In the face of challenges, Centre County beekeepers work to help honeybees survive and thrive
Beekeepers are a dedicated and passionate lot.
Take Kathryn Miller, for instance.
Miller is allergic to bee stings, but that hasn’t stopped her from maintaining honeybee hives for the past several years. She’s undergone nearly a year of allergy shots to guard against future stings.
Now that’s true commitment, right?
“Yeah, but they’re so interesting,” Miller, of Boalsburg, says of the bees. “And they need us.”
We need the bees too, of course, as they’re key pollinators vital to agriculture. There is also that sweet bonus with honeybees.
“Honeybees aren't the only pollinators that are important,” says Dee Bagshaw, co-leader of the Centre County Beekeepers’ Association. “Bumblebees are another really important one, [as are] hummingbirds, butterflies. All those are important for our pollination and for growing vegetables and everything else we like. Honeybees just happen to produce a great side product.”
Yes, there is the honey. Perhaps a couple of gallons of it from a single hive. But while some beekeepers of course sell much of their honey, that’s not a factor for many, including Miller and Bagshaw.
Miller says she prefers to let the bees keep their own honey, which helps sustain the colony through a long winter.
“A bee in their lifetime is only going to make one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey, and there are thousands and thousands of bees [in the hive] and they're all working their heads off, and I think they ought to benefit from their own stuff.”
That old cliché about someone being busy as a bee – well, there’s a reason for it.
Honeybees have their own societal structure that is as fascinating as it is impressive.
While individually bumblebees tend to be smarter and more efficient pollinators, as a colony honeybees are formidable, says Katy Ciola Evans, manager of Penn State’s Lopez-Uribe Lab, which focuses on pollinators and pollinator health.
“As a colony, all these individuals are working together to make a whole society, if you will,” Evans says of honeybees, which are native to Europe and the Asia region. European settlers brought them to America in the 1600s.
There are the worker bees: infertile females who in the early stages of life act as nurse bees, taking care of the hive. Later, these worker bees become foragers, ranging two to five miles (three is more typical) from the hive to collect nectar and pollen and bring it back to the colony.
A worker bee transports pollen back to the hive in tiny “baskets” on her hind legs.
On average, worker bees live five to six weeks in the summer. The most common cause of death, according to the American Beekeeping Federation, is that their wings wear out.
“They're out foraging at least a couple of miles and it may be several miles out; they can be way down the road,” Bagshaw says. “You think about that little bee flying several miles. No wonder they wear themselves out.”
When the worker bees find an area that is rich in pollen or nectar, “they come back and do what is typically called a waggle dance,” Bagshaw says. “This is their way of telling the rest of the bees, ‘go approximately this far, and in that direction, and you're going to find some good stuff.’”
There are the drones, males whose sole purpose in the colony is to mate (in mid-air) with the queen, although most never get the chance. On top of that, they’re kicked out of the hive during the winter months.
And there is the queen. It’s good to be the queen.
The queen is a fertile female who can lay more than 1,000 eggs a day. Each honeybee hive has only one queen, and the other bees in the colony take care of her, including making sure she has plenty of food and huddling around her to keep her warm in winter. Unlike her hive mates, a queen can live up to five years.
But growing old can be tough on queen bees.
“Towards the end of that [lifespan], if they’re not as productive the collective can decide, ‘we’re making a new queen,’” says Chris Federinko of Toftrees, a new beekeeper who is being mentored by Miller. “She’s the center of attention until she doesn’t perform. Then she’s out.”
A new queen is developed from larvae selected by the worker bees, which is heavily fed protein-rich royal jelly. The queen grows larger than the other bees in the colony.
Winter poses particular challenges for honeybees – and for beekeepers trying the help their hives “overwinter.”
“Winters are tough for several reasons,” Bagshaw says, including low stores of food if the hive didn't put enough away or the beekeeper took too much, variable temperatures, moisture, and problems with mites. Other challenges include environmental stress, loss of foraging, and pesticides.
“There no simple one answer but a constellation of issues that all can happen.”
