Bees: for centuries they’ve inspired poets, authors, artists and even religious cults. They’ve lured man and beast with their sticky-sweet honey. They’ve been worshipped, feared, cultivated and celebrated through the ages. They remain both a powerful symbol and rich metaphor.
But the reasons for appreciating bees go beyond romantic notions of honey and hives. Bees have existed for 100 million years, making them one of the oldest species on earth. Today, however, bees are in trouble. Their existence is threatened by an unexplained phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
I recently took a beekeeping class with Steve Wall, owner of Buckin’ Bee Honey in Santa Fe. In the class, Steve talked about the importance of beekeeping and its impact on CCD, while giving us the basics on getting started.
Why do bees matter?
Seasoned gardeners know bees are a welcome addition to the backyard habitat. Bees deter unwanted insects and are some of the most prolific pollinators in the world. In fact, one worker bee may visit up to 2,000 flowers per day. By some estimates bees are responsible for pollinating 80% of food crops in the U.S., including apples, nuts, avocados, soybeans, asparagus, broccoli, celery, squash and cucumbers, as well as citrus fruit, peaches, kiwi, cherries, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, cantaloupe and melons. Bees are as essential to us as they are fascinating, and even small-scale hobbyist beekeepers contribute to maintaining a healthy bee population.
Steve covers a lot of material in the beginner’s class; the information is dense but interesting. I got the sense I was just skimming the surface of an enormously complex topic. Still, as a teacher Steve is patient, good-natured and highly knowledgeable. The class gives students enough information to get started and builds confidence by providing a close-up look at the hives, a queen bee, a drone and some tiny varroa mites (one of the suspected culprits behind CCD).
In the class I took, Steve started with a basic explanation of the bees’ social order: there’s a queen (who lays the eggs), several drones (whose only job is to mate with the queen), and thousands of workers (who clean house, gather food, and defend the hive). A queen bee is the only sexually matured female in the colony, and she lays all the eggs. Therefore, the entire colony is a reflection of the queen’s genetics. If a colony is aggressive or weak, a beekeeper needs only to replace the queen, and in a few weeks the entire colony’s genetics will be altered.
But where do new queen bees come from?
When the colony decides to create a queen, they prepare a large “queen cell” for the new queen. The existing queen lays eggs in the special cells, and the workers feed the larvae royal jelly, resulting in a new queen bee. This amazing ability to change the development of a larva after it has emerged from the egg is a result of a very interesting area of biology called epigenetics. More on that here.
Where do bees go in winter?
Bees spend summer and fall gathering as much pollen and nectar as they can so they can build up their reserves of honey. When the temperature drops below 50°F, the colony settles in for winter and lives off its honey reserves. If the bees have enough honey to see them through the winter (or a kindly beekeeper supplementing their food supply), they will reemerge in spring, ready to start the process again. In spring, if there are enough workers and the hive is feeling crowded, the colony will split into two parts and swarm.
What is swarming?
Swarming sounds kind of scary (like some kind of bee attack formation), but in the class I learned it’s actually a good thing. When a colony outgrows its hive, the bees make a new queen and half the colony leaves with the old queen, effectively splitting the colony in two. That’s how bees expand and populate new areas. That’s also why you may see a ball of bees hanging on a tree or house in April or May. (Incidentally, if you do see swarming bees, call a local beekeeper or beekeeping club—they will be happy to take that swarm of bees off your hands and put it in an apiary!)
Lastly, we talked about the practical aspects of keeping bees. Steve covered topics such as finding the necessary equipment, controlling disease, and feeding the bees. Then, at last, it was what we’d all been waiting for: it was time to visit the beehives. We gathered around as Steve fired up the smoker, and he explained why beekeepers use them. It’s not because it calms the bees, as is commonly thought. In fact, Steve says it does the opposite. It agitates them because they believe the colony is in danger. Their response is to panic and eat as much honey as they can to save it, and they are so distracted with eating and saving honey they don’t bother to sting the beekeeper.
The highlight of the class: Communing with the bees
With the smoker whispering ribbons of smoke, we approached the hives. As we drew nearer, the buzz of individual bees mingled into a humming symphony. We slowed our pace, both intimidated and enticed by these beguiling little creatures. They hovered. They darted. They danced around our heads in choreographed chaos. Steve slowly, carefully opened up a hive and began pulling out honeycombs filled with bees. He pointed out eggs, larvae, laying patterns and capped cells. He let us look at a drone with varroa mites through a magnifying glass as he explained how to monitor for infestation. We saw an example of a queen cell, indicating that the colony will swarm soon.
Deeper and deeper into the hive we went, gazing in amazement at the geometric perfection of the combs, the cooperation of the bees, and the glistening honey dripping from within. Steve continued to pull out combs, one at a time, until at last, there she was: the queen. We all leaned in to see the most important member of the colony, this mother of thousands. She was larger and longer than the others, and by outward appearances not a creature you’d expect to lay up to 2,000 eggs per day. Once we’d gotten a good look, Steve nestled her back in her home and we left the bees in peace.
I retreated from the hives with a deeper understanding of—and appreciation—for these creatures that are at once both small and powerful, fragile and fierce.
Bees work for man; and yet they never bruise
Their masters flower, but leave it, having done,
As fair as ever, and as fit to use;
So both the flower doth stay, and honey run.
Interested in beekeeping? Buckin’ Bee Honey sells top-bar hives on their website. There are also a number of beekeeping clubs in the area, as well as online forums and publications.