Savannah Morning News, Sunday, March 7, 2015
Bees are not like people. They don’t need elbowroom. They don’t “need their space.” They prefer to crowd right up on top of one another. With too much empty room they have trouble defending the hive. They understand the power of numbers.
That’s about all I know for sure after Saturday’s daylong session in the FUNdamentals in beekeeping. That and the beauty of Oatland Island Wildlife Center, which hosted the conference for the Coastal Empire Beekeeper’s Association. People, if you haven’t visited this 100-acre environmental treasure right smack in our midst, do so. Now. It’s a treasure and there it sits, off Islands Expressway on the way to Tybee. The main building, a large and impressive two-story, white-columned structure, opened in 1927 as a retirement home for the Brotherhood of Railroad Conductors. Then it became a lab for the Center for Disease Control. For the past couple decades the Savannah-Chatham County has owned and operated it.
If you go March 25, you can visit with author Tony Cope, a former Savannahian and Oatland Island’s first director. Cope, who jumped the pond to live in County Cork, Ireland, will be there with his new book, “Stealing Stones.”
But today let’s get down. Let’s channel Ram Das. Let’s “bee” here now.
There’s a high learning curve to this bee business. It’s a new language. While our children might fly the coop, bees swarm the hive. That means they leave for greener pastures, either because they’re unhappy or no one came by to take the honey (“I’ll show you!”), or it was time to reproduce and conditions were too crowded for the queen mother. See, unlike the plebian, or common folk, the queen is a little picky. She’s one who does need her space so she can lay her eggs in the tiny six-sided, as in hexagon, cells. Swarm – as in, “they’ll swarm on you” – can be a verb and a noun. Swarming always involves the queen. There’s lots of talk of the queen in beekeeping. Her worker bees are females. Males are the drones.
Bees are visual creatures. If they are out foraging for food and there are a bunch of bee boxes in the compound, they might get confused when they return home. They may not know which queen they are working for. That’s why you draw an X on the box. Or a circle. Or parallel lines. Bees know their shapes.
Oh, here’s something else, too. The boxes are called nuks, pronounced like nukes. It stands for a nucleus colony, kind of like the nuclear unit, but in bee-land it’s always the queen who sits in the middle. She’s the boss. But if she’s aggressive? If she’s ornery and not doing her job? Get rid of her. Extract her. Stomp on her. Squeeze the life out of her. Then replace her. You don’t want to do all that work – and it is work, we were told, to raise bees – and take a chance on passing along bad-queen-genes.
Newbies such as myself had so many questions for the experts (starting with who gets to be the queen; I never really understood that), it was hard to know where to begin. Who knew that bees were not indigenous to this country and that before bees the flies and other winged creatures did the pollination? Not me.
It’s quite an egalitarian set-up, this world of bees. All female bees, no matter what family you are born into, are eligible for the job of queen. It’s the worker bees that get together to designate or crown she-who-shall-be-queen. This happens at day four of a young female’s life. After that, Madame gets fed the royal jelly, which comes from the glands on the heads of the young workers. Yummers. Then she’s turned loose to become a sex machine. For the rest of her life – from four to six years – she will be laying 2,500 eggs a day. Unlike chickens, queens do not go menopausal. It’s not an option.
Flash! Queens can wear colors. When you get your bees, she-who-will-be-queen will be sporting a blue dot on her thorax. Last year it was green. Next year it will be white. I guess some fashion maven decides the color.
No one talked too much about bee stings (except to extol the virtue of bee venom). These beekeepers were way too advanced to think about that (but I did). They did say, more than once, if you get five beekeepers in a room you’ll get give different opinions. One thing they agree on is this: “Never forget that as a beekeeper you are weird.”