June 2015: The Taming of the Swarm

A Hobby That Promotes Perspective

Published in Insight, September 1997

This Commentary was the basis for an article in Forbes magazine, Sept. 8, 1997


“Dad, you’re now our head beekeeper,” my son Steve announced in 1993 when he decided to leave home for the euro dollar futures pits in Chicago.

We got into beekeeping in 1990.  My dwarf fruit trees weren’t getting properly pollinated, so for years I’d wanted bees.  My wife, however, was less than enthusiastic.  “Come on, this isn’t a farm.  It’s suburban Short Hills, N.J.”  But then Steve did his senior thesis at Bucknell on bees, and that’s all it took to push me over the edge.  One afternoon when my wife was out, we smuggled in two hives.  She says she knew what was going on all along.

Steve boned up on beekeeping and even took a short course at Rutgers.  He ordered and assembled the equipment, inspected the hives and extracted the honey.  I blissfully served as his assistant, oblivious to the reality I would face upon promotion.

Initially, I did a couple of things right.  I immediately got as close as a bee to nectar to George Schaefer, an excellent professional beekeeper in the area and my mentor ever since.  I also called in the State Apiarist, Grant Stiles, who gladly taught me hive inspection.  Nevertheless, I soon faced a myriad of problems I’d only known vicariously.  It was one thing when Steve told me that one of the hives was queenless.  (We had expended to over a dozen when he left.)  It was quite another when I had to figure out how to replace her.

Long Live The Queen

The queen is the hive’s heart and soul.  Only she can lay eggs, a thousand or more a day in her 3- or 4-year life, although some make it twice that long.  Why is the queen missing?  Did she just die?  Get too old to lay?  Did I inadvertently kill her while inspecting the hive?  Regardless, I have to get a new laying queen in place fast.  Otherwise, the hive will soon die since the worker bees live only about a month in the honey-producing season—they literally work themselves to death.

Worker bees, females that can’t produce fertile eggs, can make a new queen by feeding royal jelly to female eggs.  If I can’t find eggs in the hive, I usually introduce them from another hive, but either way it will be almost a month before the queen goes through the larva and pupa stages, emerges as an adult, takes her maiden flight when she mates for the first and last time with a dozen or so drones, and returns to the hive for a lifetime of serious egg laying.  But in a month, the spring honey flow—the time in our area when nectar is abundant—may be over.  An alternative is to buy and introduce a mated queen.  Speeds up the process, but the workers may not accept—read, kill—her.

The drones, by the way, die after mating, but they’re dead meat anyway.  Other than breeding, they have no other use.  Don’t gather nectar, don’t work around the hive, don’t sting, just eat.  So in the fall, the workers drag them outside to perish.

I’ve learned a lot about the bee diseases and pests that have caused many hobbyists to throw down their bee veils in recent years.  Much to my wife’s dismay, I soon got into melting vegetable shortening on her kitchen stove to mix with sugar and Terramycin to combat two serious bacterial diseases, American foulbrood and European foulbrood, as well as several other scourges.  Then there are the lesser threats like chalkbrook, sacbrood and nosema or bee diarrhea.

Beware Of Pests

I’ve learned fast that if there are no bees in a hive in the summer, there soon will be wax moths.  Their larva chew up the comb and the wood, making an unbelievable mess in record time.  Fortunately, I haven’t yet been faced with Africanized bees, the “killer bees” that were accidentally released in Brazil and moved north and south from there.  Their breeding with other honey bees and their distaste for cold weather appear to have saved me from that menace, at least for now.

Then there are the mites.  I’ve been able to control the tracheal mites, little buggers that live in the bee’s trachea and ultimately suffocate them, but like almost every other beekeeper I the country, I got my share of hell from verroa mites in the 1995-96 winter.  They attack the pupas and the adult bee exteriors, and wiped out virtually all of the nation’s feral or wild colonies that winter.

Beekeeping is agriculture, and so depends on weather.  A wet spring can dramatically cut the supply of nectar and anyway, bees hate to fly in the rain.  They will fly 10 or 12 miles for nectar and pollen, but concentrate on a 2-3 mile radius from the hive.  In our area, there is almost no farming, so forget clover and other nectar-producing field crops.  And all of the garden flowers in our town—plus my dwarf fruit trees—wouldn’t produce more than a pound or two of honey.  It’s the trees that count, tulip, basswood and black locust.  Some years the white cascading black locust blooms are so showy and abundant that I stop the car to admire their beauty.  Other years there are almost none.  Even without the honey production volatility caused by diseases and pests, my harvest from the same hive has ranged from 20 to 150 pounds over the years.

