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Sticky Business

September 6, 2008
By ANDY BATES, Enterprise Features Editor

Steve Hann eats his breakfast on this particular Saturday at 2 p.m., and before you start calling him lazy, consider this: He just worked the night shift as a registered nurse, he spent his summer working as a counselor and after he finishes his cereal and orange juice, he's gearing up to do something very few people around here do - harvest honey.

He and his wife Molly are hobby beekeepers. They've got two mature hives and a third on the way. And on this day, the one day of the year they harvest, they're about to pry open the tops of their hives, smoker in hand (in case the bees get a little agitated at them), and see what the little workers have been up to this spring and summer.

"My father has always kept bees, probably for about 40 years now," Steve said. "When I was five, I remember going out and helping him."

Article Photos

Steve and Molly Hann, in full beekeeping regalia
(Enterprise photo — Andy Bates)

Now the practice is pretty much second nature to Steve and Molly, but that doesn't make it any less interesting to the observer.

First, the two lay down newspaper in their kitchen, since harvesting can be a sticky, messy business, and set up what they'll need inside. For their purposes, they have a red plastic tub over which they uncap the honey and a large metal drum with a hand-crank centrifuge to extract the honey from the frames, once they're uncapped.

Then its outside, where they don their overalls, gloves, helmets and mesh veils. Unless you've harvested honey before, it's hard to imagine staying calm with so many bees around you. In many ways, we're conditioned to run away from the buzzing when we hear it. But Steve and Molly approach the hives calmly, despite the fact that there are probably about 80,000 bees in each one.

They lift the outer cover, the inner cover, and the hive top feeder to get to the honey super where the bees store their excess honey. Then they pull out each frame and brush away any bees that may still be hanging out in there before carrying the honey super inside.

After that, Molly and Steve repeat the process with the second hive and get out of their gear. Naturally, the beekeeper's attire is meant to protect him or her from stings, but there's always a chance a bee or two might find its way into the fold of your pants or shirt and give you a sting.

For Steve, he's been stung more times than he can count and says his father is so used to it that sometimes he doesn't even wear gloves when he harvests.

On this day, though plenty of bees lost their stingers and, hence, their lives, none managed to get through.

Once the supers have been collected, it's time to uncap the wax, extract it from the combs, filter it and eat it.

But how did we

get this far?

Sure, a bee sting hurts, but honeybees get a bad rep because of it. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything quite like them on the planet. They're organized, efficient, self-sustaining and they provide three very essential products.

For many, their honey is the first thing people think about. Or the beeswax they mind. But their role as pollinators is probably their most important since they pollinate roughly 80 percent of the food crops we eat.

In a colony, everybody has a job and a status. There's the queen, one per colony, who lays eggs and keeps the hive populated. The queen comes from a fertilized egg, the same as a worker bee, but the worker bees themselves determine which egg they want to develop into the queen and which ones will stay workers.

When a hive gets very strong, they may feed an egg "royal jelly" to produce another queen and split off into a new hive. Or they'll do the same thing if a queen becomes infertile, lost or injured.

The drone, which is male, is there mainly to fertilize queens. He has no organs for gathering nectar or secreting wax to build the combs, and as soon as he's impregnated a queen, he dies.

The workers, infertile females, collect, store and cure flower nectar to make honey; collect and store plant proteins and pollen; and secrete beeswax to make combs. They also act as guards and cleaning crews.

They're the engine of the hive and each job they perform is determined by age. The first job of a worker after she hatches is to clean cells. Next, she takes care of larvae and secretes food to keep the brood warm. She also helps ventilate the hive and aids in ripening honey. After that, she moves out of the brood and moves to the honey supers where she comes in contact with foragers and begins gathering nectar and pollen.

The oldest bees are the foragers, and they collect water, nectar, pollen and propolis. The water is used to cool the hive, and the nectar they make into honey. They feed the pollen to larvae and use propolis (gummy substances like pine sap) to seal the hive.

But how do they know where to go? Well, quite simply, they talk to each other. When a bee finds a good food source, she stores what she can and flies back to the hive. In the hive, she uses what she's stored to attract other members of the hive and directs them to the source with a "waggle dance," which tells the other hive members the distance and direction of the food source.

Typically, a bee will travel approximately three miles from the hive for food at a clip of about 15 miles per hour. However, a honeybee would have to travel more than 55,000 miles and visit approximately 2 million flowers to make one pound of honey. As it stands, one honeybee will only produce about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.

In the spring and summer, the queen instinctively knows to lay more eggs to drive the hive and up food production. Come late fall, she lays far fewer eggs, and workers will drive out useless drones who eat up food supplies.

Back to the harvest

When a comb is filled with honey, the bees use wax to cap and store it. When Steve and Molly bring their honey supers in, they first have to use a heated electric knife to scrape off the wax cap.

As he scrapes, Steve will occasionally pick up a clump of wax he's just scraped and pop it in his mouth, sucking the excess honey and spitting out the wax ball when he's done. It's one of the perks of the job.

Once a frame of comb has been uncapped, Molly puts it in the extractor and begins spinning. The centrifugal force sends the honey from the combs and it collects at the bottom of the drum.

Then it's drained from the drum through a filter and collected in a bucket. From there, it's poured over a fine cheese cloth into another bucket where it's left to sit for 48 hours before it's bottled.

What the future holds

For 20 million years, bees have changed very little until now, and beekeeping numbers have taken a hit.

For Steve, it seems hobby beekeeping has been on the decline, but only one percent of the beekeepers in the U.S. are commercial keepers. Hobbyists and sideline beekeepers (those who keep larger hives but don't rely on it as a main source of income) still comprise the majority.

One reason is a dip in honey prices, but far more alarming is the discovery of Colony Collapse Disorder. Imagine this: One day, your colony is strong and thriving, then the next day, it's virtually empty with no trace left behind.

While it's still a mystery (one claim that it was being caused by cell phone signals has been roundly rejected by the scientific community), researchers believe CCD is being caused by a combination of factors, including parasitic mites, pesticide exposure, viruses and other pathogens that can become magnified by having so many commercial hives in such close contact with one another.

The federal government has allocated millions in funding to study CCD since its discovery, but in the meantime, commercial beekeepers who use their bees to pollinate food crops are having to import bees and are seeing their colony numbers drop by the thousands in some instances.

In this way, hobby beekeepers can become an asset since the bees travel so far to find food and pollinate. The more people with a few hives in their backyards, the more likely the work bees have done for the past 20 million years can continue.



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