their larder. Around this area of Asturias, honey usually comes from heathers and chestnuts. Juan, with the smoker in his hands, pulls out a frame from one of his beehives so that we see how bees fill it with honey little by little.

The tasks of the bees are very seasonal, they work according to what nature offers them. Normally, once the larvae become worker bees, they leave the beehive looking for pollen and nectar, around May and June, in full spring. They come back to the beehive carrying the pollen or nectar in their mouths, taking it out for a short time to remove part of the water. Then they put the drops that have an acceptable level of humidity in the honeycomb’s cells.

When they completely fill the honeycomb’s cell with the drops, already converted in honey, they cover it with a durable coat of beeswax for preservation. Juan tells us that the extraction of honey is done when at least 75% of the combs are operculate, which means that the honey is mature. Then the beekeepers need to work hard, normally around the waning of September. The first thing they have to do is decapping the combs, already operculate, so that the honey under the beeswax coat can be extracted. This can be done with special knives that allow you to remove the operculate coat without damaging the interior of the cells where the honey is.

Extractors are recommended for those who have modern beehives. Extractors are cylindrical devices that act as a strainer to extract the honey from the frames. The next step is to use the honey maturator, another tool in which honey should be kept between six and eight days. After this the honey would be ready to be packed. Juan, smiling, says that thanks to the operculate coating, honey doesn’t have an expiry date.

On our way back to Tanes, Juan, driving his Jeep, shows us his concern about the current situation of bees, which are dying in huge numbers. The time to say goodbye comes and Alfonso and I thank Juan for everything he has taught us in just one day and for infecting us with his passion for apiculture.