The Secret Life of Bees
As with most things in life, my transformation was more a slow metamorphosis than a “big bang.” Mine began when I spent over two years in Germany during the ‘90s flying with the Air National Guard.
During my time overseas, I noticed how different the United States looks from the other side of the Atlantic—especially attitudes about food. The more I learned, the more I realized how little control Americans have over what we eat.
What began as a gentle inquiry developed into a completely new lifestyle. Since the time I retired from the Guard five years ago, my small garden has grown to an eighth of an acre, I have chickens and I am a vegetarian. I endeavor—to the greatest extent possible—to eat in season and locally. In my quest for more control over my food, I signed up for “Bee School” with the Barnstable County Beekeepers Association (BCBA).
As each “newbee” (as new beekeepers are called) arrived, they were handed a personalized notebook for the course. Once everyone had signed in and was seated, the instructor introduced two guest speakers who had completed the class the year before. They spoke with great enthusiasm about their girls, as honeybees are often called. They talked about their experiences over their first season, and of the many lessons they learned in class. Predictably, the first question we asked was, “How often were you stung?” Only one speaker had, and only one time (and she blamed herself as she wasn’t careful in working her hive that day).
After a few more comments by the guest speakers, bee school began. Over the next few months, instructors discussed all aspects of being a beekeeper: basic equipment, honeybee life cycles, diseases, animal threats, hive placement and overall hive management. By the time classes ended, students had a very strong foundation with which to start their adventure as new beekeepers.
Honeybees are highly-evolved social insects. Each hive consists of one queen, a small number of male bees (or drones), and females (known as workers). The population of workers starts out at around 5,000 in the spring, but as more and more plants bloom, their numbers explode to 65,000 during the peak of summer. As the season winds down, this population of workers shrinks to a small number that will over-winter with the queen.
The queen has one job: to lay eggs. The success of a hive is (almost) totally dependent on the strength of the queen. Queen bees can live five to seven years, but after two to three years they become less productive. Many beekeepers “re-queen” annually.
Worker bees have a relatively short life span in summer. When they hatch, they immediately begin cleaning cells, keeping the brood warm and feeding larval bees. Around their second week they begin producing wax and building comb. At around three weeks old, they transition to guarding the hive entrance and protecting the hive from “robber bees,” animals and other hive threats. After a week on guard duty, they become foragers.
When foraging, the bees collect pollen (for protein and fat), water, nectar (which is a carbohydrate that the bees convert to honey) and propolis. (Also known as “bee gum,” propolis is a natural secretion of trees that bees use to seal cracks and crevices within the hive.)
In their quest for food, bees pollinate numerous plants along the way; it’s been said that for every third bite of food you take, you should thank a bee. They spend the rest of their lives as foragers. This is very demanding work, and most die by the age of 45 days after their wings wear out and they are no longer able to fly.
The drones exist for one reason: to mate with a queen. Until they are needed for this task, they are fed and cared for by the worker bees. At the end of the season, they are unceremoniously tossed out of the hive. Unable to care for themselves, they die.
Bees and man have worked together for millennia. There have been numerous attempts to develop a hive that worked for both the honeybees and man. Honeybees are constantly building wax comb. In the late 1700s it was discovered that when bees have a space of approximately one quarter of an inch, they use it as a passage. Faced with more space, they will build more comb; less, and they fill it with propolis.
This one-quarter of an inch space became known as “bee space,” and is the premise of the hive design used today. After much experimenting with this knowledge, the Langstroth hive—the standard beehive used in many parts of the world—was developed.
The basic building block of a modern beehive is a hollow box, known as a deep, which has a lip running the length of two opposing sides. These lips provide a hanging point for ten frames, which are rectangles that hold a flat piece of beeswax, known as foundation. When bees build comb on these frames, there is one quarter inch of space between combs on each of the frames—bee space. This allows for easy removal and inspection of the frames.
