CATAWBA COUNTY — As spring begins, residents of Catawba County and surrounding areas will begin to prepare for a garden, which is good news for honey bees and local beekeepers.
“If you only have one type of forage available, then bees can’t live,” Carolyn Treffinger, the president of the Catawba Valley Beekeepers Association (CVBA), said. “They can’t live off just one crop; they need multiple plants to forage on.”
Treffinger has been a beekeeper for three years and can attest to the hobby’s complexity.
“I have been in the science field for 40 years and this is what I am excited about,” Treffinger said. “I can wake up at 3 a.m. and read about bees.”
Beekeeping takes an individual enthusiastic about the whole process — and Treffinger fits the role.
“A lot of people in this area get their bees from Georgia because they have queens a lot earlier,” Treffinger said.
“Queens” are the single reproductive female in a hive or colony of honey bees, which is chosen by the colony.
“We have found that the queens in those packages were just placed there,” Treffinger said. “The bees do not care which one we choose as a queen — they choose which one looks like a queen.”
One of the problems Treffinger found with packaged bees is the human-chosen queen not being able to actually be the queen of the colony.
“Whether her scent is not strong enough, her size, a broken antenna — no one really knows why bees will replace their queen, but they will,” Treffinger said. “So, without a queen, you get behind.”
If the honey bees decide to replace a queen, the beekeeper is left to wait 42 days for a new queen to hatch, grow and be chosen.
“The North Carolina State Beekeepers Association is encouraging beekeepers to learn breeding programs so that we can grow queens and bee packages, so that I can sell them to my friends in our location, and we will have a better breed,” Treffinger said.
Treffinger plans to take queen rearing courses soon in order to provide the area with local queen bees. The new queens will perform better due to familiarity with local flora.
Most area honey bees are a mixed breed of Italian, Carniolan and other breeds.
“What we have around here are mixed; they are mutts,” Treffinger said. “But those mutts that are localized to this area are going to thrive better than any of the others.”
Taking into consideration keeping bees, knowing when local nectar flows begin, and many other issues proves beekeeping is a complicated time commitment.
“Bees start laying eggs at the first of January,” Treffinger said. “They can lay 1,200-1,500 eggs a day, but bees are peculiar.”
Treffinger explained that when bumble bees and wasps hibernate, their queen will begin the process. She will build the nest, lay eggs and collect nectar.
On the other hand, honey bees are opposite — their queen makes very little decisions.
“She has all of these pheromones and the bees come up and feed her from the day she is born, and they do it through trophallaxis,” Treffinger said. “This means they basically French kiss to feed the queen.”
The honey bees will prepare a number of male and female cells for the queen to place eggs in, but only female cells will work.
“The male bees, or drones, only job is to leave the colony, mate and die,” Treffinger said.
Treffinger explains honey bees have drone congregations, where the drones will go each year in order to mate.
“My queen bees will not mate here, they will probably go about half a mile away to drone congregation areas,” Treffinger said. “No one knows how she finds them, other than smell.”
The queen will go to the drone congregation areas up to five days in a row, weather permitting, to collect sperm to fertilize female eggs.
“She will look at these female cells and she can feel and measure the cells, and she decides which eggs to fertilize,” Treffinger said. “I find that really unique because most animals do not have that choice.”
Aside from reproduction, something as small as hive placement has a science behind it.
“There are two reasons to face the hive southeast,” David Thompson, professional beekeeper from Denver, said. “One is the prevailing winds typically are from the North, and you don’t want the wind blowing into the hive, disrupting and freezing them.”
Thompson explained that facing the hive more eastern will catch the sunrise at an earlier time, which will heat the bees faster in order for them to start moving and working.
“Hives max out at 50,000 bees usually,” Thompson said. “If you have a super good queen or two queens, then you could have about 70,000, but 50,000 is normal.”
With this number of bees per hive and depending on how many hives in an apiary (a collection of beehives), harvesting the honey can be time consuming as well.
“We harvest the honey between June and July,” Treffinger said. “If you leave it on any longer than that, the bees will start to eat it themselves.”
Although it is good practice to leave some honey for the bees, leaving all or too much honey for too long takes the chance of robber bees entering the hive.
Some beekeepers will have two harvests in a year, but depending on what flowers are in bloom will determine the taste and smell of the honey.
“I’ve taken the fall honey around here, which has a lot of goldenrod in it,” Thompson said. “They’ll tell you in bee school that if you smell goldenrod honey, it smells like stinky socks. You can smell it behind the hive and the honey is not what we would sell.”
Another aspect of beekeeping is the cost, which includes spending plenty of time and money.
