A new meaning of “homemade” honey

This is just a fraction of what Craig Johnston happened up on as he walked up the stairs to the second floor landing.

The study of bees, which includes the study of honeybees, is known as melittology.

Honeybees are known for construction of perennial, colonial nests from wax, for the large size of their colonies, and for their surplus production and storage of honey, distinguishing their hives as a prized foraging target of many animals, including honey badgers, bears and human hunter-gatherers.

In the early 21st century, only seven species of honeybees are recognized, with a total of 44 subspecies,  though historically seven to eleven species are recognized. The best known honeybee is the western honeybee which has been domesticated for honey production and crop pollination; modern humans also value the wax for candlemaking, soapmaking, lip balms, and other crafts. Honeybees represent only a small fraction of the roughly 20,000 known species of bees. Some other types of related bees produce and store honey and have been kept by humans for that purpose, including the stingless honeybees, but only members of the genus Apis are true honeybees.

Honeybees were once thought to be headed for extinction due to a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). In the mid 2000s, public awareness of CCD was being talked about, worried over and amplified, giving notice that an alarming number of beehives were not surviving the winters. The number of losses was thought to be an astonishing 60 percent.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “The number of hives that do not survive over the winter months — the overall indicator for bee health — has maintained an average of about 28.7 percent since 2006-2007 but dropped to 23.1 percent for the 2014-2015 winter. While winter losses remain somewhat high, the number of those losses attributed to CCD has dropped from roughly 60 percent of total hives lost in 2008 to 31.1 percent in 2013.” Since then, due in part to diligence on the part of beekeepers as well as cooperation of farmers, this situation has become more stable and bees are surviving at better rates.

Town Creek resident, Craig Johnston, Director of the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce, recently learned more than he ever wanted to know about bees.

Johnston is restoring a home in Town Creek. While working on the main house, he lived in an attached cottage. About three weeks ago he reached a point in his remodeling on the second floor of the house that involved removing an old speaker system and replacing the sheetrock on that section of wall. He climbed the stairs to the second floor landing and met a shocking sight, bees were everywhere - on the ceiling, the windows, the light fixtures and the walls.

Highly allergic to bee stings, Johnston beat a hasty retreat back down the stairs and for the next two weeks he sought help in removing the unwanted guests. Finally, Marlon Nelson came in his shop, The Willow Tree, and the two struck up a conversation. It seemed a fortuitous meeting because one of Marlon’s brothers, Timmy Nelson, is a beekeeper.

Timmy came to Johnston’s rescue the following day. After inspecting the house with an infrared instrument about the size of a cell phone, Timmy’s son-in-law, Dustin Cole, discovered the hive when his instrument picked up on its heat signature. They determined that the bees had made a huge hive, specifically in the space between the downstairs ceiling and the upstairs floor in between the floor joist. Craig guesses that it measured almost six feet in depth, and was around two feet wide. It was located directly above where Craig Johnston’s antique dining table would sit.

To reach the bees, Timmy had to peel back the carpet and cut a hole in the floor. Fortunately, he found the queen bee the first day. For the next six hours he and Dustin would remove bees from the intricate hive which they had been building for perhaps as long as twenty years.

Mayor Mike Parker recalls being summoned to the house at least that long ago by the previous owner. At the time,  Parker was on the city’s maintenance crew. He found where the bees were going into the house through a gap in an outside wall, but the owner never found anyone who could extract them so he just did the best he could to keep them away, he thought. However, bees are an industrious lot and they continued to coexist with the home owner peacefully until Craig Johnston came along and decided to remove the old, outdated speaker system.

Johnston says he never heard the bees until Timmy cut the carpet away from the floor. Placing his ear close to where the new opening was, he then heard a rumbling, humming, roaring noise that seemed gigantic.

Timmy, who keeps approximately 22 hives on his property near Pinhook, was more than happy to extract the bees for several reasons. He could add to his own hives, there was a wealth of honey in the one in Johnston’s house, and he would be saving the bees from extermination. That might have been their plight if Johnston hadn’t learned that Timmy could remove the bees.

That day three boxes of bees were removed from the space above the dining table area using a special vacuum process which suctions the bees into a bucket. Approximately 60,000 bees were removed. Along with the bees came their sweet byproduct, honey. According to Johnston there was in excess of five gallons extracted from his home that day. It puts a whole new spin on the phrase ‘homegrown’ honey.

Johnston now has his own container of ‘the house’ honey, plus the comb. Nelson says the honeycomb was the length of the whole hive, about six feet long.

“It was a big hive,” said Nelson. “The queen, always about twice the size of a worker bee, was easy to spot.”

According to Nelson, bees have a natural homing instinct which brings them home at night. In order for him to capture the returning forager bees he would have to work from about 2:30 p.m. until approximately 9:30 p.m.

 Timmy and Dustin, wearing beekeeping gear from head to toe, worked slowly and deliberately, as Nelson explained that there is always only one queen per hive. She is bred by drone bees, fed by nurse bees, and pampered her whole life. Once mated, queens may lay up to 2,000 eggs per day.  Only if she decides to leave the hive for some reason, will the rest follow her to form a new hive. This voluntary moving of the hive is referred to as a swarm. Queens produce a variety of pheromones that regulate behavior of workers, and help swarms track the queen’s location during the swarming.

