Meridian Star

Local News

July 28, 2013

Bees and their keepers keep the honey flowing

MERIDIAN —     A practice dating back thousands of years, beekeeping, is alive and well and those who tend to the bees are determined as ever to keep their hives healthy and productive.

    Numerous beekeepers have hives in and around Lauderdale County, such as Charles Vick, president of the Meridian Beekeepers Association.

    Vick has been a bee hobbyist for about 14 years. Hobbyists distinguish themselves from large, commercial operations that keep hundreds of hives. Vick has had as many as 16 hives; he now has 11.

    He said beekeeping is something he had wanted to do for a long time, but he didn't know anybody in the business, so he made up his mind to learn what he could. He found books at the public library on bees and beekeeping and he spent about two years researching the subject before he started his first hive.

    On a recent sunny day near his hives, Vick shared his fascination with the complexity of bee life. Bee hives appear to be highly organized with a very specific division of labor.There are bees that just feed the larvae; there are housekeeping bees and there are even what Vick referred to as "undertaker" bees.

    "When a bee is dead, they actually carry them out away from the place," Vick said. "You also have guards and you have foragers."

    Some bees work in the hive before they develop wings and can fly, he said.

    Guard bees don't just stand guard; the also ventilate the hive, he said.

    "You can see bees sometimes outside the hive with their rear-ends sticking up in the air and they are facing the beehive. They are sucking air out of the beehive but if you look inside, you've got some on the inside doing the same thing. Their rear-ends are facing to inside; they are blowing air inside — they are circulating air and that is what cures the honey. It sounds like an electric motor going on in there. It's a hum going on 24 hours a day."

    Foragers are the bees who go out, get nectar and pollen and bring it back, Vick said, noting that the average life expectancy for a honeybee is 28 to 35 days.

    "They literally work themselves to death," Vick said.

    Working with bees is rewarding, but it can also be painful. Even though they wear protective clothing when working with the hives, there are times they are exposed to the painful stinger of the bee. Whether they call it a sting, a pop, or a hit, beekeepers all get it sooner or later. Of course it's worse for the bee, who dies after losing its stinger.

    Beekeepers have to inspect their hives periodically and they must understand how the hive works. For instance, Vick said, the queen bee is the only bee that lays eggs, but before she does, she actually inspects the cell to make sure it's clean."

    Explaining the process, Vick said an unfertilized egg becomes a drone, which is a male. A fertilized egg becomes a female.

    "Every fertilized egg is a potential queen, should they need it but they have to make a queen within three days of the egg being laid, otherwise it is too late," Vick said.

    For a larvae to develop into a queen, it must be fed only royal jelly, not bee bread, which the others are fed.

    There are ways to increase the population of a hive, which can range from 25,000 to about 40,000, Vick said. When the number of bees reaches a certain point, 50 to 70 percent of the bees will go and form a new hive, usually taking the queen bee with them.

    Beekeepers who give their bees plenty of room to expand will see the hives grow.

    "That is their natural instinct — to repopulate," he said. By putting additional boxes that are referred to as "supers" on top of the hive box, bees will expand and produce even more honey, Vick said.

    "Bees are natural hoarders," Vick said. "They love to store as much honey as they can."

    They won't stop producing honey until they run out of space to store it, or if there aren't enough flowers around to keep producing nectar, or if lack of rain affects nectar production, Vick said.

    Many people believe smoke is used to keep the bees calm while the beekeeper works on the hive or gets honey. However, Vick said the smoke doesn't calm the bees so much as it interrupts their ability to communicate. Bees use their sense of smell in much of their communication; smoke interferes with that, but when it goes away, their senses fully return.

    Bees are constantly under threat from other insects and sometimes by other bee colonies as well, which will go in and kill and steal honey, sometimes larvae. Bees can starve to death as well if the food runs out and there is no nectar or pollen to harvest. And then there is Colony Collapse Disorder, which is a term used to describe several factors that can lead to a hive's death.

    That's one of the reasons novice beekeeper Courtland Gray started his first hive in April of this year.

    "It's something I had been interested in for quite a few years. I had been reading about Colony Collapse Disorder," Gray said, "where bee populations around the world have really been in decline and established bee hives that people had had for many years would just all of a sudden, disappear. I thought I would do what I could to help out."

    Gray received a hive box as a Christmas gift and in the spring of this year, he put in his first bees, which are Italian honeybees.

    Gray acknowledged that the first time he actually dealt with the bees physically, he was a little nervous.

    "The first time, I suited up and came in here and gingerly opened up the box. I was using the smoker fairly prolifically to make sure they were as sedated as much as possible," Gray said. "I was a little bit nervous and uncomfortable, not knowing if you are going to disturb them too much or if they are just going to go crazy and swarm you."

    Dr. Jeffrey Harris, assistant Extension and Research professor at Mississippi State University, said the effects of the much-publicized Colony Collapse Disorder have been somewhat overstated.

    It is a problem, he said, but it affects less than 2 percent of beekeepers in the U.S.

    "The people who have the biggest problem are those who have commercial colonies," Harris said.

    Those are businesses that have hundreds of hives that they truck to agricultural areas that have crops in need of pollination.

    Colony Collapse includes a number of factors that can lead to die-offs of hives, he said, including drought, stress on bees that are trucked thousands of miles to pollinate crops, pesticides, and mites that live on the outside of bees and feeds on developing baby bees.

    One of those factors might not do a lot of harm to a hive, but when multiple problems arise, the bees become more vulnerable.

    Trucking bees across country to pollinate crops is a lucrative business, he said, but it isn't necessarily good for the bees.

    "Bee hives were not meant to be bounced down the road," Harris said.

    Hobbyists with just a few hives can deal with these factors in a relatively inexpensive manner without the use of pesticides to combat the mite problem, but large commercial colonies use pesticides, which can further stress the bees, he said.

    Harris also took the opportunity to clear up some bad information that has been making the rounds. Of course bees are important, he said, but the idea that if they all went away, the world would go hungry is just not true.

    "We love apples, cherries, and almonds, many of the things that require pollination, and we would miss them, but we wouldn't starve," Harris said. "Corn, wheat, barley, soybeans, sweet potatoes, rice, they don't require a pollinator. Corn doesn't need a pollinator because it drops tons of pollen in the wind."

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