The Not-So-Secret Life of Bees
SPRAKERS – The first thing Brenda Blender realized when she spotted the swarm of several hundred bees nesting on a grape vine in her back yard was what was missing.
“They are so quiet – where is all the buzzing?” she said. “With swarms, the first thing you notice is how loud their buzz is.”
Bees are loud. The collective buzz from the hives sitting 100 feet away could be heard over everything else as thousands of honeybees bearded up on the front of the hives in the warmth of the afternoon sun, their wings creating the familiar buzzing sound that can send even a grown man running, swatting around his head.
Bruce and Brenda Blender raise bees – Italian and Russian bees to be exact. Members of the Southern Adirondack Beekeepers Association, Bruce is the SABA county coordinator for Montgomery County.
The couple decide to take the foray into beekeeping about five years ago when they recognized the need for more bees.
“We felt bees were in trouble and they are good for the environment and we could get a little honey in the deal,” said Bruce.
According to the Sierra Club, globally bee colonies are disappearing at an alarming rate threatening food supplies. The club reports beekeepers in the United States lost 44 percent of their crops last year.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the decline of the bee is related to a syndrome called colony collapse disorder, which is a dead colony with no adult bees and a live queen, with usually a few honey and immature bees.
The USDA lists several reasons for the decline of the honeybee, including parasites and pests, pathogens, poor nutrition and pesticides.
The couple purchased two hives, beekeeper suits, “and everything we’d need,” said Bruce, adding the first year was “very good,” but year two set them straight about the bee business.
“We had a very bad year,” said Bruce. “You have to know what you are doing and you need help.”
The couple joined SABA, which has meetings throughout the year in Ballston Spa at Cornell Cooperative.
“They are so helpful, – we go to as many as we can,” said Bruce. “We always learn something new.”
One of the reasons for the honeybee blight, explained the couple, is a tiny mite – varroa destructor.
“This mite gets on the bee and it feeds on their blood,” said Bruce. “It is really tiny, but compared to a bee it is big – if the mite was on our back it would be the size of a dish plate.”
The problem, said Brenda, is the spread of the mite and the diseases it carries.
“Bees drift from one place to another and if they have one of these mites and it drops in the hive, it goes to the larvae and lays eggs. The mites transmit deadly viruses to the bees.”
The Blenders, who do not rent out their bees and keep them only a few feet from their back door, work with between seven to 10 hives annually, each with 30,000 to 60,000 bees per hive.
“The queen lays about 2,000 eggs a day,” said Brenda. “They make a lot of little bees.”
The queen, she said, starts as a worker bee at birth.
“The bees build a bigger cell and they bathe her with the richest [food],” said Brenda, noting, when a new queen is hatched, the original queen bee takes some of her bees and leaves the hive, forming a swarm and looking for a new hive.
Those swarms, the couple explained, if found in time, can be caught and re-homed in a new hive.
“You have to act fast,” said Bruce, noting that all he would have to do is get a box, place it beneath the swarm and shake the tree branch. “They really do not want to sting you because when they sting you, they die and they do not want to lose any bees.”
Bees, said Brenda, with the exception of the queen, live only five to six weeks.
“The queen can live five years, but the worker bees spend so much of their energy collecting pollen and nectar, die after five or six weeks,” she said. “But, if they make it to winter, they live until the next season.”
Each hive, said the couple, can produce a couple of hundred pounds of honey each season.
“The honey is their food for the winter and throughout the summer,” said Bruce.
The pollen they harvest is for the larvae.
“When they are coming back to the hive you can see the pollen – you can see it in their color bands,” said Brenda. “The pollen is used to feed essentially ‘bee bread’ to the larvae.”
The couple harvest around 100 pounds of honey for each hive and market the honey and beeswax.
“We harvest 700 pounds last year,” said Bruce, adding they make their products to sell at farmers markets and local outlets. “You do have to come up with a market for your honey.”
The Blender’s honey and byproducts are marketed under the ‘3 B Farm’ brand.
“B for Bruce, Brenda and Blender,” said Brenda.
To care for the bees, the couple lets their backyard grow wildflowers, they routinely check the hives for mites and disease and prepare the hive for winter, spending several hours a month on the care of honeybees.
“Just before winter we take off any extra honey,” explained Bruce.
They then add a special insulating water barrier to the hives since the bees create their own heat and that in turn can cause condensation. The hives all have ventilation.
“If they get wet, they cannot get warm and they can die,” said Brenda.
The couple also installs mouse guards since mice can destroy a hive in matter of weeks.
On the first nice day in February, the Blenders will open the hives and inspect the bees.
“If they are near the top [of the hive,] we know they need more food,” said Brenda. “They may need a protein patty or a sugar patty.”
Bruce explained the bees begin the winter at the bottom of the hive feeding off the remaining honey and work their way upward.
Noting that beekeeping is not for everyone, the Blenders said it has been great adventure in their retirement to be raising honeybees.
“Our wildflowers are beautiful, our neighbors love their flowers and say how wonderful they are,” said Brenda. “The bees are so fascinating – we love it. We get a lot of enjoyment out of the bees.”
For more information on beekeeping, contact SABA through its website at adirondackbees.org/contact.
For more information on 3 B Farm products, call 922-5411.