Bees Don’t Hibernate

The cold 1995-96 winter, combined with verroa mites, killed half my hives.  All honey bees come from the Old World, and unlike native bees, wasps and hornets, they don’t hibernate.  So they have to store honey for winter feeding, but they are working fools.  As long as there is a source of nectar and a place to put the honey, they keep producing.  That means we can leave them enough for the winter and take the rest.

In winter, the bees form a cluster inside the hive so their body heat maintains a      93o F temperature.  They gradually move among the frames of honey, eating their way as they go.  But in the long stretches of cold weather, like in the 1995-96 winter, they don’t like to leave their warm but empty frames and move on to honey-laden but frigid frames.  They starve.  I was not only frustrated but faced with big colony rebuilding the following spring.

For any farmer, including a beekeeper, it’s feast or famine.  With the mild 1996-97 winter, my colonies were in fabulous shape this spring.  So fabulous that a number of them felt crowded in their quarters and swarmed.  Now I confess, I was on the road with clients and therefore late in reversing the hive boxes, an impediment to swarming.  I’ve learned that successful beekeeping is like successful gardening.  It’s

Doing what has to be done

When it should be done

The way it ought to be done

Whether you feel like doing it or not.

Before swarming, the bees make a second queen, and then her mother and about half the bees—some 60,000 per hive at the height of the spring honey flow—take off.  Bad news.  Even when I captured a swarm and put it in a new hive, neither the new nor the old colony have enough bees to produce much honey this year.  Worker bees only forage for about seven days of their month-long lives in the season. 

Sure, they’re working the rest of their days—feeding the queen, cleaning the hive, guarding the entrance, etc.—but for three-quarters of their lives they are overhead.  By the time the colony is rebuilt, it will probably store only enough honey to get itself through the next winter with none left over for me.

With Steve’s departure, I also learned how labor intensive beekeeping is.  That’s why, until Washington got an import quota agreement with China, the low-paid Chinese had virtually run American professional beekeepers out of business, except for those paid by farmers to pollinate crops.  Which, by the way, is very important.  Almonds in California require bee pollination.  So do blueberries in Maine where production is about 50% higher when they use bees.

The Real Worker Bee

Back to the labor intensity of the hobby.  You buy the box and frame parts precut, but it still takes me about 4½  hours to assemble and paint a complete hive, even with time-saving air nailers and staplers.  Over 200 hours of time for my 50 hives.  Each one consists of two 9-5/8" deep hive bodies in which the bees rear their brood and store their winter honey and pollen, and three or more honey supers in which they will put, I hope, my share of the honey.  The supers are shallower for lifting ease since a fully-loaded hive body weighs 90 lbs.  Beekeepers tend to have bad backs.  Used equipment is an alternative to assembling your own, but it is usually well used.

Good equipment lasts for years, but I can’t avoid about eight annual trips to each hive to inspect and service them, take off the honey and prepare them for winter.  My hives are in four locations or bee yards, and I figure about a half-hour per visit per hive including traveling time.  Another 200 hours spent each year.  And I’m not counting the time to extract the honey, which George Schaefer does for me.  I’ve never sold any honey and if I did, I’d have to add up all the costs and would cringe when I found my time was worth a nickel an hour.

Why Do It?

At this point, you’ve got to wonder, why is this guy pursuing a hobby with so much grief?  In part, it’s an ego trip, I suppose.  It attracts more interest at cocktail parties than discussing your golf or tennis game.  This is especially true now that the plight of the honey bee has attracted a lot of attention.  General Mills is donating money for bee research on behalf of those who send in bee clippings from Honey Nut Cheerios boxes.  “Ulee’s Gold,” a movie with Peter Fonda as a beekeeper, has been well-received.  Karen Kirby, the wife of a friend I’m helping get started in beekeeping, is decorating her dining room with bee wallpaper (Napoleon’s logo) and has a hand-printed mural of a skep (traditional bee hive) and flying honey bees in her butler’s pantry.

I also keep keeping bees because our clients and friends have gotten used to receiving honey from us each Christmas, complete with timely labels.  The Wall Street Journal picked up our 1992 label on its front page, “The economy is sour, but our honey is sweet,” and our 1994 offering, “While the Fed stings, our bees make honey.”

