Jones Tyler, an IT analyst at Dominion Resources, spends his spare time among queens — queen bees, that is. He cultivates them for his 34 honeybee hives, a carryover from a childhood spent observing his father tend to hives in Charles City County.
Watching Tyler reminds me of my late father, who worked among beehives on our farm in Christiansburg wearing just a short-sleeved shirt, although he did have a veiled hat. Daddy used a smoker, a bellows contraption that spewed smoke into the hive, temporarily confusing the bees, sometimes hindering them from stinging. My brother keeps bees, too, at his home in North Carolina. I haven't seen his hives, but I've sure enjoyed the honey.
"Bees are fascinating," Tyler says. "I have 10 out-yards, averaging three to four hives per out-yard, on farms from Charles City to Varina.
"That's about 1.36 million bees," he adds, before launching into mile-long sentences full of facts about the insect that pollinates about 80 percent of Virginia's fruit and vegetable crops. Even with a resurgence of interest in beekeeping, Frank Walker, president of the Virginia State Beekeepers Association, says the health of honeybees is teetering.
"We lose 34 percent of our bees every year in Virginia," Walker says. "That affects cucumbers, blueberries, pumpkins — the list goes on. If things don't turn around quickly, we could be importing 80 to 90 percent of our fruits and vegetables in the U.S. by 2020."
Pesticides, European mites and hive beetles are just a few of the many reasons why bee populations are dwindling in this country. The bees that remain have to hustle.
"It takes about 556 workers traveling over 55,000 miles, visiting 2 million flowers to gather enough nectar to make one pound of honey," Walker says. "Worker bees live about six weeks. In its lifetime, a bee makes about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey, enough to cover your little fingernail."
A Master Beekeeper program (virginiabeekeepers.org/node/136) has been formed in Virginia in an attempt to attract new beekeepers. The scales tipped for Tyler after hearing a 2008 talk about honeybees at the Varina Lions Club.
"I bought my first nuc — that's short for nucleus — a beginner's hive with five frames, in 2009. You put the nuc into a big hive, give the bees the resources they need and they'll build out a full hive. If they do well through the winter, you'll get honey the second year."
Tyler finds their social order fascinating.
"Everybody has a job in a beehive, and it all revolves around the queen," he says. "Every egg the queen lays either becomes a queen or a female worker, the ones who look for pollen to make honey and can sting, or a drone, who can't sting and exists only to mate with queens.
"Queens can lay over 1,500 eggs a day, but about Oct. 15, around the first frost, that slows to a trickle, and workers kick out the drones, since their work is done. When temperatures drop below 40 degrees, the remaining bees form a huge ball of honey. They hover around the honey and quiver their flight muscles to keep warm, intermittently exchanging places throughout the winter. That's called a winter cluster."
Finally taking a breath, Tyler switches gears and offers advice for wannabe beekeepers.
"The first thing is to visit a local beekeepers association. I'm the president of the East Richmond Beekeepers Association, but I'm also a member of the Richmond Beekeepers Association. There are lots of clubs in Virginia. Any member will introduce you to someone who sells local bees and equipment."
He persuaded me. I've signed up to let a local beekeeper place a hive in my backyard.
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2011. All rights reserved.