Bee’s knees

For Farmington Township beekeepers, ‘just something fascinating about them’

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry Bees cling to the top cover of their colony as Beekeeper Freda Pyles checks on progress inside.

Freda Pyles loves the sound of bees.

“There’s just something fascinating about them,” she said.

For the last 12 years, Freda and her husband, J.R., have been beekeepers.

They have two colonies not far from their house in Farmington Township.

In that time, they have had bees every year, except for one.

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry Bees cling to the top cover of their colony as Beekeeper Freda Pyles checks on progress inside.

“I couldn’t stand not having them… not coming down to see them,” Freda said. “Bees are the most fascinating insects.”

“It’s the pure pleasure of the seeing those bees work,” she said. “When I see them in my garden or on my flowers, I get so excited.”

Her concern for the creatures clearly shows in the amount of care she takes to not crush even one when she is handling the parts of the hive.

She does most of the keeping.

J.R. knows about bees and he’s willing to work around them. But it’s not a labor of love for him. “I provide the muscle when we’re moving boxes,” he said. “I’m just not real comfortable with 30,000 bees swarming around my head.”

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry Beekeeper Freda Pyles uses a hive tool to check how much honey is on a frame in one of her two bee colonies.

That experience is music to Freda’s ears.

“I hear them around my ear,” she said. “I just love them.”

She does have a healthy respect for them, even in suit and veil.

“It’s a little unnerving when they’re in front of your nose,” she said as she reached to pull out and inspect a frame — the wooden structures the bees build on and fill with honey.

In the midst of a bumper crop of goldenrod, the honey is abundant.

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry Beekeeper Freda Pyles pulls up a frame that is nearly full of honey.

As she looked at the frame that was fully ‘capped’ — the bees close up cells that are full of honey — she said, “We’re going to have so much honey.”

It’s not about making money. Pyles is a licensed beekeeper, but she is only a hobbyist. She is not allowed to sell food products.

Instead, she gives it away to friends.

She expects to get as much as 160 pounds of honey from their two colonies this fall.

“People are going to be so happy with me,” she said.

The hive

The hive is organized initially by the humans.

Wooden boxes are stacked on top of each other. Inside each is a number of vertical, open, wood frames where the bees build.

There are two large boxes at the bottom of the hive. Those are for the bees to reproduce and to store honey for the winter.

“Once a bee is born, they turn around and clean the cell that they were born in,” Pyles said.

Above the bottom two brood layers, there is a ‘queen excluder’ — a screen with holes small enough that a queen can’t get through but big enough for workers to come and go.

The excluder keeps the queen from laying eggs in the honey that is going to be consumed by humans. The bees fill the cells with honey, but there won’t be any eggs or larva there.

That honey occupies boxes that are above the excluder.

With the hive set up, the humans then introduce the bees.

The first bees

They can be ordered. A package of bees costs about $150 and includes a queen and about 2,000 other bees. The queen is shipped among the other bees, but in a small box that keeps her apart. By the time they are shipped to the beekeeper, the bees have accepted the queen.

The keeper must feed the brand new bees until they start producing honey.

A nuclear colony of bees — a nuc — is another option for starting a colony. All of the bees in the nuc are related, so there is no adjustment period with the queen, and they come with frames that are already in production with both honey and brood.

The Pyles buy Italian bees. “They’re known to be gentle bees,” J.R. said.

How a beekeeper chooses to start is a personal or monetary choice.

The colony

Once the colony is started, the queen can lay thousands of eggs per week.

“It’s a hobby that you can do without spending a massive amount of time,” she said.

The colony runs a tight ship.

“That hive is so orderly,” Pyles said. “If something’s wrong, they correct it. I think that’s what fascinated me.”

The bees that fly around gathering nectar and do the work of the hive are worker bees.

“All the workers are girls,” she said.

About the only time, one sees a male bee after introducing them to the hive is in the winter.

The queen doesn’t lay any eggs in the winter, Pyles explained.

