As the weather warms up and spring finally arrives in Trumbull County, local beekeepers express their concern about the condition of honey bees and their hives.
"I had a bad winter," said John Snider, a beekeeper from Southington who's been keeping bees for 12 years. Snider estimates he lost about 70 percent of his bees over the past winter. "The winter was too long, with no thaws."
Bees don't hibernate over the winter; they stay in a cluster around the queen and beat their wings to keep the temperature in the hive about 90 degrees. The bees need the outside temperature to be above 50 degrees for them to get out of their hives and fly around, according to beekeepers.
George “Bud” Ogilbee of Kinsman displays some honey from one of his hives.
"Only females are alive in the winter," said Marcia Croft, Cortland, who serves as the secretary of the Trumbull County Beekeepers Association. "The males are thrown out of the hive in August and don't survive the winter."
Trumbull County Beekeepers Association was started many years ago to promote interest in beekeeping, exchange information about problems and successes, and as a social organization as well, according to its Web site.
Members of the group range in age from pre-teen to older than 80. The group is currently offering grants to Trumbull County youth which would provide a hive, bees, and some equipment to young people who would like to get started keeping bees, said Allan Eggleston, president of the association.
Honey bee facts
l Approximately one third of all the food Americans eat is directly or indirectly derived from honey bee pollination. Some crops pollinated are cucumbers, carrot seed, melons, apricots, cherries, pears, apples, plums, blueberries, cranberries, etc.
l There are three members of a honey bee colony:
Queen - mother to all the bees in the colony; she is a fertile female.
Worker - an infertile female that performs the labor tasks of the colony, including feed preparation, guarding the hive, feeding the queens, drones and brood, and heating and cooling the hive.
Drone - the male that starts out as an unfertilized egg. Its only purpose in the colony is to mate with a virgin queen. They live to mate with the queen, but not more than one in a thousand get the opportunity to mate.
l On average, a worker bee in the summer lasts six to eight weeks. Their most common cause of death is wearing their wings out. During that six to eight-week period, their average honey production is 1/12 of a teaspoon. In that short lifetime, they fly the equivalent of 1 1/2 times the circumference of the earth.
SOURCE:?American Beekeeping Federation
"There are a lot of things people misunderstand about honey bees," said Eggleston. "Honey bees are gentle and don't really sting unless they're defending their hive. The bees you see at picnics aren't honey bees. And just as there are different breeds of dogs, there are breeds of honey bees, with different temperaments."
The worker bees are actually female bees. They only live about six weeks during the summer as they literally work themselves to death, according to Croft. "They may fly up to several miles in search of pollen and nectar," said Croft. "Without pollen, the queen won't lay any eggs."
The queen, who can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day, only leaves the hive once in her entire lifetime on what's known as her "honeymoon flight." All her mating takes place on that flight and the semen in stored in her body forever. If the egg the queen lays is fertilized, it's a female bee; an unfertilized egg is a male bee or drone. "The male's only purpose to the hive is to propagate the DNA of the hive," said Croft.
As the queen ages, she lays fewer eggs. When she realizes this, the queen will initiate a process called "supersedure" the process by which an old queen bee is replaced by a new queen.
According to "The Biology of the Honey Bee" by Mark Winston, the worker bees provide special feeding to larvae laid in "queen cups" which are larger than other cups the eggs are laid in. These larvae are fed "royal jelly" exclusively, which causes them to mature into a queen, a process that takes about 16 days.
One way a new queen is established is by swarming. Honey bees swarm as a natural means of reproduction. "Swarming begins in May," said Eggleston. "You might see a ball that looks like a bee's nest hanging from a branch or in the corner of a house." TCBA has a list of beekeepers who will remove swarms from your property on their Web site. Eggleston notes that it's unlikely the bees will survive longer than a season if no one removes the swarm.
Those of us who've been stung might wonder why we need more bees.
"About one-third of what we eat is pollinated by honey bees," said Croft. "In some areas of China, they have to pollinate crops by hand as there aren't enough bees to do the work."
Croft said her neighbor's garden bounty increased exponentially when she began to keep bees and that an apple tree she thought was too old to bear fruit now has an abundant harvest - it just wasn't being pollinated before the bees were around.
The health benefits of honey are numerous. "Local honey from the area in which you live can help with allergies," said Snider, who also serves as the county bee inspector. Honey is an antibacterial agent, bee pollen contains 28 minerals crucial to human health and bee propolis has antibiotic properties and may have cholesterol reducing ability, according to Snider. Bee sting therapy is also used as a homeopathic remedy for arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
The mysterious decrease in bees over the last four or five years likely has numerous causes. "A more contagious and invasive strain of Nosema ceranae causes a dysentery-like illness that can wipe out a colony in a matter of days," said Croft. "Mites, weather, and especially the pesticides we use on crops, our lawns and such things as spraying for mosquitos are especially damaging to bees."
"A good hive might have as many as 60,000 to 100,000 bees in it and can produce 200 pounds of honey in a season," said Eggleston. "The taste of the honey depends on what the bees pollinate. Spring honey, made when bees are pollinating wildflowers is much lighter than fall honey made from goldenrod pollen." Eggleston also stresses the importance of consuming local, unprocessed honey to get the health benefits. "Commercial honey has been heated during processing which destroys many of its properties and dramatically changes the taste," he said.
TCBA will hold a field day in June; the public is welcome and equipment to wear for protection will be provided. You can also learn more about bees at their display at the Trumbull County Fair. Honey can be purchased there as well as from many members listed on the TCBA Web site at trumbullcountybeekeepers.org