As the population grows, the bees build on more of the frames. As they approach “build out” in the first deep, a second deep, with frames, is added. As summer progresses, the bees build comb on these as well. The pollen and honey stored in these two deeps will provide enough food for most colonies to survive the winter. When the second deep is nearly full, a slightly smaller version of the deep, known as a super, is added. The size of the honey harvest is based on how much honeybees will store in the super(s) during the course of a season.
INSTALLING THE BEE PACKAGE
Armed with my Bee School Knowledge, I was ready. The first step in setting up my hive was picking up the bees—after brushing off the dozen or so freeloaders clinging to the outside of the package.
A “package of bees” is a screened box, the size of a shoebox, that contains over 5,000 worker bees and a fertilized queen bee. This box has a can of sugar syrup in it to feed the bees during their journey from Georgia. The queen is separated from the workers in a screened “queen cage,” which holds a queen and a few attendants. This screened cage has a small piece of hard candy blocking the exit and the attendants have to eat their way out, which takes a few days. The queen emits pheromones during this time, and “introduces” herself to her future hive mates.
Until the bees have a hive to defend, they are quite docile and easy to handle. When I got home, I laid out my equipment (smoker, veil, gloves, and hive tool) sprayed the bees with sugar water (which is calming) and removed the queen cage and syrup can. Then, I banged the box on the ground (really, I did just that!) to get the bees into the bottom and then shook them into the top of the hive. I attached the queen cage by rubber band to the third frame and placed it into the hive. To provide food and to help jump start the hive, I put a feeder full of syrup on top of the deep and then put the hive cover back on. After a week, I inspected the hive to be sure the queen had been released and the workers had started making comb for the queen to lay eggs in. Everything was progressing as advertised in bee school.
There are two basic schools of thought about hive management: leave it alone and see how they do in the fall, or work the hive throughout the season. I chose the latter, opening it up every three weeks or so. In addition to inspecting the colony for growth (capped brood cells) and the health of the queen, I also applied powdered sugar to control some of the threats and diseases.
There are a few basic rules in managing a hive, the first of which is knowing when not to disturb the bees. As the bee handbook states, “Cold bees are nasty bees.” This caveat also applies to wind, hot weather, wet days and days after heavy rains. There is also a beekeeper’s “sense” that the girls aren’t happy and that it is best to wait until another day.
Over the course of the summer, I came to enjoy just sitting next to the hive and watching the bees go about their gathering of nectar and pollen. Their legs would often be covered with brightlycolored pollen as they returned from foraging.
Routine inspections told me that my hive was doing quite well, and I added my second deep around late June. In early August, I placed the first—and this year, only—super on top of the second deep and crossed my fingers. Whatever honey the bees stored in the super by mid- September was mine.
In bee school we were told that first season hives usually don’t produce enough honey for the beekeeper to harvest. But, when September came and I got my hive ready for the winter, I had a very pleasant surprise: I could taste the different flowers as I sampled honey from different locations on the honey-filled frame! What an incredible treat, especially knowing that it was from my hive and my bees.
On the last Saturday of October, Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary hosted Farm Day, a celebration of local agricultural and fishing traditions. Along with GreenCape, Kelly Farm and Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association were goats, llamas, angora bunnies, chickens and me. Sitting at a table with a scale-model beehive, a frame with drawn comb and a folder full of posters showing bees in action, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of interest in beekeeping. Young and old alike expressed their concerns about pressures on bees and for the future of their food supply.
The interest in beekeeping was so great that BCBA had to have two classes in 2009. And in the sense of “full circle”, I was one of the former newbees that spoke to the class.
For more information on the Barnstable County Beekeepers Association, visit www.barnstablebeekeepers.org
Kevin Minnigerode flew for the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard for a total of 26 years. Currently, Kevin is the volunteer coordinator for the Senior Environment Corps at Elder Services; he is also a member of Cape Cod Organic Gardeners, NOFA and Barnstable County Beekeepers Association.