The hive has a limited amount of honey saved up to make it through the winter — “the reason they make the honey is to survive the winter,” Pyles said. The drones are an unnecessary drain on the resources.

“The male drones are pushed out of the hive to die,” she said.

A queen bee can live for about two years. She lays all the eggs for the colony.

What those eggs turn into is up to other bees.

“Nurse bees determine male or female and job,” Pyles said.

They even determine if there will be a new queen.

When workers start making a multi-cell location for an egg, it means that egg will become a queen. That usually happens when it’s time to replace the current queen — for age or health reasons.

The swarm

Sometimes, the hive makes a new queen even if the current queen is in good health. “That’s why they swarm sometimes,” Pyles said.

A swarm accompanies the extra queen leaves the colony and finds a new home. That typically happens early in the year. If not, the swarm will not have enough time to make enough honey to survive the winter.

Swarms are good ways to find cheap bees.

A swarm of bees near a home generally represents an unwelcome guest. The interests of those homeowners looking to get rid of them coincide with beekeepers looking for bees.

“An experienced beekeeper could go to a swarm and give them to” someone who needs bees, Freda said.

Beekeepers often need new bees.

The winter mortality rate is between 30 and 50 percent, Pyles said.

“We’ve had to order them almost every year,” she said.

The invaders

There are problems the hive, as industrious as it is, cannot handle on its own.

Pyles keeps her bees off the ground.

“Skunks eat bees,” she said.

Pyles also has an electric fence around her bees.

“We’ve had bear problems over the years,” she said. “They just destroy the hives.”

Bears eat the honey, but they also eat the protein-rich bees.

For a dedicated bear, an electric fence isn’t enough.

The Pyles keep bacon draped over the wires, hoping that a zap in a sensitive area like the mouth might convince a bear to leave the hives alone.

Pyles drives past the colonies regularly to make sure the bees are doing their thing, but she doesn’t spend a lot of time poking around inside the hives. “It sets them back every time you check on them,” she said. “But you don’t want them to have problems.”

Greater dangers may be posed by much smaller creatures — varroa mites, that cause bees to lose their ability to navigate — and even smaller bacteria that carry American foulbrood.

With respect to foulbrood, “if you get it, you have to burn the hive,” Pyles said.

The honey

“I love introducing people to raw honey,” Pyles said. “It’s the one food product that won’t ever go bad.”

“I’m fond of my fall honey,” she said.

The honey the Pyles collect in spring is generally made of pollen from apple trees and clover. Fall honey is largely from goldenrod with some purple aster.

“I don’t think I was that big a honeyeater until I had bees,” she said.

Since she does not sell honey, Pyles does not have to have an apiary license. But, she does. “It’s the smart thing to do because then the inspector knows you’re there,” she said.

For a hobbyist, the inspections are not punitive. “He’ll go through your hives with you… he’s a big help.”

The sting

Bees are bees and sometimes even people who respect them get stung.

“I’ve only been stung a couple of times over the years,” he said. “Weather stirs them up. They’ll be more aggressive on a rainy day.”

“You don’t work with bees when it’s windy or rainy,” Freda said. “They are cranky when it’s rainy. That’s the only time I’ve gotten stung.”

The Pyles hope others will respect bees.

“Kids are fascinated with bees,” J.R. said.

“If you educate them about how important bees are, they won’t be as afraid of them, and they’ll be less likely to kill them,” Freda said. “We tell people, ‘Do not put chemicals on the dandelions.’ Your lawn doesn’t have to be pure green.”

The Beekeepers

“There’s a real interest in bees because there’s so much press about the bees dying,” she said.

She invited anyone interested in becoming a beekeeper to join the Warren County Beekeepers. “If you have an inkling, it’s so important to know other beekeepers and have a mentor.”

Hanging around with experienced beekeepers can help a newcomer know what to do, but the advice may not be consistent.

“You can ask 10 beekeepers how to do something and you’ll get 11 different answers,” Pyles said.

The group meets at 6:30 p.m. on the third Monday of every month at the Warren County Conservation District on Hatch Run and Conewango Avenue.