Honey, Bee Alive!

Cultivating respect for the humble honeybee

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Story By Pam Lazor

The humble honeybee, whirling and buzzing, landing for brief moments from one flower to the next, collecting pollen and distributing it to flower after flower – its daily chore … The honeybee has its inborn agenda naturally established for life – its own life which, unknowingly, translates to creating life for us, by creating the original tool to make food. Does that sound a bit like an old history essay? True, and that history is a key to a sustainable life, for the honeybee and ultimately human life. The next time you shop for groceries, think about every item you put in your cart. Almost every single one is there for you, courtesy of a honeybee. Without honeybees, you would have no orange juice for breakfast, no cider with lunch or dinner. Would you care for a croissant and fruit plate for breakfast? A sandwich with almond butter, or perhaps a bowl of roasted vegetables for lunch followed by a salad and a bowl of pasta zested with olive oil and lemon, herbs, and tomatoes for dinner with beautiful flowers to grace the table? Honey to sweeten your tea or calm a sore throat? How about a slice of apple pie? Nearly every crop relies on some pollination of honeybees, while certain crops, such as almonds, are entirely dependent on honeybees for pollination. Other crops, including apples, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, melons, and broccoli are up to 90% dependent on pollination via the honeybee.

During the “season”, these little creatures have a very short lifespan, literally working themselves to death while doing their appointed job. One of those jobs is feeding the queen. The more she is fed, the more she lays eggs. She can be fed sugar water, but much prefers nectar.

Without a honeybee, you would be limited to meals made of some very basic ingredients like wheat, rice, or corn; or artificially developed food. Besides contributing to our food sources, honeybees produce wax –a natural ingredient responsible for dozens of products and uses, from home to health to beauty.

If you look at your lawn and curse the stray dandelion or patch of clover, please don’t stomp on it and spray it with a deadly chemical. Take a whiff and understand how the natural beauty and sweet scent of the plant itself is attractive to a honeybee. These are wild food sources that honeybees, and other animals, can eat, using the nutrients from the plants to sustain themselves and continue establishing a further source of food through pollination to allow growth of continuous food. 

Robert House, owner of Heavenly Honey in Carlisle, has been a professional beekeeper for more than 13 years. As a child, he would play games and disturb the hives for fun. While in Bible College, he began to read more and more about beekeeping and got involved in the industry. “Payback for this would be the beehives,” he lightly jokes. In addition to working as the Visitation Director of his church, he cares full-time for his hives.

House’s business is two-fold: he sells honey on small retail and wholesale levels and sells the bees themselves, all while maintaining an extensive number of colonies locally, some rescued, and all around the country. He explained that honeybees are their own variety, brought by others into the United States. “The Native American Indians called them White Man’s Fly.” Honeybees are considered livestock, self-cared for, for the most part, but requiring specialized attention at times, especially with the protection from the Varroa mite, which has been responsible for wiping out honeybee colonies for years.

“The Varroa mite is one of the few parasites that kills its host and then introduces new diseases that come to the hive. The honeybees get sick and are infected with other diseases,” says House. “We have found it difficult to kill a bug on a bug.” And then there is the issue of infected newborn honeybees. “It’s like a pyramid scheme: when the queen lays an egg, if a cell is infected, one (baby) bee comes out, but three Varroa mites come out with it. They overtake the hive because they multiply so quickly, and the hive begins to collapse. Currently, there are about four or five FDA-approved products that can be introduced into a hive to kill the mites.”

In California, without honeybees there would be no almond crop. Many times, bees from as far away as Florida are rented to an almond farmer for the growing season. After they’re done pollinating almonds in California, they might be shipped to Maine, where blueberries are important crops. The hives are shipped in large trucks, holding up to 440 at a time. It’s a big business, about $40,000 per truckload.

“All beehives have mites, it just matters to what degree”, explains House. “A good beekeeper can keep the numbers down. He or she needs to be diligent, and if they’re an amateur, they should find a good mentor – someone who consistently keeps their bees alive. Learn from them. If a ‘new’ beekeeper is in the area and is not careful about maintaining his hives, mites can quickly spread to the neighboring hives. Prior to the 1980s, beekeepers would not do anything or put as much effort into keeping honeybees. It was rare (then) to lose a hive. Now, even the best beekeepers have taken a hit.”

“For the human population to survive, honeybees are absolutely essential,” remarks John Micek, a third-generation farmer and owner of Micek Farm, based in semi-rural Hunterdon County, New Jersey. His farm primarily produces hay, sweet corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, and a variety of squashes. Every summer, crowds line up in front of the family’s small farmstand, knowing they’re getting top-notch produce, grown carefully and thoughtfully.

“In the agricultural industry, much of the focus is on corn (which self-pollinates) and soybeans, so that doesn’t leave a lot of food for the bees.” The first generation of his family’s farmers grew fruit trees, many of which still stand on the farm. They’re left alone, still grow fruit – but are never sprayed with pesticide – providing spring nectar for honeybees to thrive. “There is a lot of nutrition in fruit tree flowers, but they’re there for a short time, and bees don’t fly much in the rain – so if we have a rainy spell and honeybees can’t fly, they miss an opportunity for food. We aim to help the bees with good nutrition. If only people would grow more flowers and fruit trees… The problem with the amateur grower is that many times they have a heavy hand with pesticides, especially on fruit trees, that they don’t know how to use or not use. It’s counterproductive.”

Margarita López-Uribe, Ph.D., Lorenzo L. Langstroth Early Career Professor, Assistant Professor of Entomology, Penn State, College of Agricultural Sciences, has similar thoughts on the topic of honeybees and has studied them for more than 15 years. “Part of the problem, when pollinators start to decline, is that people think they should keep hives to help, but it’s actually not helping. [People] need to keep on top of their hives. Home hives in PA have doubled in the past 15 years. Their livelihood does not depend on their honeybees.” Without the professional knowledge of beekeeping, mites in backyard home hives get out of control. She also notes the conservation concerns: “Humans have transformed our landscape. Flowers have decreased. Beekeepers can move hives around, and any time a colony is introduced to a new landscape, they can deplete floral resources. They require a lot of food! We have a genuine conservation concern. It is very stressful for bees to not have enough food. Beekeeping is an activity that needs to be taken seriously, we need to be good stewards of the environment.” Presently, there are 437 bee species in Pennsylvania, 23 of which are not native. One-third of species are in decline because of lack of food, in addition to pesticides in home gardens. “Plant native plants that are going to flower throughout the year,” advises López-Uribe. “If people want to help honeybees, they need to plant more flowers.”

“It’s not luck, it’s not magic,” summarizes House, “it’s applying what you learn to be successful.” He credits his own late mentor, Gary Becker. “He taught me a lot about keeping bees, but more about being a good friend. If people could learn to get along like the bees, the world would be a much sweeter place.”

A list of favorite flowering plants and herbs for honeybees

• Alyssum 
• Cleome 
• Zinnias
• Sunflowers
• Salvia 
• Calendula 
• Verbena
• Bee balm  
• White wild indigo  
• Purple coneflower 
• Black-eyed Susan 
• Joe-pye weed 
• Marsh blazing star
• Wrinkle leaf goldenrod 

Culinary herbs such as:

• Sage
• Thyme 
• Borage 
• Lavender
• Chives
• Dill 
• Basil 
• Oregano
• Rosemary
• Mint