Honeybees are just one of over 20,000 species of bees worldwide which dutifully fertilize the world’s supply of flowering insect-pollinated plants. An impressive species, it is estimated that honeybees pollinate over 80% of U.S. insect crops. Without these bees, our world’s supply of food and plant life would starkly diminish—the reason a beekeeper’s role is so important, though not everyone need invest in the hobby to help maintain healthy hives.
By simply purchasing or advocating for synthetic-free and forage-friendly plants and practices, anyone can help sustain and strengthen the bee chain.
Field Day with Foragers
Tim Wydronek of Alder Creek Honey, a local source for homemade wax and honey products, is a sideliner in the bee biz—not exactly at commercial status, but still profiting from annual pollination and honey sales.
Luckily, the shadowy skies held back their threat of rain the day I suited up and set out to visit a few of Wydronek’s 40 or so colonies. I was nervous after forewarnings of bee stings in stormy weather. On windy, rainy days or when their honey supplies are superfluent, the bees can be mean, sensing a threat to their hives.
“They go towards joints,” warned Wydronek. The honeybees somehow sense an infiltrator’s weak spots, a reason beekeepers keep a calm demeanor, and use smoke as a masking device to the bees’ pheromones, released each time a bee is killed to communicate danger and smelling strangely like bananas.
Currently, Wydronek has a goal of reaching 60 hives by season’s end, and is in the business of selling queens from California, where he transplants his hives during winter months for continued production. By keeping them in warm weather and near almond and citrus trees, his bees are capable of producing more brood and honey.
Brood is the term for the larvae or bees in pupa stage, capped in wax in the hive’s hexagonic cells. When hives are in the larval stage, Wydronek is able to “split” them by moving capped inner frames to new hives with new queens. Each queen is kept in a cage or chamber and often protected by a “candy plug” the bees must chew through before reaching her. This gives the bees time to accept and get used to the scent of their new queen.
“If you introduce her too fast, they can kill her,” explained Wydronek. “ Interestingly, a queen bee is one of the major upkeeps of any hive, as queens can become weak and die off, or fail to reproduce at a sustainable rate. Wydronek’s queens are tagged with white dots for tracking purposes. Speaking at length over the order of bees in their hives, Wydronek classifies between the big-eyed male drones and female worker bees, explaining the sole purpose of the drones as mating.
There are designated areas around the hives, such as drone congregation areas in the air, where drones latch onto females flying by to mate, then drop dead. “Orientation flight” occurs around a hive’s ledge, where new bees linger, getting familiar, before buzzing off to explore.
Worker bees live fascinating lives, and can switch between roles within their lifetimes. Some are soldier bees, who guard the queen, or undertakers, compelled to dispose of deceased bodies from the hives. Scientists have even found honeybees have varying degrees of timidness or adventurousness, and have used their behaviors for algorithms used by police in catching serial killers.
The cells in the structured hives are used for varying purposes and storage of honey. When transporting pollen to their hives, foraging bees fill pollen baskets on their hind legs, detectable by a bright yellow lining. Nectar is stored in their honey stomachs and honey is cultivated in cells, after nectar is dropped off and processed by bees in the hive. The bees fan the honey with their wings until it reaches the right dehydration, then cap the honey-filled cells with wax.
There are all kinds of designated cells within a honeycomb structure. “An emergency cell would be if something happened to the queen,” said Wydronek. In cases of a queen’s declining health, worker bees “take an egg or a larvae two or three days old and they start feeding it nothing but royal jelly and that will become a queen.”
It’s important to keep a healthy stock of hives, given average annual losses among beekeepers, which can total to almost 50%. Wydronek references diseases such as American foulbrood, producing spore-forming larvae and weak hives. The larval consistency is soupy or snot-like with an off smell. Once detected, beekeepers must kill the bees and burn the hives.
But not all is grim for the average beekeeper, who gets to relish in a season’s surplus of wax and honey. Wydronek gave me a personal taste of his supply—the first scoop ever from his capped spring reserve. Now let me tell you, I have never tasted honey so fresh and richly complex, scooped straight from the source, the bees nibbling and scraping away at nearby cells. Oh, and in case you were wondering—no, I never got stung.
