The Little Busy Bee

Honeybees are crucial to our environment as primary pollinators of plants, and scientists are scrambling to discover the causes of the recent decline in their numbers. One group might help to reverse the trend: beekeepers.

Over the centuries, the little honeybee has symbolized many big ideas, including immortality, resurrection, purity, the soul and royalty. A myth in ancient cultures said that infants whose lips were touched by bees would become great speakers, poets, storytellers and philosophers. For that reason, bees were known as the “birds of the muses.”

These days, honeybees are valued for more pragmatic reasons. Honeybees are the only insects in the world that produce a food that humans consume. But, as state apiarist Keith Tignor points out, “the value of honeybees is not in the production of honey but in their pollination of plants. That’s contrary to most people’s belief.”

Our honeybee, Apis mellifera, commonly found throughout the Americas, Europe and Africa, is a primary pollinator of many fruits and vegetables including cash crops such as apples, pumpkins, melons, squash, cucumbers and berries. While honey production in the United States is valued at $250 million annually, according to Tignor, the total value of the vegetables, fruit and nuts that bees pollinate every year is roughly $14 billion.

Bees are “generalist pollinators,” says the Richmond-based Tignor. That means they are as happy to visit a tulip poplar tree or the bloom of a blackberry in search of nectar and pollen as they are an apple tree. Their pollination of the trees and wildflowers in our forests, meadows and wetlands adds to the diversity of plant life in those habitats. That, in turn, means more food sources and habitat for wildlife.

Bees live in colonies, within hives. During the summer, a healthy hive can contain between 40,000 and 80,000 bees. So much buzzing in such a modest space might suggest a chaotic community—especially given that bees don’t live very long—but in fact the opposite is true. Colony life is very organized, and every bee plays a specific role.

At the heart of the colony is the queen, which lives two to three years but works diligently to propagate the species, laying up to 2,000 eggs a day during the spring months. Drones, or male bees, develop from unfertilized eggs and exist only to mate with the queen, a traumatic process that kills them. Worker bees—sterile females—are also the product of the queen’s eggs, and in their extremely short lives (during the summer they live roughly one month), they are promoted through a succession of hierarchical jobs. A worker’s first role is to clean comb cells and tend to the queen; she later becomes responsible for building comb cells and receiving nectar and pollen from older worker bees; and then, finally, she graduates to foraging.

In the last week of their fleeting existence, worker bees forage near the hive for nectar, pollen, water and resin. Each worker typically will forage within a two-mile radius of the hive. On average, a worker will make about 10 trips a day and fly an estimated 500 miles before dying (which translates into 80 to 100 miles of flying per day). What’s the payoff for all that labor, which literally wears out their wings? In its lifetime, a single bee will produce one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey.

And now, bees are in peril. Over the last several years, say experts, honeybee populations have fallen by an estimated 30 percent. No one is sure why. Researchers speculate that a variety of environmental factors could be threatening bees (climate change, chemicals), and they use the term Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, to describe the general symptoms of decline. The plight of the bee has become a major concern for scientists, commercial food producers and consumers alike.

One group may help to reverse the decline of bees: beekeepers. There are an estimated 2,500 people in Virginia who keep bees. The vast majority (92 percent) are hobbyists with five to 10 hives; 6 percent are small commercial operations (25 or more hives) that sell honey and/or pollination services for income; and only 2 percent are full-time commercial operations with more than 300 hives. While most beekeepers have no scientific background, their work is important: They keep bee colonies healthy.

To get a closer read on the state of bees, I visited three beekeepers who are experts on these important creatures—one with a smallish commercial operation, another an entomologist and bee researcher and the third a global ambassador for bees. From them I learned that biology is the key to understanding and protecting bees—but colony management also requires an artful approach. Bees are fascinating, of course, and so are the people who know them best.

The Hobbyist: “A work force of 2 million that don’t complain!”

On a sunny Saturday morning in May, at the Lavender Fields Herb Farm in Henrico County, beekeeper Bob Stapleton stands in white protective gear before a row of evenly spaced, white wooden boxes. A group of 10 students taking part in Stapleton’s Introduction to Beekeeping class stands near him, some wearing veils to protect their faces. The boxes are perched on low stands and at first glance seem ordinary. However, closer inspection reveals hundreds of bees flying in and out of a single opening in the base of each box. Stapleton carefully lifts the top off of the stack of white boxes and pulls out a wooden frame—four pieces of wood holding a sheet of wax comb. He holds it up for the students to see. It’s crawling with bees.

