Bees: a Sweet and Sticky Bzzness

By Matthew R. Humphrey '17M

There’s been a lot of buzz about bees in recent years. Most notably publicized is the declining population worldwide of honeybees, a species many people don’t realize is non-native to North America.

Less attention has been given to the more than 4,000 native North American bee species. A February 2017 report by the Center for Biological Diversity noted that of the 1,400 species of bees with enough data for an assessment, more than 700 species of North American bees are in decline, with a quarter of these at risk of extinction.

For her post doctoral research, Dr. Heather Sahli observed rare bee species native to Hawaii.

For her post doctoral research, Dr. Heather Sahli observed rare bee species native to Hawaii.

Dr. Heather Sahli, associate professor of biology, said most bees are facing decline worldwide due to a number of human-caused factors, especially the destruction of habitats.

“This includes eliminating nesting sites for many solitary bees, like twigs and branches, through maintaining large expanses of lawn or cutting down any dead twigs or branches of perennials in the fall, then burning them or sending them off to be composted. Those twigs may contain bee larvae and pupae that would emerge as adults the following spring,” she said. “By removing them, we’re getting rid of the young bees.”

She said that humans also have impacted the landscape by replacing native flowering plants with non-native horticultural plants, which don’t provide enough nectar for bees to feed on during the summer.

Sahli spent three years during her postdoctoral research observing rare bee species native to Hawaii. She discusses her research in class to stress how human activity can negatively impact the environment and lead to the extinction of different species.

Dr. Claire Jantz, professor of geography/earth science, said pesticides are another factor negatively affecting bee populations. “While chemical pesticides kill undesirable insects, they also will take out beneficial insects, including honeybees. For honeybees in particular, we have not done a very good job maintaining genetic diversity. This makes it hard for our bees to adapt to new environmental conditions and new diseases.”

Sahli added, “The widespread use of pesticides and herbicides has caused large declines in bee populations and has been linked to Colony Collapse Disorder in honeybees.” Colony Collapse Disorder is when any number of stressors causes the majority of worker bees in a colony to abandon it, leaving a large food source, but only the queen and newly hatched bees behind. Eventually, the colony stops functioning completely.

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom, as Jantz said humans can be beneficial to bees, too. “Humans can create good habitats for bees. In my suburban neighborhood, there is a great diversity of plants and trees that provide great food sources for our bees.”

Beekeeping 101

Establishing a sound habitat is a good thing not just for bees, but for humans. Jantz emphasized that honeybees are a big component of our food system since they fertilize many of our fruit and nut crops. “Without bees, we would have a real crisis.”

Bees are critical to the pollination of many crops, and humans can have a positive or negative impact on that process, said Dr. Claire Jantz. She and her husband have maintained beehives since 2005.

Bees are critical to the pollination of many crops, and humans can have a positive or negative impact on that process, said Dr. Claire Jantz. She and her husband have maintained beehives since 2005.

about one-third of the foods in the human diet come from insect-pollinated plants with roughly 80 percent of those being pollinated by honeybees.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, about one-third of the foods in the human diet come from insect-pollinated plants with roughly 80 percent of those being pollinated by honeybees. Just a few of the flowering crops pollinated by honeybees include apples, nuts, avocados, soybeans, asparagus, broccoli, celery, squash, cucumbers, citrus fruit, peaches, kiwi, several berries, and melons. Without insect pollination these foods would cease to exist.

Jantz and her husband currently own and maintain two full beehives. They both went to the University of Maryland for their master’s degrees where they also took a semester-long course in beekeeping together. They bought their first hives when they moved to Shippensburg in 2005 and have kept bees ever since.

The beekeeping course at the University of Maryland is just one of a number of such courses. Anyone interested in beekeeping can search for their county’s local Beekeepers Association, many of which offer beekeeping courses. A directory of these is located on the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association website at www.pastatebeekeepers.org.

This is a super, which is a box that has eight to ten frames where honeybees collect nectar and store it in honeycomb.

This is a super, which is a box that has eight to ten frames where honeybees collect nectar and store it in honeycomb.

“When you’re first getting started with beekeeping, you do need to invest in equipment,” Jantz said. That includes hive tools, a smoker, protective clothing, and wooden hive boxes, which also are called supers. A super is made up of a box in which eight to ten frames are hung. Honeybees collect nectar and store it in honeycomb, which they build onto the frames.

Many beekeepers get their first hive as a package in the mail. This package will include a box with a queen bee and a few attendants along with around 10,000 worker bees. They will then be placed in the preassembled hives and will quickly get to work gathering nectar and pollen and building comb. Meanwhile, the queen begins to lay eggs.

