The buzz around town
Josh Bennett, of Lobelia, is involved with the Grow Appalachia program through the High Rocks Educational Corporation. He said there's a group of about eight people who want to get into beekeeping and are trying to get some hives started for this spring.
Bennett said he already has some experience with beekeeping. At one point, he had eight hives going. Bennett recently purchased a farm in the southern end of the county, and he said one of the things he wants to do there is raise honeybees.
“I make a lot of mead,” explained Bennett. “Mead takes a lot of honey. I've outsourced for my honey in the past because I can't find enough locally. I'd really like to produce as much as I can myself, but whatever I can't produce myself, I'd like to get from other local beekeepers. So I thought it'd be really great to have someone come down and share a little knowledge before we got started.”
Bennett said it's not that difficult to raise honeybees. According to him, you simply need to have a schedule and do what you need to do, when it's time to do it.
He said he got into beekeeping when he attended WVU a few years ago. He took a semester-long course focused strictly on beekeeping taught by entomology professor Dr. Jim Amrine. Bennett and some other event organizers invited Amrine to speak at the Hillsboro Library last week.
“He's very knowledgable. He's the mad scientist type,” joked Bennett. “He's certainly dedicated his life to the honeybee.”
Grow Appalachia coordinator Erica Marks said she had a little bit of grant money to get people started in beekeeping. She said she just ordered 130,000 bees and is excited to give it a try this spring.
“Josh had told me about this professor of his that could come,” said Marks. “I called Bonnie Gifford, president of the Hillsboro Library Friends, and she said that they had some funds available for a speaker series.”
Marks said she found the talk really captivating.
“He definitely has a professor's way about him,” Marks said. “You can tell he's been talking about this for a long time. I wanted to take as many notes as I could, but every time I took some down I'd miss something else, so I was torn. I ended up just listening because it was so interesting.”
Amrine, professor emeritus at WVU, has been working with bees since 1978, mostly focused on research and teaching. During the course of his presentation, Amrine talked about managing bees, colony collapse disorder, some common problems with hives, and about honey plants.
Amrine said there's been a upswing when it comes to hobby beekeepers, and it's not hard to do.
“If you're in a place where there's an abundance of honey plants, and there's lots of nectar and pollen, it's not hard at all.”
Amrine said honey plants are flowers and trees that produce nectar and pollen for honeybees, and there are plenty in Pocahontas County. He said the role bees play as pollinators is vital to our food system.
“One third of all the food we eat depends on honeybees for pollination,” Amrine said. “Almonds for example. You would have no almonds whatsoever if it weren't for honeybees, because no other insect will pollinate them properly.”
Amrine said the ideal colony size is between 80,000 to 100,000 bees. He broke down the hierarchy of a hive.
“Any worker can become a queen,” explained Amrine. “The queen doesn't do any work, she lays eggs. She can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day in the months of March, April and May. She's building up the colony, trying to make as many bees as she can.”
While the queen is laying eggs, the workers are out trying to gather pollen and nectar.
“They make honey from the nectar,” said Amrine. “The nectar has many, many kinds of sugars — probably twenty or thirty different kinds. The basic sugar they try to get to is glucose. Then the other sugar is fructose. Most of your honey is about fifty percent of those two sugars.”
Amrine said the bees use the honey as a source of energy all through the winter.
“It pays the heating bill,” joked Amrine. “They eat the honey and they vibrate their muscles to stay warm. They get together in a cluster when it's cold like it is tonight. They'll be eating honey and vibrating their muscles.”
According to Amrine, the honeycomb is used to store honey and pollen and provides a place for the colony to live.
“When they're building combs, they fill their belly with honey,” Amrine said. “They go into a quiet place at the top of the hive and in twenty four hours, each worker bee makes eight little scales of beeswax. They're made in glands on their belly.”
“If you have a frame of honeycomb, the queen will lay most of her eggs in the center. Then right outside of that you'll have pollen stored. Outside of that you'll have honey stored, so they've got energy. Pollen has the protein, vitamins and minerals, so all the baby bees are there near the center.”
When it comes to feeding the brood, Amrine said everything depends on whether a drone is feeding royal jelly to a queen or bee milk for another worker.
“The young worker bees, right after they emerge from the cell, they have glands in their heads that develop and become milk glands. One gland is hooked to the mandible, the other gland is hooked to the hypopharyngeal gland. It's those glands that determine whether they produce bee milk or royal jelly. If the ratio is 50-50 from each gland, it makes royal jelly. If it's 60 from the hypopharyngeal and 40 from the mandibular gland, then it makes bee milk for the larvae.”
Amrine said the queen will live for about three years on average, but the drones don't make it through the winter. He said they'll be in the hive from March until early September, but then they're given the boot.
When it comes to beekeeping, you have to accept the fact that you're going to get stung. Amrine said a bad day for him is a hundred stings.
“That's when I'll put on all my gear,” he said. “I get tired after about a hundred. A few stings, I don't even pay attention to them. Typically when I work the bees, after a sting, I take the stinger out and after five or ten minutes I don't even know where it was. I'm immune to them at this point.”
Amrine said most people can build up that immunity.
“I've told my students that really want to keep bees, go out every Tuesday and get a sting. The first few weeks, it might turn red and swell and itch like crazy, but after week four, it tapers off. After week eight, they can get stings like me. They're immune, too.”
Amrine said he'll supplement his hive's food supply with a sugar solution. He said you simply take a quart jar and fill it with granular sugar and hot water. He punches holes in the top of the lid and sets the jar upside down so the syrup trickles down to the hive.
“We've had very bad honey production the past seven years or so,” Amrine said. “If I don't feed them that syrup and they run out of honey, they're dead. When you have dead hives, the honey is usually all gone.”
“It used to be, it was rather easy to keep bees,” Amrine said. “You didn't have to watch them so close, you didn't have to treat them like you do now.”
Amrine said when it comes to colony health, it's usually varroa mites and the viruses associated with them that affect the hive. To combat varroa mites, Amrine said he likes to make grease patties infused with some essential oils.
“You mix sugar with Crisco, maybe about four pounds of sugar and a pound of Crisco,” Amrine said. “Add some honey to that, some livestock salt, and I add about 30 CC's of wintergreen. Put all that in a blender until it's nice and mixed. Then I make patties just like hamburgers and put them on the top bars. The bees will come up to get the honey and the salt. They get the grease on their bodies.
Amrine said the wintergreen doesn't bother the bees, but it's extremely irritating to the mites.
It's been said that honey is the only foodstuff on the planet that doesn't spoil, but according to Amrine, if you add too much water, the honey will ferment and can go bad that way.
Amrine said your average beekeeper, who doesn't have much training, might get a harvest of about fifty pounds every year.
“A good beekeeper can get a hundred,” he said. “If they're in a good area, with lots of nectar production, they might get two hundred or three hundred pounds.”
Amrine said there's a lot to know about keeping bees, but it's fun. Don't be discouraged by the title, but he suggested anyone wanting to get into beekeeping read “Beekeeping for Dummies.”
“Know what you're doing. Learn as much as you can. Learn the diseases and how to identify them and control them.”
Amrine said he was pleased with how everything turned out, and everyone seemed really interested.
“Some of my former students never want to see me again, so it was kind of nice to be invited to come out,” joked Amrine.