Backyard Beekeeping and Ways to Help
Operating on an even smaller scale, Jen Larsen of Nectar Bee Supply is considered a backyard beekeeper—a hobbyist with a handful of hives she keeps for fun. Larsen currently tends 10 hives at various locations, a number she says is on the high side for most backyard beekeepers. Larsen’s hives stay stationary “at the whims of the seasons” year-round, feeding on nectar supplies and clustering together in winter months, vibrating their wings to keep warm.
Larsen began beekeeping five years ago, and started Nectar Bee Supply with a few friends in 2012 before selling to Shonnard’s Nursery in 2014. Fascinated by bees from an early age, Larsen, like Wydronek, is a member of the Linn Benton Beekeeping Association (LBBA), and a mentor and “journey” level student in Oregon State University’s Master Bee Program. Like Wydronek, Larsen is approaching master status, which surprisingly no beekeeper has yet reached in Oregon.
Larsen also offers support to outside enthusiasts. “This is a hobby that requires kind of an investment in knowledge,” she shared. And expenses, too, with starting costs in the hundreds for hives and equipment. The cost of starter kids at Shonnard’s range from $259 to $315. “It’s an investment,” admitted Larsen, “but [the hives are] durable and last year after year.”
With some beginner frames, there are no wax honeycomb structures for honey reserves, and beekeepers usually give their bees a boost in form of diluted sugar supplements “that approximates what they can gather from flowers” until they are able to sustain themselves. Shonnard’s sells some dilutions in-store, along with Larsen’s own honey supplies under the name Honey Bee Reverie.
Once built, the honeycomb structure remains for the bees to use and the wax is continually scraped off the capped tops. “To access the honey for extraction, we have to take that wax capping off, so we can harvest that wax, and melt it down and filter it.”
The extracting process involves the frames being spun in a device which flings the honey out against the sides, running down and collecting in buckets. Most extractors are hand-cranked, though some are mobilized, and of course, cleaning can be “a big chore.”
Eventually, beekeepers earn back their bucks in form of wax and honey, the bread and butter of beekeeping, as a single hive can produce up to several gallons of honey per season. Larsen explains the variables involved in a season’s honey supply as “depending on the weather and how strong a bee colony is.”
Larsen regards the warmer weather this season as kind of a bonus for production. “The bees can get out and forage,” she said. With clear skies, they can collect from blooming blackberry bushes, a main source of local nectar. Other pollinators this season include big leaf maples and various herbs and vegetables. “Really what they love is ornamental flower gardens and vegetable gardens, especially if you have some [flowering] herbs.”
Shonnard’s is unique in that the store specializes in pollinator plants untreated by pesticides or neonicotinoids, an important practice in keeping local honey bee hives strong, as harsh chemicals may weaken the bees’ immune systems.
“I don’t advocate antibiotics,” said Larsen, explaining how researchers have found resistance in bees subjected to synthetic treatments. Larsen does, however, treat her hives with natural miticides, with compounds “naturally found in a beehive, like formic acid and thymol.”
Mites are “a huge problem,” specifically the parasitic Varroa destructor mite, which attaches to the backs of adult bees and hides in larval cells, then reproduces and hatches into hives when cells are uncapped.
“As the bee is growing and developing in the cell, that mite is feeding on the developing bee, so when it emerges, its wings are shriveled or its immune system is completely compromised,” Larsen explained.
“There are just so many factors involved in the loss of bees… they kind of just all work together to make this perfect storm of adverse effects,” she continued. However, luckily, “People are realizing that you don’t have to have a hive of bees to be a beekeeper. Just by planting flowering plants in your yard and not using pesticides on them, you can do a lot for the health of local bees.”
To learn more about beekeeping supplies at Shonnard’s Nursery and Nectar Creek Supply, visit http://www.shonnards.com/
By Stevie Beisswanger