Sometimes beekeeping is something that runs in the family. Matt Allen ’02 owns and maintains Allen Apiaries in Shippensburg. “Growing up, my uncle always had bees. He still does. I used to love to go and look at them. I also had a friend in high school that raised them, and I helped him out with them a couple of times. I started growing fruit trees at my house as an adult, and I got some bees to go along with that. I just kind of went along from there.”

Currently Allen has nine beehives, though that number fluctuates. In the spring he always has more, because the bees tend to want to increase their numbers by swarming. Allen makes sure to separate them into smaller hives to prevent this. In the fall, he condenses the hives back down.

Sustaining the Swarm

Contrary to popular belief, a swarm is not a large and dangerous number of bees flying around together. A true swarm of bees is actually a biological function for reproduction. When a colony of bees grows large and is rich with honey, it will split in two with one half leaving. Before the bees leave the hive, they will create queen cells to make sure there’s a new queen left behind. The half that leaves the hive is a true swarm, and its purpose is to find a new location to live.

A swarm is often viewed as a group of thousands to tens of thousands of bees all clustered in one location, for example, a tree branch. This sight can be quite alarming, but the clustered bees are usually unaggressive and will only attack if provoked.

“When bees are at this stage they’re very docile and don’t like to sting at all. You can almost hold them in your hand and they won’t sting,” said Bryan Freeman ’02m of Enola, who removes swarms.

This is because the swarm has no brood or honey to protect. The majority of the swarm stays to protect the queen as she is too large to fly for long distances. Scout bees then seek out a suitable new home, such as a hollow tree or opening in a house, within a three- to five-mile radius of the cluster.

Allen offers a local service to capture swarms of bees. “If a swarm is down low, like say on a tree branch, I’ll take one of my hive boxes and put it underneath it. Then I’ll take a branch cutter and gently and slowly move the branch down into the box. If the branch is too big for the box I just shake it. The bees fall right in. As long as the queen’s there they’ll all go in the box and stay there.”

Freeman added, “When I collect swarms I bring them back to my apiary. It’s a good way to increase your number of hives free of charge.”

Removing swarms isn’t always as simple as getting a swarm into a box. Sometimes a swarm will get into a man-made structure and even establish a full-blown colony. Freeman said the swarm is then removed with a vacuum system similar to a Shop-Vac that’s hooked up to a dampening system to regulate the flow.

“You get just enough suction to pull the bees from the structure, but not enough to injure them. A fully fired up Shop-Vac would kill the bees. You basically suck them out of the house or structure into a box of honeycomb. Sometimes things are more complicated and you have to cut holes in people’s walls. I try not to get involved in that,” he said with a laugh.

Sweet Rewards

The process of maintaining a honeybee hive is seasonal. Spring is typically a set-up period, with beekeepers cleaning hives, setting up bee packages, and inspecting the bees for disease, mites, and other parasites. Next is the summer or fall honey harvest. Work in the fall involves cleaning the hives again as well as inspecting to make sure the bees have enough honey or sugar to get through the winter. “I wrap my hives up in insulation for winter as a precaution to help keep them warm. The bees use less honey that way, too,” Freeman said.

The ultimate goal for many beekeepers is the harvesting of honey. When honey is ready for harvest, bees put a wax coating over the top of the comb in the wooden hive boxes after reducing the honey to 17 to 18 percent moisture content. The frames are taken out of the hive and the wax capping is removed, typically with a knife.

“I put my frames in a centrifugal spinner called an extractor. It’s a round tank that you put the frames in,” Freeman said. “You turn it on and the centrifugal force pushes the honey to the wall and it drains to the bottom. You get the honey out via a valve into a bucket.” The honey is then filtered to remove any remaining wax or bee parts and is eventually put into jars for sale and use.

All I know for sure is raw honey tastes better.
— Matt Allen '02

Honey made on a small scale like this is raw and still contains pollen. It’s said to have numerous health benefits for humans, including protection from local allergens. Honey bought in a store is heat treated and pasteurized to kill any potential bacteria. Though this helps prevent the honey from crystallizing, it also kills off the beneficial pollen. “I’ve never had any problems with allergies myself, but people swear by raw honey and all the benefits it gives them. All I know for sure is raw honey tastes better,” Allen said.

He said it’s amazing how much honey a single beehive can produce in a year. He’s able to harvest up to one hundred pounds of honey per year from each hive. “It’s crazy to think that just one jar of honey is something like five million flowers visited by bees. And each individual bee will only produce less than a teaspoon in its life. It’s pretty unfathomable.”

Beekeeping is hard work and can get expensive. “You can make money, but you’re not going to make a lot,” Allen said. “If I break even, I feel pretty good. I get stung and it hurts, but I get all the honey I could ever want out of it.”

Matthew R. Humphrey ’17M is an intern for SU Magazine.