Forgetting their apprehension about getting stung, the students crowd in for a closer look. “They won’t sting you,” says Stapleton. He points with his scraper (used to separate the sticky frames from each other) at a single bee. “There’s the queen.” She’s bigger than the tens of thousands of bees in the colony. Stapleton points at a worker bee. “See the pollen on her legs? She’s been foraging.” Indeed, tiny yellow specks of pollen are visible; it’s an important protein source for bees. In spite of being pulled from the dark confines of their hive, the bees stick to their business of cleaning the hive and attending to the queen.

Stapleton, who is a hobbyist with a small business, likes teaching the public about bees. He owns 85 hives and sells the honey produced by their occupants in local markets around the region. He also provides pollination services to orchards and farms. For example, he takes his bees to Ashland Berry Farm every year so they can pollinate its pumpkin flowers. He keeps about 10 hives at Lavender Fields farm, and the rest are scattered around the counties of Hanover, Goochland and New Kent. He even has a few hives at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, where he also teaches Intro to Beekeeping.

Spreading hives around is good for the environment and good for his business, Stapleton says. The bees capture different types of nectar, produce different honey flavors (tulip poplar is Stapleton’s favorite) and pollinate a wide variety of crops. The beekeeper explains that a good “bee yard,” as he calls it, must have water and abundant sources of nectar, which means prolific plant life. Cultivated crops, clover, orchards, backyard vegetable and flower gardens, trees such as black locust, tulip poplar, holly, sourwood—all are good bee pastures, he says.

Stapleton has been around bees since he was a child, growing up with 10 siblings in rural Louisiana. Whereas most kids are introduced to bees as insects that flit from one clover bloom to another and can sting, Stapleton saw them differently. His parents were farmers who kept a vegetable garden and raised their own chickens, cattle, horses … and bees. All the kids pitched in with the work.

“My dad would locate a wild bee tree,” Stapleton recalls, “then saw it down with the goal of taking the queen and enough bees to start a hive at home.” He remembers his father working the bees in bib overalls and short sleeves, and using a homemade smoker to calm them. He’d put the bees in a wood box and, when the time was right, collect the honey and put it in a washtub. Stapleton’s mother would then strain the honey through a piece of silk. “She’d cook with honey, and we had it on the table instead of sugar,” he says.

In 1964, fresh out of the Air Force, Stapleton was living in Virginia and beginning his career as a police officer. He was also keeping bees at his home, as a hobby. One or two hives soon grew to 10, then 20, then 50. Even after his retirement, in 1997, his bee operation continued to grow. “I had what I thought was free time,” Stapleton laughs. Though his business operation is modest, the 67-year-old Stapleton says that making money is not the main reason he keeps bees. He likes being outside, with nature, “and I’ve got a work force of 2 million that don’t complain!”

It takes about three days for bees to transform nectar into honey—and it’s not uncommon for an active hive to produce 12 to 14 pounds of honey daily. Stapleton says that knowing when to collect the food is something of an art. Most honey in Virginia is collected in late spring and early summer. Starting in May, Stapleton keeps tabs on the weight of each hive. The higher the weight, the more honey that is inside. Harvesting the honey at the right time ensures that the honey has the proper moisture content. Grade A honey must have an average moisture content of 18 percent. Honey is acidic, and the low moisture levels, combined with yeast growth, give the food beneficial antibacterial properties.

Stapleton harvests honey in a shed adjacent to his home in Glen Allen. He calls the work space the “honey house.” It’s essentially a room containing a stainless steel counter, a sink and a large cylindrical “extractor”—a motorized device that slings honey from the combs.

But that’s the last part of the harvesting process. Before bringing a frame to his honey house, the beekeeper will inspect it in the field. “If the bees haven’t capped the cells, there’s too much moisture in the honey and it’s not ready to harvest,” says Stapleton. “If that’s the case, I’ll put the frames back on the hives.” The bees themselves then go to work—fanning their wings to take the moisture out of the honey before they cap it. Beekeepers leave 50 to 60 pounds of honey on the hive to get the bees through winter; the rest is available for harvesting.

