Sunday, March 1, 2009


Beekeeping is more art than science. Two beekeepers will probably have three opinions, so take these idiosyncratic FAQs with a spoonful of honey.

How many bees are in that hive?
The hive was started with three pounds of Italian honey bees (Apis mellifera lingustica) raised in Georgia. Three pounds equals roughly 10-12,000 bees. If all goes well, at the peak of the summer we could have 50- 60,000 bees in the hive. That’s obviously a rough guess. During the day, about half the bees will be foraging outside the hive.

So what’s happening in there?
If all is well, the queen bee will be laying up to 2000 eggs a day. Tens of thousands of worker bees, all sterile females, will be performing tasks including constructing honeycomb, caring for the queen, feeding larva, cleaning the hive, making honey, regulating the hive temperature, and defending the hive. Male bees, which are called drones, are far fewer in number than the females. Their task is to fly out in the afternoons looking to mate. They only return to the hive if they haven’t mated. They don’t do anything else, except help spread disease between hives. (Quiet there on the distaff side of the peanut gallery!)

Where do foraging bees go?
To blooming flowers, mostly. They can fly three-four miles from the hive, covering thousands of acres.

How come I’ve never seen a bee in NYC?
Look closer. They are in this and other gardens, parks, street trees, backyards, balconies, even windowsills, wherever blooming plants are to be found. In addition to the honey bee, over 50 other bee species have been recorded in the city. Bumble bees, being large, slow, and adorable, are the most obvious.

What are they doing out there?
Foraging bees are searching for and collecting nectar and pollen. In the heat of summer, many bees will also be tasked with collecting fresh water, which is vital for hive temperature control. Foragers also collect tree and plant sap and resins for propolis.

What are nectar, pollen, and propolis?
Nectar is the sugary liquid flowers produce to attract pollinators. Bees collect it by slurping it up and bringing it back to the hive. Some insects simply feed on the nectar, but bees partially digest, regurgitate, and re-digest nectar in their honey stomachs (where it mixes with their own body chemistry). In the hive, the nectar/bee mixture is ultimately put into wax honeycomb, and evaporated (by thousands of beating wings) until it becomes… honey, the bee’s energy-rich food.

Pollen is essentially plant sperm. Protein rich, it is a coveted food source for the bees, who gather it from flowers, mix it with a little honey and pack it around special “pollen baskets” on their rear legs for travel. In the hive, the pollen is stored in the honeycomb.

Propolis is also known as bee glue. It’s used as a sealant to protect the hive from moisture, light, and drafts.

Will I get stung?
Mmmm-maybe. There are no guarantees, but these honey bees generally only sting to protect the hive or if attacked (swatted or stepped on). If you aren’t a bear come to rip open the hive, you probably will not be stung during normal garden activities. Most people who are stung are actually stung by wasps, far more aggressive cousins of the honey bee, but bees get the blame because they are the best known stinger. Fame has its price. Italian honey bees like these are considered the gentlest of the various subspecies.

What if I am stung?
Try to flick out the stinger from your skin with your fingernail. Don’t pluck at it, since this can force more the “sting” into you. Move away from the hive; the stinger releases pheromones which tell other bees to sting right there.

The sting is sharp and unpleasant and different people will react differently to it. In my experience, you should expect some swelling, which may not occur for a number of hours, and then last a day or two. However, a very small number of people are severely allergic to stings and since I’m not a medical professional and this is just a blog, you should consult one if you’re worried about this.

I’m afraid of bees. What should I do?
Become a beekeeper. That’s what I did.

*****Extra bonus FAQs*****

What are “killer bees”?
Hollywood hype/hysteria based on this: in the 1950s, Brazilian bee breeders hybridized a new subspecies now known as the “Africanized bee” by mixing Italian and African subspecies. These bees were either released or escaped and have since spread throughout South America. They have made it north, appearing in Texas and some of the other southern US states. They are very aggressive, but are not found in the mid-Atlantic states or New England. Is it too cold for them? Will global warming allow them to spread north? I am old enough to have been waiting the Attack of the Killer Bees for 30 years.

If they don’t sting so much, how come you’re dressed in a HazMat suit?
It’s called a bee suit. I wear it because I’m doing the thing bees like the least: invading the hive (albeit gently, cautiously, respectfully). Every beekeeper uses different gear; many long-time beekeepers don’t use much at all. I like the face protector because I don’t want bees flying into my nose. Also, as a newbie, it’s good for my confidence when I’m “covered in beeeees” (cue Eddie Izzard.)