“We recently got a package of bees,” Nelson Canipe, with Buddy Farm Apiary, said. “One package of bees has 20,000 bees and one queen, which is $100. We got 100 packages yesterday.”
Depending on the size of apiary, the cost of packaged bees can add up — not to mention building the hives.
“I assemble a lot of my hive boxes, but I build the tops and bottoms of the boxes,” Treffinger said. “Those items are like $20 a piece, so that saves a little.”
Also, Treffinger explains it is better to keep more than one hive of bees, just in case the one hive dies.
“If bees die from starvation, they all die at one time, because they have shared and shared and shared until there is nothing left,” Treffinger said.
In order to prevent honey bees in apiaries from dying off, it is best if beekeepers either learn from a mentor or go to bee school.
“Once you go through a county bee school, you can take a test to be state certified,” Thompson said. “It’s a decent test, you have to study, not everybody passes, so you’re not just given certification by taking the course.”
Attending bee school assures beekeepers will have the knowledge they need in order to keep hives alive and well.
“The one thing that bothers me about beekeeping is how expensive it has gotten for people who aren’t experienced,” Canipe said. “I’m probably one of the few who has made my money back, but I’ve heard of people spending $3,000 to get a quart of honey — it’s just hard. If you don’t have someone to teach you or help you along the way, it just takes so long.”
One of the problems with beekeeping is the lack of monetary reward for the hard work put in.
“When I kept bees with my former partner, Troy Poovey, we had 26 hives here and the best I ever did was 240 pounds of honey in a season,” Canipe said.
Honey season in the area is short, lasting only 80 days. The remainder of the year, 285 days, beekeepers make sure the bees survive.
“We sell honey for $6 a pound and with 26 hives, if you work at it you’ll get $12,000 right there,” Canipe said. “It’s definitely $12,000 worth of hard work, though.”
Canipe remembers people during the Great Recession trying to find ways to make money and turning to beekeeping.
“No one really talks about making money from beekeeping,” Canipe said. “Some people during the Recession thought that would be an easy way to make money, but it’s just not so.”
The problems with beekeeping go farther than money, including the health of the honey bees, which directly affects humans.
“Bees disappearing is true to a point,” Canipe said. “A lot of people lose bees, but there are reasons for it.”
Canipe explains that as far as beekeeping goes, the well-being of the bees falls into the hands of the beekeeper.
“Back when I started, you didn’t have to treat bees for mites or beetles, but now you do,” Canipe said.
Varroa mites and small hive beetles became a problem for honey bees in the United States in the 1990s and affected bee populations drastically.
“The common collapse disorder was the one that hit the news, the big demise of the bee population, primarily involving the commercial beekeepers,” Thompson said. “They were sustaining these huge losses of greater than 50 percent a year, and we didn’t really know what exactly was causing it.”
Determining the exact cause of a massive population loss in bees can be tricky because there are numerous ways bees can be harmed.
“The varroa mites, beetles, pesticides and just a lot of different things can affect our bees,” Treffinger said. “We just want to protect our bees so they can survive.”
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the rusty patched bumble bee is now considered endangered, which is one step closer to affecting the food supply.
“One in every three bites of food depends on bees for pollination, so thank bees for our food,” Treffinger said.
Thankfully, more and more people are aiding the bee population by simply planting flowers, which is currently a campaign the cereal brand Cheerios is running.
Cheerios has removed their mascot, Buzz the Bee, because, “there's something serious going on with the world's bees,” according to their website.
Also on the Cheerios website, it states, “bee populations everywhere have been declining at an alarming rate, and that includes honeybees like Buzz.”
The cereal brand is sending a free package of wildflower seeds for consumers to plant for bees, but the company has run out of seed packets due to the overwhelming support.
The initial goal was to send one million seed packets, but Cheerios changed the goal to one billion — and still ran out.
Aside from the benefit of beekeeping for the sake of the food supply, there are many health benefits of honey.
“I have a lot of people with allergies come and stock up on honey for the winter,” Canipe said. “I don’t have allergies, so I can’t say if it really works, but I have so many people that believe it — that’s just the way it is.”
If someone suffering from allergies ingests local honey, it is believed by many doctors that the person is also ingesting local pollen. Overtime, the person will become less sensitive to pollen due to the exposure by eating local honey.
“Honey is even good for cuts,” Canipe said. “There is a doctor in Lenoir that has healed diabetic sores with honey.”
Canipe said a gentleman he knows healed 8-month-old diabetic sores with honey in just three days.
“Now, anytime I get cut, I’ll put a little honey on it and put a bandage on it,” Canipe said. “It heals up just fine.”
If interested in beekeeping, call the Catawba Valley Beekeepers Association at 828-465-8240.
Emily Willis is the health and general assignment reporter at the Hickory Daily Record.