If the moisture content is right, Stapleton brings the frames to the honey house and, using a heated knife, uncaps the honeycomb’s cells. He then slides each frame vertically into the extractor. It deposits the honey into a lower basin that funnels it through a strainer. It will soon be ready to eat. By mid-June, the harvesting season is over.

Not surprisingly, Stapleton says that most of what he’s learned about bees has come from his firsthand experience with the insects over the years. I ask him for a few interesting tidbits about bee behavior, and he quickly obliges. Stapleton says that he can tell from the sound of the hive if there’s a problem with the queen—or if the queen has left the hive. “A strong buzz means they’re unsettled,” he says. “You’ve got to listen.”

Queens typically “fail” when they become weak egg layers. That might be because of low pheromone levels due to age, or because of disease, mites or injury caused either by the bees themselves or the beekeeper. When a queen fails, the bees stage a coup. Setting in motion a process called supersedure, the worker bees secretly allow a new queen to develop, which takes 16 days. The workers select a fertilized egg to cultivate as a new queen and then feed the grub a special food called royal jelly. Once the new queen emerges, they kill the old queen.

Why such ruthless behavior? “A hive collapses with no fertilized eggs,” says Stapleton. Until recently, beekeepers ordered queens from out-of-state commercial breeders, which carried the risk of poor quality, disease and pests. In an effort to rein in some of these problems, Virginia has developed a queen breeding program with the goal of producing local disease- and pest-resistant queens.

Worker bees also determine when a hive has become overcrowded. When that happens, they will again allow a fertilized egg to develop into a second queen. When the replacement queen is ready to emerge, the workers send a signal to others in the colony, via a “dance,” that it’s time to leave the hive. That is when bees swarm. About half the work force will swarm out of the hive with the new queen and look for another place to live. The other half stays behind with the original queen.

At Lavender Fields Farm, Stapleton carefully puts the top back on the box in the bee yard. The lesson for students is over. Stapleton knows more than most people how vulnerable bees are, but he’s optimistic that these creatures will endure. As he says, walking to his truck, “Bees were here long before us, and I’m sure they’ll be here long after we’re gone.” Let’s hope he is right.

The Researcher: “Many bees are gone.”

Early on a July day in Blacksburg, as I walk through a door and under a giant paper butterfly, I know I’ve reached the entomology department at Virginia Tech. A few moments later, I spot an office with a spacious, cluttered desk, on which are several jars containing different types of honey. It belongs to Rick Fell, a professor of entomology, a specialist in apiculture and the state’s leading scientific expert on bees. He’s been teaching bee courses at Tech for nearly for 30 years and is the lead researcher at four research apiaries in Virginia.

For all his expertise, Fell retains an obvious enthusiasm for, and fascination with, bees. He says that he’s still amazed by the sophisticated social and chemical communication systems exhibited by bee colonies. For example, he says there are always a few worker bees collecting water. When a hive is under heat stress, they recruit the other foragers to go find more water. Suddenly water is more valuable than pollen or nectar. “When the colony needs shift,” Fell says, “the workers respond.”

Honeybees communicate with each other chemically, says Fell, through the release of pheromones. And a major part of the communication process is what he and other experts call the “dance.” Worker bees dance within the hive to provide information to their colony mates about the location of food sources—where they are, how to find them. This communication enables the workers to forage efficiently for nectar without wasting energy by flying to less productive sources. “Dances are re-enactments of the flight from the hive to a food source,” says Fell.

How a bee dances—in which direction and with which motions—signals to others the direction in which the group should fly. For example, a “round” dance involves a circle in one direction, followed by a reverse circle indicating a food source in the immediate vicinity of the colony. The “waggle,” or “wag tail” dance, involves a circle with zigzags through the middle. If the bee flies straight up, she is telling fellow foragers to fly to the sun. If she flies straight down, she means fly towards the ground. Distance is communicated by sound bursts, which mimic flight.