The Varroa mite is a particular problem, as a carrier of viruses that can affect the hive, leading to increased death rates among honeybees.
Many hives are lost by early spring.
The Lopez-Uribe Lab has a project ongoing comparing different management strategies of honeybees, as well as another project in which feral bees are collected from tall trees to help establish a health status and survival data for feral colonies, Evans says.
Among other research, the lab is looking at squash bees, pollinators of pumpkins, and it is updating a checklist of all types of bees in Pennsylvania, which number about 450.
Even some simple steps can help protect pollinators, Evans says.
“Just mowing your lawn less” and farmers’ spraying at night and on cloudier days when bees are less active can help, she says.
Despite the challenges, beekeepers persevere.
“It's one of those things like farming,” Bagshaw says. “In general, you have to accept that nature’s a pretty cruel deal. You do your best to try to learn how to be a good beekeeper and take care of them, but everybody including the big master beekeepers will lose lots of hives.”
The national average is around 30 to 40 percent, she says.
Spring tends to be the busiest time of year for beekeepers, as their hives come alive. Stores of honey may be low before the bees have a chance to make new honey, so many beekeepers use a sugar-water mixture to help nourish the bees. New frames for honeycomb may need to be added as the brood grows and the colony produces honey.
“You’re making sure that there's enough space in the boxes,” Federinko says. “Sometimes there are so many bees that you have to keep adding boxes and if you don't add those boxes … the queen will take half that box of bees and leave. She’ll go sit in a tree somewhere with all the bees that cluster – it's called a swarm – and a couple of worker bees will go out and look for a new home. And we try to manage that through the summer and not let that happen by keeping a lot of space.”
Most beekeepers in the United States, including Miller and Federinko, use Langstroth hives, in which boxes with frames inside are stacked atop one another. Bagshaw uses top-bar horizontal hives and Slovenian-style hives, which are more common in Europe.
Federinko says his brothers kept honeybees and after getting interested in why they’re having trouble surviving, he took an online course.
“I was immediately just amazed by the power of what they can do and how they organize,” he says.
“You just got sucked in,” Miller says to him, laughing.
“I did,” Federinko says.
Miller and Federinko keep their bees on her sister’s property in Boalsburg.
Bagshaw, who lives in State College, keeps hers on her land in McAlevys Fort.
There’s a meditative quality to working with bees, they say.
“I do like it because when I’m up there [at the hives] I’m forced to kind of be quiet, work with them slowly and gently,” Bagshaw says “It's fascinating to me to look at them.”
Take the honeycomb, for example.
“Depending on what they're collecting from, that pollen in those little sacks on their hind legs will be very different colors and when they put them in the hive, you almost see a rainbow of reds and oranges and yellows and whites and blues. It's really beautiful,” she says.
“One of my favorite things is opening up the colony and seeing all the pollen inside the comb because it's all different colors,” Evans says. “They’re generalists so they collect it from a vast array of plants and it's fun to pull out that frame and just see a picture of multi colors of all this cool pollen they collect.”
The Centre County Beekeepers’ Association in an active club with about 70 members. In a survey, more than 80 percent said they got into the hobby primarily for “fun and continued learning.” The group is growing, with about half of its members involved in beekeeping for three years or less. More than 30 percent of members offer to mentor new beekeepers.
Bagshaw suggests that people interested in beekeeping connect with experienced beekeepers through mentors or a club.
As for stings, they’re really not all that common. Beekeepers, most of whom wear protective suits, prefer tending to their hives on warm, sunny days, when the bees are hard at work, with many of the older bees out foraging.
“You're going to do stupid things from time to time and accidentally squish one [and get stung], but you gotta not mind it. It's usually when you did something wrong,” Miller says.
Most of the time, however, particularly on those pleasant days, “they’re happy and they’re doing their job.”
For more information on the Centre County Beekeepers’ Association, visit centrecountybees.com. The group meets monthly in-season and new members are welcome.
For more on the work of the Lopez Uribe Lab, or to contribute to citizen science projects, visit lopezuribelab.com.
Mark Brackenbury is editorial director of Town&Gown.