Minutes July 18 — Bees and Beekeeping In Our Area

Gardeners Exchange Group Meeting 20 June 2015
Location: Home of Mike and Bonnie Austin
Topic: Bees and Beekeeping in our Area, by Mike Austin
Submitted by Julie Neely, GEG Secretary

Life, believe, is not a dream
So dark as sages say:
Oft a little morning rain
Foretells a pleasant day
Charlotte Bronte

Our meeting started with clouds and a small shower but the sun came out and all who attended were rewarded not only with the sunshine but with a fascinating lecture all about bees given by Mike Austin.

Mike is now a local beekeeper and a member of the Eastern Panhandle Beekeepers Association. He has been keeping bees for twelve years and has a number of colonies at various locations in the area. He served as a Navy Deep Sea Diving Officer, traveling (diving) the world over, retired from the U.S. Navy and began a career in International Disaster Coordination with FEMA . It was during his work in Kosovo while promoting agricultural independence from Russia that he first noticed how various cultures valued and worked with honey bees. He took a beginner beekeeping course in Boonsboro MD and his relationship with bees began in earnest.

Honey Bees are Immigrants

Honey bees are not North American natives. They were introduced in the 1600s, brought onboard ships to supply wax and sweetener for the colonists. The natural environment in America at that time was rich in diversity and allowed the European honey bee to adapt easily and flourish; in fact, until early in the twentieth century if you wanted your own bees, you simply captured a feral colony — they were so abundant in nature. Native bees do exist in North America but these are solitary nectar gatherers, who do a great job pollinating but do not live in colonies/hives and do not make honey.

Bee Society

Bees have a unique, socially committed lifestyle with non chaotic, division of labor that was recognized during the Renaissance as a model for human social order, in fact the honey bee is the symbol of the Napoleonic reign. The social structure of the bee colony consists of three casts:

  • Queen bees are solitary and supreme. The queen is supported by the entire hive. Newly emerged queen bees systematically kill all other potential baby queen bees. A queen bee requires 21 days to reach maturity. The queen’s sole purpose is to lay eggs into the wax cells in the hive. Cells come in two sizes: large for males (who have a larger head) and small for workers. The queen measures the size of the cell with her antennae and deposits the correct sex egg based on the cell size.
  • Worker bees comprise 95% of the hive; these are the daughters of the queen. There are approximately 20-40,000 workers per hive. A worker bee requires 23 days to reach maturity.
  • Drones, the males. There are usually 10 to 12 male bees per hive. Twenty-five days are required to form a drone in order to produce their larger head/brain which they require to find the queen and mate. Once the drones mate, they die. But not all males choose to mate; some remain as part of a pampered cadre of males for a single season (and then they are escorted out of the hive and die). The presence of these pampered drones is thought to improve the overall tranquility of the hive.


A complex chemical compound produced by the queen is is passed through physical contact between the worker bees who nurture the queen. As the workers go about their jobs of feeding baby bees and polishing the cells in the hive, they spread the pheromone; each bee family/colony is marked by its own unique pheromone. A happy, contented hive has a tranquil, harmonic hum. Beekeepers know that every maxim regarding bees has exceptions and forager bees have been known to disregard pheromones and enter another colony to deliver their load of food to their neighbor bees. Strange that the guards would allow such a thing — but it does happen. Also, bees have been known to sneak into neighboring hives and steal honey.

Bee Longevity

A bee’s life expectancy varies: 5–6 weeks in February, March, and April, and 4–5 months in summer, but during the springtime bees literally work themselves to a quick death as they fly back and forth from flowers to the hive. Bees use a lot of energy for flight; their wings beat 230-240 times per second and flap at a 90 degree angle to their bodies. Their flight range searching for food may be up to three miles.

Bee’s Life and Work

The worker bees have many tasks within the hive and systematically cycle through these tasks during their lives beginning with the tasks of the “house bees.” Bees spend two-thirds of their lifes as a house bee, one-third as a forager. New house bees monitor humidity, flap their wings to humidify and cool the hive, keep the hive clean by discarding debris and dead bees (mortuary bee duty), and guard the entrance to the hive, lined up in formation as guard bees. New bees are born kind of fuzzy/hairy, older bees become bald. As the bees mature they become foragers, moving on to gather nectar, pollen, water and making propolis. House bees call the shots in the hive, somehow knowing and then informing the foragers regarding what to collect (either nectar or water) and then deciding whether to accept or reject the payload presented by the returning foragers as they land at the entrance to the hive. In some situations, such as when bees swarm to create a new colony, forager bees can transform themselves back into house bees in order to make wax and create and maintain the new hive. The beeswax on the sides of the frames within the hive is extruded from glands on the bee’s chest wall and is shaped into six-sided wax hexagons to store honey and to contain eggs. The hexagon is the most efficient storage shape. If the existing queen is “bad” or “too old,” house bees can “decide” to create a new queen by feeding queen babies a special diet of royal jelly. They send foragers out to find a suitable new hive/location and, taking the newly formed queen bee, they go to the new hive and split the colony. All bees are extremely hygienic. They use specialized hairy notches on their front legs to groom their antennae which become soiled as they feel their way with their antennae through the interior of the dark, sticky hive. They use static electricity to groom pollen off of their bodies, which they roll into a ball and move using a specialized spike on their middle legs into expandable saddle bag pouches on their hind legs, for carrying. Of note — pollen can be many different colors from brown to yellow.