Analyzing bee dances is one aspect of what might be called the light side of Fell’s work. The dark side is what he’s learned about the vulnerability of bees to various environmental threats. Over the past eight years, Fell says, studies have shown that bee colonies, on average, have lost more than 30 percent of their population. Many factors could be playing a role in this decline—parasites, disease, nutrition and the more generalized malaise known as Colony Collapse Disorder, a catchall term for problems afflicting the health and size of bee populations. Whatever the reasons behind CCD, Fell says, the upshot is that “a large percent” of foraging bees are disappearing. “There’s still a functioning queen, a brood rearing young, but many are gone.”

Recent research has discovered two new pathogens that are associated with CCD, and that are a major concern for the beekeeping industry. One is the Israel Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV), and the other is a parasite called Nosema ceranae. The latter can reduce the life span of bees, reduce honey production and increase the likelihood of queen supersedure, when a failing queen is replaced by the hive, all of which threaten the health of the colony. “We’ve had the Nosema species in the United States since 1995,” says Fell, “but now we’re seeing a new type that affects bees differently and will have a potentially serious impact on the colony.” In one study, more than 60 percent of the hives were infected with Nosema ceranae. Experts are trying to learn how Nosema is spread, whether it’s associated with CCD—and if so, what role it is playing. “My guess is that Nosema doesn’t cause CCD but is a symptom,” says Fell. “The prevailing idea is that the decline in bees is caused by different stresses on bees—and multiple stresses lead to colony failure.”

Researchers have struggled to pinpoint specific honeybee threats because there are so many factors to consider. They include the weather (excessive heat, drought and cold can be a problem), food shortages, mites and sundry diseases. The varroa mite has plagued beekeepers for years, but Fell says that the chemical treatments that many beekeepers use to control it might be causing more long-term damage than the mite itself. According to Fell, pesticide residue is showing up in the pollen and wax of most hives. “As beekeepers, we are guilty of over-treating the hives—we’re part of the problem. It’s likely that the presence of chemicals is stressing the bees.”

In 2009, Fell authored a report on bees that was submitted by the Virginia Cooperative Extension to the Virginia General Assembly. In it, Fell makes several reassuring points. One is that, thanks in part to dedicated funding, the state has developed several bee management programs that are proving successful. The state is promoting multi-regional queen rearing programs (producing disease-resistant, non-aggressive honeybees) and integrated pest-control strategies. Agencies are monitoring the Africanized honeybee and assessing the risk associated with it. And they have educated farmers on the benefits of using local honeybee pollination services to increase crop yield and lessen our dependence on imported bees. Fell points out that native bees, which do not produce honey, are also large pollinators of agricultural crops and thus “provide substantial insurance for successful pollination when honeybee populations are threatened.”

For all the importance of research, Fell still gets a kick out of showing his students how wonderfully innocent bees can be. In his Basic Bees and Beekeeping class, the professor takes students out in the field for a firsthand look at bee behavior. He puts the queen into a little wire cage and asks a student to hold the cage in a bare hand. As the students stand in their street clothes—wide-eyed with fear—the bees swarm to cover the queen. Before long, the student has a cluster of honeybees the size of a basketball covering her hand and arm. “You can see the fear give way to awe, and suddenly they are grinning and saying, ‘This is so cool,’” says Fell. “I love watching their expressions.”

The Ambassador: “Bees are fascinating insects!”

Virginia’s Piedmont is well-known for its equestrian culture, and like many in her area near Culpeper, Ann Harman enjoys horses. She’s got a lovely piece of property in the county, with a barn, a rustic house nestled in the shade of a few trees and several horses grazing in a pasture.

Though an ideal landscape for Equus, the rolling pastures full of clover also make a perfect environment for Apis, a fact not lost on this beekeeper and longtime ambassador for bees. Harmon, 78, is an award-winning Master beekeeper and president of the Virginia State Beekeepers’ Association. Over the years, she has traveled statewide, around the country and to about 30 nations to teach or give lectures on beekeeping. She has served on national and state beekeeping boards and is co-editor of the beekeeping journals Bee Craft America and ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture. Nowadays she is working on a Virginia Standard of Identity for honey and continuing her outreach efforts.

