Into the World of Bees

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Up close and personal with buzzing bees.


Buzz buzz
All that furry fuzz
Black and yellow
Relaxed and mellow
Then zig, zag, here and there
Busy bugs laden with wares
Pockets of pollen hug their knees
Flying to the hive – ones, twos, threes
Bees’ lives are work, work, work from dawn to dusk


Into the World of Bees

Last summer in my mom’s front yard full of purple-belled flowers, I watched with fascination as plump bees wafted from flower to flower. As I gleefully took to photographing their fat black butts and yellow-pocketed legs sticking out of the flowers, my curiosity was ignited. How does the pollen stay on their legs? How is it converted to honey? How far do the bees range? How do they find their way home?

Fortunately I knew of a bee hobbyist named John Speer who inducted me into the world of bees one warm, sunny day in Eastern Manitoba.

Built in 1881, the Speer family home sits on a quarter section of land surrounded by farmers’ fields near Oakbank. In 2002, John, his wife Usha and their three children became the third generation of Speers to move into the historic site.

Immediately, John started poking around the property for inspiration. He wanted to carry on the tradition of living off the land. Because the crop fields were leased out to neighbouring farms, John tried tapping the Manitoba maple trees for syrup. But that proved too labour intensive and time consuming.

Finally in 2004, John found his passion. Bees.

John Speer

Unlike crop farming, beekeeping didn’t require a large outlay of money. And the property already had a history of beekeeping.

In 1950, a local bee farmer had set up 30 hives at the end of the Speer driveway. In return, the family received a few large buckets of honey from the farmer every season. Years later, when John was only a year old, his father passed away, leaving a young wife and seven kids to fend for themselves. The honey was a blessing to the struggling family. John still remembers eating honey sandwiches and what was fondly called gruel, a mixture of oats and honey.

Decades later, John was back on the family homestead beginning his foray into the world of bees with an eight-week course at the University of Manitoba: Beekeeping for the Hobbyist (still offered). And in another full-circle twist, John also worked a summer with the same bee company that had placed the hives at the end of his family’s driveway.

By 2008 John was managing 20 hives which produced 5000 lbs of honey that year. He soon discovered that was too much – time, honey and work. So he downsized the operation and now manages just seven hives.

“I have a lot of respect for how bees manage to survive and their whole cohesiveness. When you talk upwards of 50-60,000 bees, they make collective decisions for the health of the hive, which is astonishing when you think about it,” John says, “They have that instinct hardwired into them somehow. They recognize all kinds of things that are important about their survival. We are really out of touch when we look at how we ‘survive’ as a species.”

A Bee’s Life

There are over 20,000 different types of bees and they can be found all over the world. But it’s the seven species of honeybees which most efficiently collect nectar and make honey.

Bees are matriarchal societies that live in colonies led by a queen bee. The queen bee, who can live up to five years, constantly lays eggs – up to 2000 a day to maintain the perfect number of workers in the hive. Worker bees, also female, take care of everything else: attending to the queen’s care (she’s so busy!), foraging for food, guarding the hive, building wax cells, removing the dead, cooling the hive if necessary, storing pollen and nectar, feeding the babies, ripening the honey and cleaning up the honeycomb cells. Phew! No wonder their lifespan is a mere one to four months.

Male bees or drones, on the other hand, have one job and one job only – to mate with any passing queen bee, from their own hive or another if the queen will have them. The males don’t do any gathering – only lots of eating. They don’t do any clean up – but they will make a mess. And they have no stingers. Might sound like a good life, except they die after successfully mating with a queen bee (following a blissful explosion, certain male parts snap off while still attached to the queen). Drones who don’t catch the eye of a queen and survive are evicted from the hive in the winter, because they’re a burden on its survival. Come spring, replacement drones are reared.

Life in the hive revolves around efficiency.

When the queen becomes injured or too old, she’s murdered. Sounds harsh, but the welfare of the colony comes first.

