Ever yell, “There’s a bee!” and witness immediate shrieks, mad dashes for elsewhere and “I hate bees!” chants?
Bees are a source of fascination to the many beekeepers in Seattle. In fact, beekeepers do not see bees as potential pain-inducers at all, but as friends that need to be nurtured, cared for and loved.
Rick Gow, a Wallingford beekeeper of four years, is intrigued by his collections of honeybees. “They are very social and so efficient at what they do — they are just extraordinary,” he said. “The more you learn about them, the more you’ll be amazed.”
The way honeybees colonize, socialize and perpetuate the species makes Gow’s eyes light up.
To reproduce overall, honeybees will split the hive, with half the bees taking off in a swarm to find a new home, Gow said. A new queen will be “crowned,” making the new hive self-sufficient.
“When the bees sense the hive is overcrowded and there’s not enough resources, they get the urge to swarm. The worker bees feed a certain number of eggs a substance called royal jelly. If they keep getting more royal jelly, they will develop into a queen.
“It’s the workers who decide on everything in the hive, including the rate of laying,” he added. “If they sense there are not enough resources, they’ll stop feeding the queen as much and that causes her to slow down her egg laying. But if they sense there’s a lot of food, they keep feeding her, and she could lay thousands of eggs.”
Gow explained that while honeybees live year-round, different seasons will yield different life spans, with summer bees living five to six weeks and winter bees living five to six months.
“In the summer, they wear themselves out and don’t make it back to the hive. Their wings get all tattered and torn. They basically work themselves to death,” Gow explained.
The bees build up their populations in the spring, starting in January.
Wallingford beekeeper Kevin Turner, who is in his first year of beekeeping with one current hive, is intrigued by the creatures as well. He recently joined the Puget Sound Beekeepers Association to get educated on beekeeping and meet fellow beekeepers.
Beekeeping takes a lot of work, and the learning curve is steep, he said.
The one hive he has this year has few bees left — the winter was not kind to his bees. Turner said he could have introduced medication into the hive but that would have made them dependent on health care instead of growing natural defenses.
“But my bees left a lot of honey over,” he said.
Turner plans to get more hives this coming year. And with experience under his belt, he is excited about having at least two hives.
“I’ve found this hobby amazing,” he said.
There are not many bee sellers in the Pacific Northwest, Gow said; most people buy their bees from California. Many beekeepers simply will increase their hives by splitting them, which saves money needed for new bees and is also healthier for the bees since they’ll need to adapt to a new climate.
Most of the beekeepers in Seattle take care of honeybees, but with thousands of different species of bees, people keep other types, too, including bumblebees and mason bees, Gow said; however, honeybees often make the nicest pets.
Turner said beekeepers keep strict tabs on the number of pet hives in the area: Too many hives can be detrimental to the bees since they are competing for the same flowers.
Honey can be harvested from the hive combs, of course, but the bees need the honey as food, so many beekeepers keep honey harvesting to a minimum.
Do beekeepers ever get stung by their own bees?
“With my first hive, in my first year, a bee was flying around and got between my face and my glasses, and I’m sure it panicked,” Turner said. “That’s the one time I’ve been stung by my bees.”
But with so many bees that’s to be expected.
A honeybee hive can house 50,000 to
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