A fruitful hobby: Despite difficulties, beekeepers find the practice rewarding
It’s getting to be crunchtime for those honey bees, and that means working overtime.
And that, in turn, means you’ll be seeing them far more often as fall takes over.
Normally, bees take a hint from Mother Nature around this time, opting to stock up on food for the winter.
The average life span of a worker bee, between six to eight weeks, is completely dedicated to the collection effort, and yields about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey. And with a good queen bee producing about 3,000 eggs per day, you can bet that the colony will require a sizable food supply to last through the cold.
That food supply comes from nectar, which provides carbohydrates, and pollen, which offers protein. During this time of the year, late-blooming flowers like asters, chrysanthemums, and goldenrod are a prime source of these nutrients.
Besides honey, beeswax, and royal jelly, bees contribute extensively to countless crops through pollination. Apples, cherries, cucumbers and even the beloved avocado are greatly affected by pollination, and some plants, including watermelon and squash, absolutely require help from bees in order to survive. It has often been said that without the help of bees, many of these plants could be at risk of disappearing.
While commercial colonies have noted an increase in bee populations just recently, amateurs are more than willing to pitch in to keep these helpful little insects.
“Right now people are concerned that the bees are dying,” beekeeper Monroe Cressley said. “So there are a lot of new beekeepers. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law, I just set them up with a hive to get going. In the Lehigh Valley Beekeepers Association, we’ve got a lot of new members, ones that are just starting with one hive.”
Avid beekeepers are always willing to help out new recruits, ensuring that this particular hobby will always be around.
Wild Creek Bee Farm’s Chris Maxwell recommends some thorough research for those interested in beekeeping themselves.
“The best bet is for people who want to get involved in beekeeping is to join a local bee club, and learn about them before they get the bees,” he said.
Cressley, who lives in Lehighton, has been working with bees for nearly seven decades, keeping numerous hives right on his own property. As a retired carpenter, he even makes his own boxes to house the hives.
Cressley’s love for bees came about at a young age, all thanks to his father, though one of his most memorable tales would almost certainly have scared off just about anyone else.
“My first hive, right over there, was right under that tree,” he said, pointing to a tree a few hundred feet away from his current hives. “And that’s where he put a swarm in for me. He was doing something, and I wanted him to put a super (a small structure for excess honey storage) in. And I’ll never forget this, I thought, ‘I’ll do it myself.’ So, I opened it up. I had a veil on, but just a T-shirt. I lifted the lid up, put it back down, and when I lifted it a second time, I didn’t smoke them. They came out at me, oh my God, I must’ve been stung 50 times. I went running, jumped up on the porch, and the bees hit the screen door.”
Keeping the bees
Cressley said that while the thought of raising bees may seem intimidating, all it requires is a little know-how and access to information. Information for budding amateurs is readily available from groups like the Lehigh Valley Beekeepers, of which Cressley is a member.
The prime time to begin hive preparations is in winter, when beekeepers place their orders for packaged bees that are delivered around April. Unlike Cressley, most people tend to purchase ready-made boxes to house the hives.
This is where businesses like Wild Creek Bee Farm come into play. The Lehighton operation produces queen bees and nucleus hives, which are small hives made from larger hives, for hobby beekeepers.
“I’ve been interested in bees since I was a child,” Wild Creek owner Chris Maxwell said. “I enjoy working with them, and we get to raise queens and produce honey as part of our operation. We produce a large amount of queens and anywhere from 500 to 1,000 hives.”
Each hive has a single queen, along with a large group of females called workers, who collect pollen. The drones are males, the product of an unfertilized egg. They have no stinger, and basically only exist to mate with a queen.
The trickiest aspect of the hobby, Cressley said, is keeping your bees healthy and happy.
“The biggest thing is trying to keep them alive over the winter, and that’s getting harder and harder all of the time,” he said. “It’s because of the mites. The varroa mite is a parasite on the outside that sucks the blood out of them, and the other is the tracheal mite in their tracheal tubes, but you can’t tell the difference unless you send them to a lab.”
In order to keep an eye on his population, Cressley will sometimes put around half a cup to three quarters of a cup of bees in a Mason jar with some powdered sugar. He caps the jar with number 8 mesh, shakes it up, and sifts everything onto a tray, where he can see how many mites are present.
But mites aren’t the only threats to bees. Cliché as it sounds, bears can be big trouble for beekeepers. Cressley surrounds his hives with electrified razor wire for protection, but he said that sometimes the bears need a little lesson to ensure that they won’t bother his bees.
“Usually, I put bacon on the top wire, and the bear can grab onto that, and it sets him off,” he said.
On top of that, there are other elements of what Maxwell and others call “The Four Ps” — pathogens, pesticides, poor nutrition and parasites — that can wreak havoc on the hives. And these losses aren’t minor, either, amounting to thousands of hives in the northeast lost annually, along with approximately 50 percent of the bee population, according to Maxwell. Methods to curtail damage from mass pesticide usage are dire, because the fatalities often include a variety of insects, many of which are integral pollinators.
“Honeybees are the indicator species, because once they go, you know there’s a problem,” Maxwell said. “We’ve got to find answers before we lose all of the insects.”
Honey and more
Of course, one of the biggest motivations for beekeeping is homemade honey. After collecting enough nectar, the bees deposit their nectar in a six-sided cell in the honeycomb. The design of the hive and the constant fanning from the bees’ wings evaporates much of the water content, resulting in honey. In order to protect their supply, bees will seal each cell with a wax cap. Honey colors can vary depending upon the source of nectar, so wildflowers might produce a dark tint, while orange blossoms will yield a lighter hue.
Once a beekeeper decides to harvest, they simply scrape off the wax caps and place the comb in a centrifuge, which spins at a high speed, separating the honey from the cells. After straining any leftovers, it’s off to bottling, and the honey is ready to go. Thanks to the antioxidants present in the honey, there is no need to worry about spoilage due to bacterial growth.
Leftovers from the process include beeswax, pollen, royal jelly and propolis. As previously mentioned, bees use the wax to cap the cells, but humans can use the product for cosmetics, art supplies and more. Pollen naturally sticks to the bees during the collection process, and can be used as a dietary supplement thanks to the massive amount of fiber it contains. Royal jelly, the foodsource of the queen produced by bees in the hive, can also be used as a cosmetic product or dietary supplement. Propolis, a resin from plants, is used by the bees as a disinfectant, and to patch small gaps in the hive. Humans can also use if for a disinfectant, and for some medical treatments.
Maxwell said that Wild Creek Bee Farm produces a wide variety of bee-related products from the wealth of the hive, including comb and bottled honey, lotions, soaps, candles and more, along with the aforementioned queens and nuclear colonies. Those bees truly produce a treasure trove of goods.
Despite the appeal of honey, Cressley isn’t just in it for the golden goods.
To him, the very practice of beekeeping as a hobby is satisfying and entertaining in its own right. Even after suffering from a sickness several years ago, he kept up his operation, though he scaled back from 100 to about 20 hives. No matter what, it seems that Cressley, along with many other hobbyists, will take pride in their work with these insects. The mystique of these vital little creatures is more than enough to keep beekeepers going, protecting their tiny pals and ensuring the safety of agriculture around the world.
“You know what, I love anything nature,” Cressley said. “There’s nothing more interesting in nature than bees. By the time you think you have them figured out, no, you can read all of the books in the world, and it still doesn’t do any good. You never stop learning.”