Commonly referred to as the most industrial insect, the honeybee is well-known for its double productivity. On the one hand, honeybees can produce 50 pounds or more of pure, wild honey, hence their name, meanwhile they are also one of the most common pollinators, supporting plant growth and blossoming up to four miles from their hive.
Needless to say, however, the honeybee is yet another example of nature that has been put at risk by human activity over the last century. Due to a quarantine violation in the 1980s, the varroa mite, a tick-like honeybee parasite that was originally confined to Southeast Asia upon its discovery in 1904, has since spread worldwide. Partnered with the tracheal mite, infestations of these invaders can devastate a honeybee colony and has sharply reduced their population in recent years.
But of course, this problem provides another opportunity for Wellesley residents to take action in bringing rescue to elements of the New England environment, in this case by constructing and maintaining their own bee hives. Bee hives are relatively simple to set up; boxes of a light color with wax foundation frames can be placed high and faced east or west to provide a comfortable home for a bee colony. When deciding on the placement of a beehive, one should also take into account nearby areas of high pedestrian traffic and avoid setting the hive so bees will be likely to travel through them. To redirect bees’ flight path, residents can simply place hedges or other barriers to control the route that the insects take.
The Massachusetts Beekeepers’ Association recommends that a maximum of one colonized beehive be placed per every eighth of an acre on a given property. It is also important that bees have a nearby water source within 40 feet of their hive, such as a birdbath, in order for them to control hive temperature and humidity during the hot summer months.
Once the beehive is properly constructed, it should be colonized with about three pounds of worker bees and one queen bee to produce new generations of bees, which can be ordered by mail. Sometimes one can capture a group of worker bees with an older queen that have ventured from their crowded hive due to abundant nectar in the area, known as a “swarm”, and transfer them to a different hive to start a new colony with a new queen. Many beekeepers replace each hive’s queen every August to maintain a high rate of egg production, but worker bees will naturally replace older queens with new ones as well.
Once a hive is sufficiently populated, it should be checked occasionally, but only in good weather conditions and with expediency. Most beekeepers’ reasons for checking a hive center around honey collection. Foraging bees collect nectar and store it in their “honey stomach”, eventually turning it into honey by removing its water content and adding enzymes before storing the honey in wax combs within the hive. This process takes place from spring to fall as the bees prepare to survive off the honey during the winter. As a result, the best time to harvest honey from hives is during the late summer and early fall. But it is important not to remove so much honey as to hinder the bees’ ability to survive the winter; in a colony’s first year, beekeepers’ generally leave the honey untouched. After harvesting, it is also important to return the removed wax combs to the hive, as the bees consume up to six pounds of honey to produce only one pound of wax.
When examining a hive, the owner should also look for evidence of bee diseases and contagions that could plague the entire population of the hive and spread to others, such as parasitic mites, nosema, and American Foulbrood. To prevent the spread of diseases, owners should avoid second-hand equipment and carefully examine captured swarms before introducing them to a hive. Hives should also be set off the ground to avoid the invasion of fire ants or hive beetles.
If an infestation of mites is observed in a hive, about 15% of them can be caught by inserting a piece of cardboard with cooking oil or petroleum jelly into the bottom of the hive. Chemical controls have also been proven unnecessary or ineffective; some scientists have recommended the use of “fatty patties”, pellets made up of sugar and shortening, or dusting hives with powdered sugar to disinterest parasites.
In all cases of interaction with a bee colony, a beekeepers’ safest bet is to move with slow, fluid movements that are less likely to antagonize the bees. “Smoking” the bees with leaf or pine needle smoke before reaching into a hive will also calm the insects, at which point they seldom sting. Regardless of whether calmed or not, bees will climb onto a person reaching into their hive; as a result, many expert and amateur beekeepers choose to wear protective suits.
If bees begin to act defensively around their hive without clear cause for aggravation, it is likely that a skunk or similar intruder has frequented the hive in recent times. A clear solution to this problem is to eliminate the intruder, but replacing the queen is also an effective strategy to reinstate the bees’ complacence.
In cases when nectar becomes scarce, honeybees will also “rob” honey from other beehives. This, in addition to being detrimental to the other hives’ honey production, can also further the spread of bee diseases. To reduce the activities of “robbing bees”, a beekeeper should ensure that all honey, hives, combs, and other bee materials that is not intended for a given bee colony is kept inside. Conversely, a beekeeper can also place entrance reducers on their smaller hives to reduce the risk of entrance by robbers from larger hives. Naturally, in such conditions of lean nectar supply, an owner should minimize the removal of honey from their hives. A beekeeper can also ensure that a colony stays healthy by providing the bees with sugar water when natural nectar supply is lean.
For more information on how to keep bees in one’s own backyard, anyone may visit the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association at www.massbee.org or enroll in classes at the Norfolk County Bee School at www.norfolkbees.org
(Matthew Hornung and Olivia Gieger)