This queen would have been born into one of the possibly dozen queen cells. She would have been the first queen to hatch. Her first act as queen bee would have been to destroy the other queen cells. Then the drones would have removed their remains.

Worker bees defend the hive. Forager bees leave the hive in the morning and work to pollinate as many flowers and blooms of all kinds, including cotton blossoms, then bring back the pollen to deposit it into the honeycomb cells. Nurse bees then use it to feed the larva of the next generation of bees. The queen lives off of the best of the honey, called royal jelly which is much sweeter than the rest of the product which is what most of us are familiar with. Some people believe that royal jelly contains healing properties.

Nelson has been stung plenty of times, shrugging it off as just part of his hobby. He says the weather has a lot to do with the temperament of bees. Removing them at the right time and in good weather makes his job a lot easier.

According to Wikipedia, of all the honeybee species, only A. mellifera has been used extensively for commercial pollination of fruit and vegetable crops. The scale of these pollination services is commonly measured in the billions of dollars, credited with adding about 9% to the value of crops across the world. However, despite contributing substantially to crop pollination, there is debate about the potential spillover to natural landscapes and competition between managed honeybees and many of the 20,000 species of wild pollinators.

So why do bees choose to make hives in houses, the way they did in this case? According to experts, the problem is that there are only so many flowers and places to nest. And once the numbers of honeybees have been artificially inflated (commercial-scale beekeeping wouldn’t exist without humans) the increased competition for these resources can push native non-Apis pollinators out of their natural habitats. Nelson says foragers go out and choose the most suitable place for the needs of the hive. “It must be a hollow cavity, near a water source, and close to places where pollen is abundant, such as fields planted in clover.”

All scientists agree that a world without honeybees would also mean a world without fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, because all of the blossoms of all of these plants have to be pollinated. Can you imagine pollinating every single blossom on every tree in just one orchard by hand - much less all of the orchards on earth? We owe a lot to these industrious little bees.  

Nelson plants buckwheat on his property to keep his bees happy and nearby. In July he harvests and sells his honey.

“I got a real education about bees,” Johnston laughed. “I know now that the fields surrounding my house, as far as the eye can see, are the reason these bees have been so happy here for so long.”

He spent the next several days cleaning out the space between the joists, using a commercial foam insect product made for that purpose, followed by Clorox, and has left the space opened to the air so as to dry up the last vestiges of honey. “You can still smell honey very strongly in the house,” he commented.

He hopes that all the chemicals will deter any leftover bees who might still smell their queen’s scent, (called pheromones) where the hive once was. “I’m so glad that we were able to relocate them safely to another location,” said Johnston.

People who suspect that they might have a hive in or near their home and wish to have it removed should never try removal or extermination themselves. If you walk into your home one day and hear a distinct buzzing sound, or see bees entering or leaving some part of your home,  who ya gonna call? A BeeKeeper!

You can contact your local extension office for more information, or you can reach Timmy Nelson at 256-566-5048. Remember: we need bees in order to produce fruits, vegetables, nuts, berries, flowers and various row crops, such as cotton. You should make every effort to relocate bees rather than eradicating them. 

As in a few other types of eusocial bees, a colony generally contains: one queen bee, a fertile female; seasonally up to a few thousand drone bees, or fertile males; and tens of thousands of sterile female worker bees. Details vary among the different species of honeybees, but common features include the following facts:

1. Eggs are laid singly in a cell in a wax honeycomb, produced and shaped by the worker bees. Using her spermatheca, the queen can choose to fertilize the egg she is laying, usually depending on which cell she is laying it into. Drones develop from unfertilized eggs and are haploid, while females (queens and worker bees) develop from fertilized eggs and are diploid. Larvae are initially fed with royal jelly produced by worker bees, later switching to honey and pollen. The exception is a larva fed solely on royal jelly, which will develop into a queen bee. The larva undergoes several moultings before spinning a cocoon within the cell, and pupating.

2. Young worker bees, sometimes called “nurse bees”, clean the hive and feed the larvae. When their royal jelly-producing glands begin to atrophy, they begin building comb cells. They progress to other within-colony tasks as they become older, such as receiving nectar and pollen from foragers, and guarding the hive. Later still, a worker takes her first orientation flights and finally leaves the hive and typically spends the remainder of her life as a forager.

3. Worker bees cooperate to find food and use a pattern of “dancing” (known as the bee dance or waggle dance) to communicate information regarding resources with each other. This dance varies from species to species, but all living species of Apis exhibit some form of the behavior. If the resources are very close to the hive, they may also exhibit a less specific dance commonly known as the “round dance”.

4. Honeybees also perform tremble dances, which recruit receiver bees to collect nectar from returning foragers.

5. Virgin queens go on mating flights away from their home colony to a drone congregation area, and mate with multiple drones before returning. The drones die in the act of mating. Queen honeybees do not mate with drones from their home colony.

6. Colonies are established not by solitary queens, as in most bees, but by groups known as “swarms”, which consist of a mated queen and a large contingent of worker bees. This group moves en masse to a nest site which was scouted by worker bees beforehand and whose location is communicated with a special type of dance. Once the swarm arrives, they immediately construct a new wax comb and begin to raise new worker brood. This type of nest founding is not seen in any other living bee genus, though several groups of vespid wasps also found new nests by swarming (sometimes including multiple queens). Also, stingless bees will start new nests with large numbers of worker bees, but the nest is constructed before a queen is escorted to the site, and this worker force is not a true “swarm”.



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