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The secret life of bees

The popularity of beekeeping yields the sweet rewards of honey and so much more

The Secret Life of Bees, Early Summer 2017 Cape Cod HOME | capecodlife.com

In Sue Monk Kidd’s 2001 novel, The Secret Life of Bees, the mysterious world of order and responsibility that bees experience in their day-to-day maintenance of a hive serves as a juxtaposing backdrop to a coming-of-age story in racially charged 1964 South Carolina. The predictable, if not fully understandable, behavior demonstrated by the caste social system of honeybees presents a parallel universe full of subtleties and subtext when compared to the rest of the world’s chaos. An examination of beekeeping on Cape Cod reveals that the novel’s depiction of a complex and intriguing world of activity and purpose is both accurate and perhaps even understated.

There has been plenty of discussion of the precarious plight of bees in the news during the past few years, resulting in a popular ‘buzz’ surrounding the topic of beekeeping, but a thorough understanding of bee behavior and the necessary commitment required to successfully keep bees will either strengthen one’s resolve or just offer a better education and appreciation of everything the humble bees accomplish.

George Muhlebach, a past president of the Barnstable County Beekeepers Association (BCBA) has been beekeeping for over 35 years. He and Jay Hubbell, a volunteer at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster, recently sat down to discuss the surprising and complex aspects that go into beekeeping and honey collection. The BCBA has been offering beekeeping classes for a number of years, with the classes selling out every year. Disappointed future beekeepers asked staff at the museum to augment the access to beekeeping classes by offering some as well, a request that was met with resounding success since the classes for another 40-plus attendees have also consistently sold out as well. Muhlebach and Hubbell oversee the program at the museum that begins every January. “An established beekeeper’s year begins in the fall when you start to prepare the hive for the winter,” Muhlebach explains. “But a new beekeeper must start in January to be prepared for the coming spring and summer. And new beekeepers must be willing to make a commitment before they fully understand what is involved because they must make an investment of about $500, order supplies, build and paint their hive, allow enough time for the paint smells to dissipate, and, finally, receive their bees for installation in early spring.”

A hive is a wooden crate-sized box, called a ‘super,’ with approximately 10 frames that support the honeycombed cells that encapsulate the honey the bees produce. The bees work the entire hive and produce honey by bringing nectar back to the hive. Nectar is essentially a weak solution of watered-down sugars that the bees put into the cells and add an enzyme that converts the nectar into honey. Honey naturally extracts moisture from the atmosphere, so if the bees do not cap the cells with wax to preserve the honey, it will become too diluted and eventually ferment and spoil. The capped honey has been shown to be so perfectly preserved by the bees that honey found in the tombs of ancient Egyptians is still edible. Excess honey is collected by beekeepers in a super at the top of the hive; the honey in the main part of the hive is never collected, but left in place for the hive to utilize as a food source to keep the bees sustained throughout the winter when they are not gathering nectar for production.

The Secret Life of Bees, Early Summer 2017 Cape Cod HOME | capecodlife.com

The various equipment required for beekeeping may appear unfamiliar and mysterious, but it can unlock the magic that goes on inside a standard hive. Photo by Paige Mulhern

Each hive consists of the three key players in the vernacular of bees: a queen, drones or male bees, and the female worker bees. The queen has one responsibility, to procreate. She lays approximately 1,500–2,000 eggs per day, resulting in a healthy summer hive of  50 to 60 thousand bees. Males have a very limited function in their existence; they are only alive to serve as a potential mate for the queen. They number less than 1,000 per hive, they have no stingers, and they do not work in the hive, they do not gather nectar. During the warmer months they leave the hive once a day and gather at a “drone congregation area,” where they are available to mate with a virgin queen. “It’s like the local singles bar for bees,” says Hubbell. “Unfortunately for them, once they mate, they die.” During her mating flight, the queen will mate with up to 30 drones over two days and accrue their sperm within her own body for future fertilization of her eggs throughout her life. The queen decides when she lays her eggs, whether to fertilize the egg, resulting in a female or worker bee, or not to fertilize, thereby producing a drone; as a result, drones have neither a father, nor sons, only daughters in the world of bees. The female worker bees are truly the power players within the hive. They allocate all of the necessary functions to keep their hive productive and healthy; they gather nectar and pollen to create the food source; they protect the hive to the death; they feed the young; they determine when a new queen is necessary, identify which larva to foster into a queen, and then set her up for a new hive. They will also kick the drones out of the hive as winter approaches, so as to not be burdened with having to feed them.

A bee’s lifespan varies depending upon the time of the year. During the spring and summer when food sources are plentiful, they will literally wear out their wings and live only about six weeks, but during the fall adult worker bees will live approximately six months. Bees are known to possess a variety of complex communication systems, one of which indicates amongst the worker bees where the best food source exists. After a scout returns to the hive after identifying a good nectar stash, she will do a ‘waggle dance’ and shake the anterior portion of her body in the direction from the hive to the flowers she wants the gatherers to visit. The frequency of her waggle determines the distance from the hive, and the bees’ refined sense of smell confirms the source as the gatherers identify the unique pollen that the scout had brought back to the hive.

Perhaps one of the most stupefying functions worker bees perform involves the application of ‘royal jelly.’ When the workers identify female larvae that can potentially become new queens, they feed this select group of females a secretion that they produce, thus creating a female with fully developed ovaries that is able to reproduce. Accordingly, many health and beauty manufacturers have harvested this rare and valuable substance for its regenerative and healing qualities.

Clearly the decision to become a beekeeper involves taking on a set of unique commitments, but many people are still interested in contributing to the beneficial functions bees provide. To that end, The Best Bees Company offers services that not only set up homeowners for beekeeping, but for those who are not ready to fully dedicate themselves, the Boston-based company will also handle all of the maintenance, including honey extraction, all the while collecting data to benefit bee research. Founded in 2010 by Noah Wilson-Rich with the intent to fund his scientific bee research, the company now provides a variety of levels of beekeeping to residences and businesses across the country.

Without bees, or even without enough bees, our world, our quality of life and ultimately the global food supply would be greatly impacted. With healthy, thriving bee ecosystems, we not only have a chance to preserve our planet and reap the health benefits from honey and royal jelly, but perhaps we can also learn something from their secret life.

The Secret Life of Bees, Early Summer 2017 Cape Cod HOME | capecodlife.com

Photo by shutterstock/maggee

Did you know?

To make one pound of honey, bees must visit 2 million flowers. One bee visits approximately 5,000 flowers per day.

When procuring bees for your own hive, they are purchased by the pound, plus a queen. One pound of bees equals between 3,500-4,000 bees.

One bee colony can produce between 60-100 pounds of honey in a year.

Bees forage up to 4-5 miles from their hive.

Looking to plant a pollinator garden that can attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds?  The following businesses are well versed in the right plants for the right place to keep our local ecology thriving.

Agway of Cape Cod • agwaycapecod.com

Gregory Lombardi Design • lombardidesign.com

Littlefield Landscapes • littlefieldlandscapes.com

Miskovsky Landscaping • miskovskylandscaping.com

Parterre Garden Services • parterregarden.com

S&E Companies • s-eservices.com

Schumacher Landscape Construction and Landscape Maintenance • dschumacher.com

Soares Flower Garden Nursery • soaresflowergardennursery.com

Sudbury Design Group • landscapearchitectureboston.com

To learn more about how beekeeping can become part of your life, check out:

The Best Bees Company • 617-445-2322 • bestbees.com

Barnstable County Beekeepers Association, barnstablebeekeepers.org

Cape Cod Museum of Natural History • 508-896-3867 • ccmnh.org



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