So why don’t they attack you by the thousands?
Because I’m not a bear. Additionally, hive inspections are usually done after the hive is “smoked.” Cool smoke is blown into the hive, calming the bees. Some say it’s because the bees think there’s a fire approaching; knowing their hive might be in danger, they stuff themselves with honey should they have to flee an actual fire. This makes it very difficult to use their stingers.

How do you learn this stuff?
The human/honey bees relationship goes back for thousands of years, but I’m not that old. For the past couple of years I’ve been hanging around beekeepers, taking classes, and reading the voluminous literature.

Why “hive inspections”?
Honey bees are really a hybrid form of life, somewhat wild and somewhat domesticated. Humans “keep” bees for pollination, honey, wax, and more esoteric reasons, and part of the partnership (?) between hive and human is that we will inspect the hive looking for disease and problems with the queen, intervening when we can.

What’s up with all the threats to bees?
Colony Collapse Disorder, rather more descriptively called “vanishing bee syndrome” by the British, has been much in the news, but bees were in pretty bad shape before this latest decimation. Some claim there are no more, or very few, wild (a.k.a. feral) hives in the Northeast, for instance. Beset by other insect parasites, as well as viral and bacterial diseases, the honey bee has a tough row to hoe. Some blame human interference, particularly the industrial-like exploitation of honey bees by commercial agriculture (where they are shipped cross-country to pollinate many vegetables, fruits, & nuts), as well as associated petrochemical-based monoculture (where once there were meadows, now there is a toxin-doused genetic deadzones).

Additionally, as a beekeeper, you keep running into people who say, “my grandfather had bees…”. It was once far more common for people to keep hives, either as an adjunct to the farm or as a backyard hobby. The benefits of this variety and distribution, probably excellent for genetics, has largely been lost. One of the reasons I’ve become involved with honey bees is that I’d like to see more bees out there, mixing it up, doing the evolutionary thing to combat the threats.


Bluebird of Friendliness said...

I'm excited about your great new blog! It brings to mind two things for me.

1. I'm about two-thirds of the way through The Complete Sherlock Holmes, which I've been reading diligently and even voraciously, since Christmas. I know Holmes takes up beekeeping in his later years and now I'm excited to get to that part. I'm sure he'll have something interesting to say regarding this pursuit.

2. I recently picked up a book at a Salvation Army store upstate. It's a children's book from 1965 called "Birds Do the Strangest Things." It's in pretty poor shape but it has one of those wonderful old-book smells about it - more like basement without cats than like attic. Anyway, there's a chapter on an African bird called the honey guide. The bird leads honey-hunting humans to a comb by flying and chirping, then waiting for the hunter to catch up, over and over, until they reach the honeycomb together. Then the bird waits for the man to harvest the honey, and when the man is done, the honey guide feasts on the now-accessible wax. I thought that was a nice intersection of your two interests!

Matthew said...

Thank you, messenger of happiness! Holmes has (had?) a fascinating career as a beekeeper. Michael Chabon's The Final Solution, Mitch Cullen's A Slight Trick of the Mind, and Laurie R. King's Beekeeper's Apprentice are three novels that go into the matter. Chabon's is a minor masterpiece.

Ceaseless fascination in the wild. Ravens & crows seem to lead wolves to prey/carrion, so that the big canine teeth can open up the bodies, later allowing the birds to get scraps.

Also, it's a sort of open secret that they keep bees at the local zoos to feed the various bee-eating birds & other beevores.

Bluebird of Friendliness said...

I actually read The Final Solution a few months before my Holmes obsession began. I was, at the time, reading anything the library had by Chabon, and didn't know what I was getting into. I plan to revisit the novella once I round out the Holmes canon.

My husband hasn't read any Holmes stories but we've been having a grand time drawing parallels between the dynamics of Holmes/Watson and Mulder/Scully.

Matthew said...

Are we sure Mulder isn't Watson in this analogy?

Poor old Watson. He really gets shorted in most media portrayals, but then he had it tough as the straight-man. And then there's that wound (from Afghanistan) that keeps appearing and disappearing, sounding so Freudian. And all those questions about how many wives he actually had. Could he have been a bigamist? Always more to those Victorian gents then we first suspect.