The end begins when the worker bees sense the queen’s impending downfall. They react by packing several egg-filled cells with a rich diet called royal jelly which transforms the worker bee cells into queen bee cells. This superfood spawns queen bees that are bigger, better and longer-lived than the average female worker bee.

When it’s close to hatching time, the failing queen is ousted. And when the new queens emerge they fight to the death, winner takes all. They even kill any unhatched queens. The victor then mates with the drones. Laden with about five million sperm, she begins her lifelong work of laying fertilized eggs.

Photo by RAVEN

You may have seen those lopsided boxes piled high (sometimes six or more) and scattered at the edge of tree lines and fields. The bottom box is called a brood chamber. This is where the eggs are laid and cared for in beeswax cells on the beekeeper’s wood framing. The boxes piled on top of that are the “honey-supers”: this is where the bees store the honey.

When worker bees out in the field discover an area rich in nectar, they return to the hive to dance “the waggle dance,” a series of movements and figure eights that involves lots of rear-end wiggling to communicate the location and distance from the nectar lode. Reinforcements are sent and the bees get busy.

On their way back to the hive, the bees store the runny, moisture-rich liquid nectar in their second stomach (yep they have two!) where enzymes are mixed in, starting the honey-making process. Back at the hive, the mixture is passed on to waiting worker bees whose enzymes continue the process, thickening the mixture. Then the honey is regurgitated into the waiting cells, which then are sealed or capped and closely monitored.

On a good day, the bees can bring in four to ten pounds of nectar. It takes four pounds to make one pound of honey.

On my visit, John carefully opened a hive to show me a bee’s world close up. With a small, tin kettle-looking contraption he created some smoke. Many people say that the smoke calms the bees; John feels it distracts them. As John sees it, to the bees smoke means fire, and fire means danger: so the bees go into high survival mode, engorging on honey and preparing to flee. Who cares about a human sticking his hand in, no time to sting!

The bees safely distracted, John pointed out the cells with honey, pollen, eggs and larvae. He talked about the patterning and colouring of the cells, each with its own meaning and stage of development.

John spends hours and hours watching, observing and caring for the hives on his property. His hive management work begins in March each year as he builds up a strong hive of worker bees ready to forage the surrounding areas for nectar. When temperatures reach 3 to 5 degrees above, a hive can be opened to see how the bees have fared through the winter. If their honey stocks seem low, John will add some sugar syrup for instant food to tide them over till they start collecting on their own. A weakened hive can have larvae cells from a strong hive moved in. Bees are territorial, so if live bees were brought in, “gang wars” would erupt.

Bees have enemies too. The Verroa mite, for example, causes many losses. The mite attaches itself to the bee, sucking the hemolymph (bee blood) out of it. John says the proportion of mite to infected bee is the equivalent of a dinner plate stuck to a person’s back. There are chemical controls, toxic and organic; but the mites are becoming more and more resistant.

Bees are essential for cross-pollination of flowering plants. As they collect nectar, static electricity is built up from flying which attracts the pollen grains, covering their furry legs. As they buzz from flower to flower, some pollen drops off, fertilizing the flower, which becomes a seed and then a fruit. A third of our food sources depend on the bee’s diligent work.

Honey is harvested when the boxes are full, typically in May, June and July. John’s kids help at this stage – scraping off the wax from the honeycombs inside the honey-super to expose the golden liquid, then placing the combs in a centrifugal spinning machine and collecting the honey. Finally the honey is strained and packaged for sale.

John with wife Usha demonstrating
the manual spinning process.

Bee products continue to be popular around the world. There’s honey, of course, with its myriad of flavours. Pollen and Royal Jelly, too, are collected and their benefits touted in health food stores.

Next time you dollop a teaspoon of honey in your tea or on your toast, remember that thousands of bees worked long, hard hours and travelled amazing distances to create that liquid sweetness just for you.

Kristi Dorian is Publisher of The Aquarian. Watch for The Manitoba Honey Show in late September at The Forks. Speer Sunnyside Honey (204) 222-3007. (Photos by Capturing Manitoba Moments unless otherwise noted.)



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