SCOTLAND COUNTY — As honeybees dive-bombed the white-clad aliens surrounding their homes last weekend, state bee inspector Nancy Rupert deftly pulled apart a handful of hives to show two counties’ worth of field-tripping beekeepers how apiaries should look this time of year.
In some cases, she told the Richmond and Scotland County beekeepers Saturday, she didn’t like what she found. Some hives evidenced “excellent laying patterns” by the queen while others revealed spotty laying patterns, showing the queen was aging or, possibly, diseased.
“Bees are like teenagers,” she told the swarm of beekeepers in white suits of varying shades of cleanliness. “If you don’t keep ‘em busy, they start up trouble.”
“Busy” generally means “fed,” which keeps the queen fat and happy and the workers working. But disease still can destroy that, as can an infestation of beetles or an ineffective queen.
Right now, it’s pollen season, time for bees to cover themselves in the stuff that makes you wish you’d bought stock in Kleenex. Carrying it in their “pollen baskets,” the insects drop a little here and there to cross-pollinate, making it possible for you to eat, and then carry the rest back to their hives to feed new larvae and to produce honey.
By now, their queens should have mated with a few scores of drones and drawn wax into comb-like chambers for the incubation of larvae.
But that isn’t always what Rupert found in her inspection of domestic hives at the country home of Phil and Linda Edwards — although one hive had been found in the woods and rebuilt and stocked with bees — and at one domestic and one wild-bee hive belonging to Jim Norfleet, in a field on the edge of Laurinburg.
Rupert, one of six state hive inspectors, wore a protective bonnet to inspect the first hives because she wasn’t sure what to expect, and because she wanted to demonstrate good beekeeping habits. But she dropped the bonnet by the second inspection, smoking her face to keep bees from considering her either a nuisance or tasty.
Stung once during a portion of her lesson in hive-keeping, she even used the incident to show how to remove a stinger: Pull the dead bee away without squeezing it. Get a fingernail or knife blade under the stinger sac and flick it away, or the muscles inside will keep pumping venom.
“If you’re gentle, the bees will be gentle,” she said at the hives of Phil and Linda Edwards — hives decorated with rocket ships, flowers and hand prints by the couple’s daughters.
“My thumb is itching so hard to taste it,” she said of the honey already dripping from the hive frames, “but I shall refrain.”
Linda Edwards was having a little trouble modeling similar self-control. Told by Rupert that one of her hives likely would yield a good amount of honey, she whooped:
“Hot dang! When do I get to eat it?”
But the verdict wasn’t good for the second hive, whose queen seemed to be failing.
Rupert’s recommendation: plenty of sugar water — the carbohydrates bees need to remain strong — and a peek back at the hive in a couple of weeks.
Norfleet was less lucky with his hives, rough boxes built from cypress.
When the crowd of gawkers arrived Saturday, they found one hive nearly empty, its bees swarming a nearby volunteer oak in a sex-crazed clump.
“I’m going to lose half of my production,” Norfleet complained. He and another beekeeper smoked the swam, bent the oak before tapping it hard once, sending the dopey bees into another waiting hive frame.
“When you think you know generally what hives are going to do,” Rupert cautioned vets and newbies alike, “they’re gonna fool you.”
But Norfleet’s bees seemed to know what they were doing in leaving the hive and, apparently, taking their queen with them.
The hive they had left stank of European foulbrood, a bacterial disease that can kill a hive unless the beekeeper administers antibiotics, which Rupert said were more difficult to obtain than they used to be.
The bees observed Saturday were “curious,” not aggressive, Rupert said. Come July and August, when the pollen count is down, they’ll be “grumpy.”
Or maybe, they’ll be grumpy because someone has taken all the honey they made.
Come May, beekeepers will extract honey from their hive frames during their annual “honey slings,” which use a machine that applies centrifugal force to dislodge and recover fresh-made honey.
As Linda Edwards exclaimed: “Hot dang.”
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]