When you’re snuffling and sneezing, and gulping antihistamines like candy for the next few weeks, give a thought to the bees: They are loving that yellow stuff that causes you misery.
March and April are prime months for pollinators, tiny creatures that scientists say are responsible for maintaining 30 percent of food production on the planet. The ones that have wintered over have awakened to a veritable smorgasbord of pollen to collect from redbuds, tulip trees and other flowering plants. (But not Bradford pears. Bees find them smelly, too.)
Those who keep honeybees call this time of flowering the “honey flow,” and they greet it with a combination of excitement and work : A time to inspect their hives and, maybe, inject new life into them. A time to educate fledgling beekeepers. A time to save the dwindling honeybee.
“The honeybees that we have … face problems from pesticides and habitat loss,” says David Tarpy, an entomologist from N.C. State University in Raleigh and a renowned expert on bees. “It it weren’t for beekeepers, we wouldn’t have honeybees.
“Pretty much, if you see honeybees in your backyard, you can thank a beekeeper.”
That’s because even though honeybee populations are in decline, “beekeepers can grow them back,” Tarpy said in an interview last week.
“If (you’re a farmer who has) half of your cows die off in a given year, that’s problematic,” Tarpy said.
By contrast, if half of a beekeepers’ bees died, he could split the hive into two and purchase one or two new queens to propagate them. And “you can’t do that with a cow.”
Crazy about bees
During their March meeting, members of the Richmond County Beekeepers Association spent several hours schooling novice beekeepers — and those trying to decide whether to become beekeepers — on the art of hive-keeping.
They listed the basics:
• Each hive has a queen who populates it by laying thousands of minuscule eggs. If a hive goes without a queen for six weeks, it dies — so beekeepers regularly inspect to make sure their queens are healthy. A queen may last two years; after that, she’s likely to stop producing eggs. If she’s not productive, the other bees will kill her.
• Drones, all males, fertilize the eggs and do pretty much nothing else. It takes about 25 drones for a queen to mate fully, Ellerbe beekeeper Marv Powell told the group, and then the drones “lie around watching little, tiny TVs” until all 600-plus of them die in the fall.
• The female worker bees clean the 7,000 cells per hive that will store the queen’s eggs, care for the brood — which hatches from egg to larvae in three days — and tend to the brood and the queen. They also guard the hive from predators.
• Honeybees need a ready water source — they like swimming pools and streams but don’t actually go into the water because “they don’t know how to do the backstroke,” Powell cracked — as well as a constantly replenished supply of sugar water in order to make wax.
• Bees sting in groups because each sting releases a pheromone that attracts other bees. Beekeepers use smoke to hide the scent of the pheromone so they won’t be stung as they work with their hives. They also wear light clothing and, sometimes, veils and gloves. (All of a bee’s predators are dark colored, offered beekeeper William Trivette of Laurel Hill, so the light clothing doesn’t raise their bee suspicions.)
About a dozen wanna-be beekeepers listed and watched raptly as the club members showed how to build hives, extract or “sling” honey at the end of the season, and how to inspect a hive. They came from Richmond County, but also Anson, Guilford and Scotland counties, among others.
Sandy Holt of Anson County said she knew she would take up the hobby because “you need bees to pollinate” and because “I try not to use sugar.”
Fred Cloninger of Ellerbe delivered the final instructions, fully suited and inside a hexagonal screened cage holding a live hive. He burned pine straw in a smoker, then methodically removed and scraped each frame, both looking for the queen and completing preliminary cleaning as dozens of bees zipped around his head.
Save the pollinators!
Richmond County’s beekeepers are one chapter of the N.C. State Beekeepers’ Association, whose more than 5,000 members are most motivated, Tarpy said, by the declining bee population. The statewide beekeepers’ website says the association has “enjoyed a three-fold increase in membership over the past decade.”
Sad to say, though, that commercial beekeepers do the most to preserve the honeybee, Tarpy said — and “when they retire, they don’t get replaced.” So individual beekeepers do what they can — alone — to stem the tide of early bee death.
Honeybees are not, of course, the only pollinators, so not the only insect worth saving. They aren’t even the only kind of bee — there are also the bumblebee, carpenter bee and, believe it or not, blueberry bee. Some live in hives or even nests in the ground.
Many bees are solitary — that is, they don’t socialize like honeybees — and live on their own. Of 4,000 kinds of native bees, Tarpy said, “most are wild and solitary. We don’t have control over their numbers, (and) the native, wild kind of bees are in decline.”
N.C. State and the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service perform research into pollinator preservation and suggest, among other things, planting native species from which bees are likely to collect that yellow stuff that drives you so crazy but makes bees’ lives so sweet.
“Usually, if you plant a diverse flowerbed, … you will see a diversity of different pollinators at that plot,” Tarpy said. And that’s a good thing for both them and you, eventually.
Bees may be the only pollinators that dance when they’re nectar-happy and that maintain a sort of human-like hierarchy.
Other pollinators, all of which move pollen from the male part of a flower to the female part of the same or another flower to aid in reproduction, include some varieties of bees, ants, butterflies, flies, flower beetles, mosquitoes, moths and wasps.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]