The Buzz on Honeybees

Reader Contribution by Laura Berlage and North Star Homestead Farms
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Above: Checking the hives with an intern — the bees were in a good mood that day. Photo by Ann Berlage

Honeybees, on the whole, really are a peaceful lot. The queen is busy all day laying eggs (up to 2,000 eggs per day in summertime), with her own personal court grooming and feeding her. The drones (male bees) don’t even have a stinger and loaf about the hive waiting to be fed. Around 5:00 in the afternoon, the drones leave the hive to fly, hoping that there might be a young queen bee passing by on her mating flight.

The worker bees (young females who did not develop fully to queen-ness) do everything else. Nurse bees take care of the eggs and larvae growing in the cells, others fan the entrance to keep the hive cool. Some of the bees build wax, take nectar from the field bees, and pack pollen into cells that the nurse bees will mix with nectar as food for the baby bees. Field bees race back and forth from flowers to the hive, bringing nectar to make honey, pollen for food, and tree resin for propolis, which they use to glue any cracks in the hive.

I’ll be picking zucchinis while honeybees buzz busily beside me. I’m doing my work, and they’re doing theirs, so it’s really not an issue. If I were to grab one and threaten to squish it, then we’d have a problem. But the bees are working on the flower end, and I’m harvesting the fruit (zucchini) that their fuzzy little bodies helped to pollinate. A third of all the food we eat requires insect pollination — the bulk of which is carried by honeybees. That makes these insects an important part of any sustainable farming operation.

But as far as livestock goes, honeybees are not domestic. They can survive in the wild quite well in warmer regions (overwintering in the Northwoods without human help, though, would be almost impossible), collect everything they need from nature, and don’t appreciate being bothered. So why all the fuss about keeping bees?

Honeybees, Honey and Honeycomb

Besides fostering a strong pollination task force, honeybees are of course known for their namesake — honey! While bumble bees also make honey, only the queen bee overwinters. Therefore, the small colonies of bumble bees are not pressured to make very much honey.

Honeybees, on the other hand, which are categorized as social insects like ants, overwinter the entire colony (except for the drones, which are killed off en masse in the fall). This means that the honeybee community is under pressure to make LOTS of honey because this is their vital food source in the winter.  It’s like canning and freezing for the whole winter—a honeybee pantry.

But here’s some interesting bee trivia: In order to store this honey, the bees build honeycomb (like stacked up little hexagonal canning jars), which are capped and sealed when the nectar is cured to honey. The honeycomb is made of beeswax, which is secreted from special glands on the underside of a worker bee’s abdomen. Grown in tiny flakes, the bees chew up the wax and build their comb housing.

This all takes a lot of effort for the bees, and wax production also requires considerable calorie input — 8 pounds of honey consumed to make 1 pound of wax. A worker bee will only harvest 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime! That’s a lot of bee work to build a house.

The Benefits of a Beekeeper

This is where the beekeeper comes in: Instead of the honeybees setting up house in a hollow tree and having to build everything from scratch, the beekeeper supplies a house (the hive), furnished with movable frames. In each frame is a plastic foundation imprinted with the base of the honeycomb and coated with a light layer of beeswax to help it “smell like home” (smell is very important to honeybees). With this tricked-out apartment complex, the bees only need to “pull” the wax comb out on each side of the frame.

This means more time making honey and less time making wax, which means colonies can grow stronger faster (more space for the queen to lay eggs), and more honey can be laid away for winter (less consumed for making wax). Honeybees have such a work ethic that they will harvest more nectar for making honey than they need. This is the part I call “charging rent” to the bees. I give them lots of nice space, and at the end of the season, I collect the extra honey they don’t need. Some years are lean, and I won’t get any honey because enough needs to be left behind for the bees, while other years a hive might offer 60 pounds of this delicious, golden treat.

But just like everyone else, the bees don’t appreciate when the rent gets collected. During high summer, they’re so busy collecting, they hardly notice when I come for a checkup, all suited up in white with my metal hive tool to carefully pry apart the hive bodies. I’m checking for any parasites, looking at the laying pattern of the queen, and seeing if I need to add a new box on the top (called a “super”) so there’s more space for honey production.

In the past, I used to use a smoker, which can help to calm the bees, but it also increases their stress load.  For the past several years, then, I’ve gone without this historic device, calmly talking to the bees about why I’m there to reassure them that I’m no marauding bear.

But there’s another worker bee job I haven’t mentioned yet, and that is the guard bee. There are lots of creatures in the woods that like honey—bears and wasps to name a couple. Guard bees are willing to die to defend their home and keep the precious queen bee safe. While a wasp or hornet can sting again and again, a honeybee’s stinger is barbed and pulls out of her body when she uses this defense mechanism, spelling her doom. Honeybees do not sting lightly, but the hive’s attitude changes as the year tips towards fall.

I found this out yesterday, when I was coming to pay a call on the hives. One had swarmed earlier in the summer, much to my chagrin, and I was curious as to how the new queen was getting along.  I also wanted to see if the two colonies needed more room for honey. But no sooner had I lifted the lid on the first hive when some of those guard bees swarmed right out and began stinging my arms right through the white cotton bee suit — Ouch! I dropped the lid and abandoned the operation, pursued by a myriad of angry, buzzing bees.

“Get out, and stay out!” they seemed to be yelling. Obviously, they’d forgotten I was a friendly part of the operation. You can’t blame them, though, I wouldn’t appreciate someone peeling off the roof of my house and rummaging through the pantry and refrigerator either!

I didn’t go back that afternoon. I waited until dark, when they would all be hunkered down in the hive for the night before making my return. With two fresh supers, I quickly moved the lid aside. A thousand angry bee butts stuck up in the air, ready for me. Wings whir, making that classic buzzing sound. But to their surprise, I set a fresh new piece of housing for them on top instead, replaced the lid, repeated on the second hive, and was gone. With that many worker bees, there must be a healthy queen inside. Other than that, the bees were going to have to take care of themselves!

Today, though, I can really feel the ramifications of those guard bees who had it in for me.  My arms are swollen and sore, and I can barely get my left hand to type out this story.  Ouch!  But at least the bees are having a busy, buzzy year.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

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