Bee Sensory Equipment

Bees have a tiny brain the size of a sesame seed and yet they can count and they can see and recognize you personally by your facial features and smell. The sensory response for bees is six to eight times faster than for humans if a bee’s brain tells the bee to move the bee moves! They have a complicated communication system involving “dancing” in which foragers memorize the location of food sources and transmit that information to other bees using different dance steps. The round dance describes a nectar source within 35 feet of the hive, directions to food located greater than 35 feet from the hive are given using a different dance, all directions based on the location of the food source related to the sun; after dark the directions are of limited value. Bees are able to fly about only if external temperatures are over 45 degrees. A bee’s internal temperature is about 80 degrees. On windy days bees don’t fly around but be forewarned, they do walk around outside near the hive.


Bees can be mail-ordered and come in boxes, sold by the pound, at about $110 per three pounds of bees. The queens are purchased separately ($30 per queen) and come in a separate small screened box containing worker bee attendants and a food source. Queens are marked with color for easy identification. To unite the new bees into a colony, the new queen in her box is placed amongst the new worker bees. If the “colony binds together,” the worker bees will begin to feed the new queen through the screen. The queen can then be let out of her box and will take her place of honor in the new colony and hive. Bees in general reflect their culture, and the queen will raise new bees that reflect her heritage. For example Carolinian bees have “Anglo saxon/French” traits, Italian bees make a lot of propolis and are friendly, and Russian bees are a bit aggressive and hardy.

When working with bees it is advisable to move slowly. Bees are instinctive; it is not clear what exactly triggers them to sting. Bees are attracted to dark areas such as ears, nostrils, and eyes. When a bee stings you, the stinger remains in your skin and pulls out of the bee, killing the bee. A stinger “alarm” scent is released which attracts other bees to the sting site. Each bee hive has a unique character; some are gentle, some are a bit more aggressive.

Threats to Bees

The bee mite was introduced accidentally as a by product of globalization and infestation with mites weakens bees. The chemicals used on the bees to kill the mites also weaken the bees. Hive beetles and ants are a bothersome problem for bees. Bees are vulnerable to birds as food especially when leaving and entering the hive, so they have developed expeditious means to leave the hive rapidly at a 45-degree angle and return at a 48-degree angle.   Contrary to popular belief, skunks and bears do not love to eat honey but rather skunks and bears eat bees. Modern farming with its heavy reliance on pesticides and herbicides is not bee friendly. Sugar beets, usually genetically modified strains, cause digestive problems for bees. There seems to be no single cause for the decline in the bee population. The good news is that the almond-growers lobby in California needs honey bees (over two thousand colonies are used for pollinating almond trees) and has devoted large sums of money for bee health research.

Killer Bees

This type of honey bee originated in Africa and developed aggressive traits as an evolutionary survival mechanism to survive the harsh African environment. They were found in Brazil in the 1940s; the crossed genetics between African bees and domestic bees yielded an “Africanized” hybrid bee which demonstrates aggressive traits. These Africanized bees have managed to spread through Central America to the southern United States as far as Georgia and southern California.

Honey bee Diet

Bees enjoy a wide range of seasonal flowers, shrubs and trees; their diet changes over the seasons. Bees see a different spectrum of light than humans; they see the UV spectrum and see no red color at all. They are attracted to shape as well as color. Flower nutrient value changes over the life of the flower. Trees such as black locust, tulip, pussywillow and poplar trees supply a great deal of nourishment in the form of pollen and nectar for bees. The term “honey flow” refers to the flowering period of March to July when most honey is produced. During July to August there is a dearth of food for bees and they live off of their honey stores until August when goldenrod and late summer/autumn flowers bloom. During winter months bees live off of their stored honey. Advice for gardeners trying to grow bee friendly plants was to plant large quantities of the same plants in clumps, or to plant flowering trees. Bees don’t like to travel far and prefer to go from flower to flower in a concentrated area. Think sequentially when planting so that when one flowering period ends another will begin blooming. Bees also like weeds — as if we need any encouragement to stop weeding.

Bee Hive Construction and Honey Yields

A “deep frame” full of honey and wax weighs 80 pounds. Frames are made of wood with a thin plastic membrane to contain the hexagonal wax cells. Each frame has 2 holes that allow easy passage of the bees through the hive. The frames stack together with a small “bee space” in between frames to make up the hive. The width of the “bee space” is carefully determined – too big and the bees would fill it with wax. Modern hives are made in order to facilitate inspection of the bee’s health. Centuries ago bee hives were constructed of straw called a bee skep. A bee hive is placed so that the opening faces South East to capture the warmth. Smokers are used to relax bees (narcotic effect of smoke) to allow work on the frames to collect honey. Additionally, when the bees smell the smoke they crawl to the bottom of the hive and begin to consume honey in preparation to flee the hive, this allows beekeepers to work on the upper frames. Honey is collected two or more times a year. A 10-frame hive will yield about 80 pounds of honey. Beekeepers must allow the bees to keep 60-80 pounds of honey for winter sustenance.

Honey Bees and Your Health – Science or Folklore?

Sugar water is not honey. Table sugar is sucrose; honey is fructose, glucose, maltose and small amounts of other sugars. Honey is made by bees from nectar tainted with pollen and is flavored by the bee’s diet at the time. Honey has been attributed with medicinal qualities especially consumption of local honey to reduce seasonal allergies. Honey is used as a treatment for burns. Propolis is used in heart surgery and bees stings are thought to be useful in some kinds of arthritis treatment.