She recently returned from Africa, where she worked with a local beekeeper. “In Nigeria, we were dealing with the African bee,” she says. “What you can do with them is very limited. Our bees swarm maybe once or twice a year; the African bee swarms, swarms, swarms! Our bees rarely abscond [i.e., leave en masse]; the African bee often absconds. It’s very difficult to manage African bees.”

To listen to Harman review her life and career, sitting on her back deck in the company of hummingbirds, is to see that she has something of an intrinsic connection to bees. Ever since she was a child growing up in the 1940s in Washington, D.C., Harman was curious about bees. She liked them and wanted some of her own. “When I was 5 years old, I remember moving a bee from one flower to the next,” she says. “My mother screamed at me, ‘What are you doing?’ I told her I was helping the bees. I never did get stung!”

But it wasn’t until 1972, when she was in her 40s, that she got her wish. Harman, a chemist by training, was then working for the Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Science and Technology) and had just moved to a small farm in Maryland. She met a neighbor who knew about keeping bees, and Harman expressed her interest in doing the same. Not long after, the neighbor called Harman and asked if she had a hive. She said no. “A little while later,” Harman recalls, “a truck came up the driveway. The driver left a pile of wood and some instructions, along with a note that said, ‘See you after dinner.’” As promised, the neighbor returned that evening with an Old Crow box full of bees. “I finally had bees,” says Harman with a wry smile, “but I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.” She soon would. Harman enrolled in a yearlong apiculture course at the University of Maryland, taught by well-known bee specialist Dewey Caron. She was hooked.

Nearly four decades later, Harmon remains enthralled by the social aspects of the colony. She admits that it’s difficult to explain to people why one would want to put on a veil and venture into a colony of bees—except for one basic fact. “Bees are fascinating insects!”

Harman is a practitioner of what she calls “let-alone beekeeping.” Her first rule: Less is more. In practice, she says, that means thinking before you open the hive. “Think about what the bees might need,” she says. “If they don’t need anything, don’t do anything.” She makes an exception to this rule for first-year beekeepers. She tells new beekeepers to open the hive and study the bees, because there is no better way to learn how they behave.

Nature also plays a significant role in her apiculture philosophy. Harman takes a holistic approach to managing bees. “I consider how weather affects plants, which affects the bees,” she says. “You can’t look at beekeeping as 100 percent scientific. You’ve got to be concerned with the bees’ welfare. Do they have enough food? Are they in a good spot? That’s where the art comes in.” Beekeepers are very inventive when it comes to problem solving, but she cautions that what works for one doesn’t always work for the next.

While Harman is thankful for the many opportunities that beekeeping has brought her, she is concerned that nearly all of her brethren “have gray hair.” She says, “We’ve got to initiate interest in the youth now or we’re in trouble. It’s a lot easier for kids to sit inside the air-conditioning with a computer than being hot and getting stung!”

Harman is doing her part. She keeps a teaching apiary at Verdun Adventure Bound, a youth facility near her home in Flint Hill. Verdun Adventure Bound offers programs for children and young adults in the counties of Culpeper, Fauquier and Rappahannock aimed at fostering personal growth and the importance of land stewardship. Much of the emphasis is on ecology studies, of which the teaching apiary is a key element. It is also used by the Northern Piedmont Beekeepers for classes and workshops.

Harman points out, with a grin, that the word “apiary” is confusing to many people. “Some people want to know what kind of birds I keep,” she says, “but the best of all was when someone asked me how I keep apes!” Behind the laughter, she knows that widespread ignorance about bees is a problem. And that’s primarily why she’s traveled the world to teach beekeeping.

Her first assignment, in the 1980s, took her to Hungary, just after Perestroika in the Soviet Union. “The place was a total disaster,” she recalls. “The people had no money, didn’t know which end was up and had no idea what to do.” Harman’s mission was to start the learning process—to give them the tools to improve their lives through agriculture. Today, she is pleased to say that Hungary has a thriving beekeeping industry. Last fall, she traveled to Montpelier, France, to attend Apimondia 2009, an international conference on beekeeping. Knowledge is power, and right now, bees can use all the exposure and help they can get. •

Virginia State Beekeepers Association: VirginiaBeekeepers.org

To find local honey, visit LocalHarvest.org—or a farmers’ market.

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