Beekeeping involves physical activity with tangible results and the opportunity to be outdoors on glorious days, a big contrast with my professional work indoors behind a desk or a lectern.  It also has its moments of unexpected recovery and ecstasy.  When the feral colonies were wiped out by the verroa mites two winters ago, my hives that survived had so little competition that production was huge.

Beekeeping is also an intellectual challenge, an ever-changing mystery to be solved by careful observation and analytical thinking—and lots of luck.  Why did that colony suddenly collapse?  Why does this one produce twice as much honey as the one right next to it?

It also offers the opportunity to learn fast since you realize mistakes instantly—you get stung.  Several pros laughed when my son Steve moved our hives in my full-sized van instead of the beekeeper’s traditional flatbed truck.  “I don’t want to risk losing any of my livestock in transit,” he quipped, but we have since learned to keep veils on or handy while driving.

High Society

The fascination of bee society alone is enough to keep me interested.  They navigate by a sun compass and scouts do a dance, which researchers have deciphered, to tell the foragers where the nectar is.  On one foraging run, a bee will visit only apple trees, on another, pears.  Neat since apples can’t pollinate pears.

If a plane is flying to Los Angeles from New York and jet fuel is cheaper in New York than at its intermediate stop in Chicago, the airline uses a sophisticated computer program to decide how much fuel to take on in each city.  It’s cheaper in New York, but it takes fuel to haul fuel.  The bee does the same.  She somehow calculates the humidity, temperature, wind speed, barometric pressure and distance to determine how much nectar and pollen she can load on each trip to maximize the total she hauls back to the hive that day.

I’m also a beekeeper because the business isn’t so professionalized that a hobbyist can’t make contributions.  Beekeeping is probably as old as civilization and until recently, honey was one of the few sources of sugar.  Yet before 1851, it was so primitive that beekeepers had to kill their colonies to remove the honey from their beehive-shaped skeps, boxes or knot holes in trees.

The Rev. L.L. Langstroth, a New England preacher, not an entomologist, noticed that bees always leave a space between their combs, a bee width, for them to crawl through.  He revolutionized the industry by inventing movable frames between which the bees would leave a bee space.  So they can be removed, the honey extracted, and then returned to the hive without killing the inhabitants.

In this tradition, today’s beekeeping journals are full of experiments and ideas of hobbyists and professional beekeepers as well as agricultural school scientists.  I introduced a small one myself, a system to use four-gallon plastic pails of sugar water to help new colonies get started rather than the traditional gallon size.  I fill them one-fourth as often.

In Sickness And In Health

The open opportunities for advancements are very clear in new diseases.  I’m convinced that many of them could be easily cured of they had the sex appeal of AIDs or cancer and research money to match.  They obviously don’t so it’s a free-for-all with few established best practices but a wealth of suggestions.  For example, Sandoz has had a virtual monopoly on verroa mite control in the U.S. with its fluvalinate-impregnated plastic strips that carry a price tag to match—$6 per semi-annual treatment per hive.  But university researchers have teamed up with beekeepers to get excellent results with wintergreen, spearmint and other essential oils at only pennies per treatment.

Of course, the lack of hard scientific knowledge can lead to more hope than reality.  Some folks promote bee royal jelly to cure human ailments ranging from acne to cancer.  Others note that beekeepers don’t tend to get arthritis, and there is some evidence that bee venom causes a reaction that counteracts arthritic inflammation.  Stings, anyone?

So despite problems, I keep bees for many reasons, but the best is the perspective on life it provides.  Behind my office desk, mounted in a glass case, is a pair of long canvas bee gloves that reach over the elbows.  Each has hundreds of small black dots on the arms, bee stingers, administered on a late afternoon when that hive’s field force was back from foraging and the bees were, as usual, getting ornery as night approached.  Even more so because it was raining.

I said to the bees, “Girls, I’m friend.  Without me, you wouldn’t exist.”  No luck.  Worker bees aren’t malicious, but when they think you’re menacing their hive, they attack with kamikaze determination—their stingers detach after they strike and they promptly die.  About a hundred stingers got through the canvas and into my arms.  I was soaked with rain and sweat, in considerable pain and seriously questioning my own sanity for engaging in this hobby.

Now, on days when our economic forecasts go wrong or our portfolios sink, I look at those gloves in the glass case behind my desk.  Life has been worse, much worse.