Replenishing Hives Stung by the Loss of Bees

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, May 29, 2008

Anyone who has kept honeybees will tell you that for all that is known about this plucky insect, there is much more shrouded in mystery. The biggest, and most worrying, puzzle these past two years has been the affliction known as colony collapse disorder, or CCD, in which foraging workers leave the hive but do not return. Eventually the colony diminishes to a point where there are insufficient bees to keep their egg-laying queen warm and fed.

The problem persists, mostly in the bee pollination trade, a vast industry of itinerant beekeepers who ferry truckloads of hives from the blueberry fields of Maine to the almond groves of California. Their plight is interwoven with the bee's death spiral. A survey of managed hives showed a loss of 35 percent in 2007, following an already worrying 31 percent loss the year before.

Most of the losses attributed to CCD occur where stressed hives are shipped en masse, about as unnatural a process as the crop concentrations they service, but that is our model of industrialized agriculture.

Honeybee mortality is also a fact of life for backyard hobbyists. Honeybees used to look after themselves, swarming and propagating in tree cavities, but parasites and diseases have made feral bees rare and even those colonies nurtured and medicated by beekeepers an iffy proposition. The two colonies in my yard perished this past winter, not because of colony collapse disorder but probably due to the nectar-sapping drought of the past year.

The question that rarely gets asked is, how do hobbyists and pros alike replenish their moribund hives? For hundreds of beekeepers in the Washington area, the road to bee resurrection leads to rural Georgia, and to a bee farm named Wilbanks Apiaries.

Reg Wilbanks and his 20 or so employees are finishing their annual bee package season this week. At the company's various bee yards centered in the town of Claxton, skilled workers take a wooden, screened box about the size of a shoe box, place a funnel over the entrance hole and shake in a generous measure of live bees that often ends up being closer to four pounds than three. This costs $58, or roughly two bees for a penny. Wilbanks deals only in the most gentle breed, called a three-banded Italian after the markings on its abdomen and its Mediterranean origins, but each of the 12,000 buzzing workers -- all female -- packs a venomous sting of last resort.

A queen bee, already fertile, is placed in the box, but in a separate cage about the size of a matchbox. Here she sits with five attendants while her animated subjects get used to her pheromones. Place the queen directly into the throng and she may well get stung to death because the workers were raised to serve another queen. Staging this coup d'etat takes patience and guile on the part of the beekeeper, but we get ahead of ourselves.

Wilbanks's worker bees are harvested from stock hives whose queens begin laying hundreds of eggs daily in late winter, and by the time the last package is sent out this week, the Wilbanks employees will have dispatched as many as 20,000 packages.

The other part of the business is in raising queen bees. Using a tiny hook, an employee removes a newly hatched egg from its cell and places it in a queen-less hive. The workers, eager to create a queen, serve the milky-white grub a special feed called royal jelly, and a commoner once destined for a Cinderella life of work is transformed into a regal egg-laying machine. Workers take 21 days to develop, but a queen just 16, so employees know when to remove the pupating queen and place another egg in the queen-less hive. "It's like growing out chickens," said Wilbanks, a fourth-generation apiarist.

The new queens are taken to bee yards with lots of male drones, mated, and then shipped in the queen cages, either separately or with the larger bee packages. Wilbanks raises 60,000 queens annually.

The packages are also equipped with cans of sugar syrup that fit snugly in the top cover. The underside of the can has three tiny holes of a precise size punched in it. Too large, and the syrup would squirt out in transit. Wilbanks finds the perfect punch in old phonograph needles. As you may have gathered, this is a deliciously low-tech endeavor.

These packages used to go through the mail, and some still do, though postal workers tend to get a little antsy at the prospect. I once got an urgent -- nay, agitated -- call from the local post office to pick up my bees.

But the truth is, these bees are becoming too precious to leave to the vagaries of snail mail, and many clubs now send couriers to pick up their members' packages.

Wilbanks sells every package he can raise. (He doesn't want to expand because he wants to maintain quality control.) "There's been a lot of colony loss from the colony collapse disorder," he said, though the shortages predate CCD. "I would say the demand has exceeded the supply since around 1995."

Bee clubs in metropolitan Washington have seen rapid growth this winter and spring in membership and classes as people worried about the plight of the bee have enrolled to learn the hobby. The classes end with the delivery of bees, and for the new members of the Beekeepers Association of Northern Virginia, that means the arrival of a heroic pair of bee couriers named Dane Hannum and Larry Kelley, both honey producers in Virginia.

This year they made two trips to Claxton (11 hours one way), one in late March, the other in late April, and brought almost 1,000 packages for local beekeepers in a pickup truck and a large trailer modified for the purpose. Two were destined for my garden, but I was out of town when they arrived in Chantilly for the main package distribution, so I made my way over to Hannum's home in North Arlington on a wet Monday morning to pick them up. There was no answer at the door, so I walked through his back yard, dotted with colorful hives. I found him behind the screen door of his large shed.

"Come in out of the rain," said Hannum, a retired D.C. police officer who works his bees with a toothpick between his teeth. He was sitting on a chair dismantling the strips of wood that held the packages together. There were clusters of bees on the outside, as well as within the packages, but no one seemed bothered by this, not least the bees.

I took them home to their awaiting hives, removed the stapled lid (this is all done as gently as possible, for obvious reasons) and took out the little queen cage. I then pried the syrup can out of the box, turned the package upside down and began to shake the bees onto the top of the opened hive. There is some agitation, but generally they are compliant.

I then removed the little cork that plugs one end of the queen cage. Behind it is a wall of candy, which the worker bees eat their way through over the next two or three days. By the time they have reached their new queen, they have accepted her, and quickly usher her to the honeycombed frames below.

Last week, I returned to Hannum's bee yard, and he was talking about an inordinate amount of swarming this season due to the rain. As if on cue, the bees began to pour like a waterfall out of one of his hives. Soon the sky was nothing less than a cloud of thousands of bees rising and falling.

With no protective gear, he knelt down in front of the still-emerging cloud and began poking around the landing board, the hive's launch pad, looking for the queen he knew was about to leave with the swarm. He saw her tumble out of the hive and quickly picked her up, walked over to his shed, found a queen cage and gently pushed her into it.

He didn't have to look far for the few attendants he wanted to put in there, too. They were clinging to his head, neck and clothing. He plucked them with his thumb and forefinger and pushed them through the little tunnel.

All this was done without a single sting, and there was something noble and real about it. It would be hard to imagine a world without honeybees, or beekeepers like Dane Hannum.

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