In the lull between summer’s peak and fall’s color arrival, things are on the quiet side at the Highlands Biological Station as the gardens make their transition from summer blooms to autumn vibrancy. But for those who know where to look, a world of change and color waits ripe for discovery.
That’s the world of pollinators — the army of butterflies, bees, moths, flies and wasps whose diet of nectar keeps flowers flowering.
Beekeepers in Western North Carolina were hit especially hard this winter by a mysterious rash of bee disappearances.
Amateur Haywood County beekeeper Andy Bailey said he lost three of his four colonies during the winter. His final hive lasted until the spring but then those bees disappeared.
What puzzles Bailey is that his hives weren’t filled with the corpses of the thousands of bees, which would seem likely in the case of a massive die-off. Instead, the bees abandoned their homes — honey and all.
The wonderful thing about keeping bees is there are always surprises. Just when you think you’ve learned what there is to know in one area of beekeeping or another the bees do something entirely unexpected and delightful.
I was reminded of this a few days back when we pulled off the spring honey for processing. We were later than usual with this task — the bees are now well into making the summer’s sourwood honey — but other duties had intervened until suddenly and inexplicably it was July.
As the weather cooled this past weekend, Kathy Taylor’s bees were nowhere in sight; sheltering themselves within their manmade, wooden hives, the bees had calmed again after an unseasonably warm winter left them stirring.
This time of year, the queen bee lays her eggs and the worker and drone bees that surround her focus on keeping themselves, and more importantly their leader, alive. A Marxist society, the worker bees happily labor for the benefit of the queen. Without her, they would transform into swarms of anarchists.
This winter has been particularly trying for the insect, however, which usually cluster during the coldest months of the year. The mild temperatures have caused the bees to stir and eat up some of the honey they have stored.
“This is a bad thing for the bees,” said Taylor, president of the Haywood County Beekeepers Association. The association is a local chapter of the state beekeepers association.
As the stores dry up, the bees will die from hunger unless the beekeeper gives them sugar water or other sustenance.
And, if the plants bloom too early, they will not bloom later in the year for the bees, which look for buds to break open as they start a new season of honey making.
Production usually begins in the early spring, with the budding of plants and the rising of the sun. The sooner bees feel the warmth, the sooner they will begin that day’s work so beehives should face the sunrise.
“So if the sun rises in the east — and I reckon it still does — you want it to face east,” Taylor said.
People should also be considerate of their neighbors when they are looking for somewhere to settle their bees because the insect knows no bounds when it comes to searching for quality pollen.
“You can’t say that I live at 195, and you can’t leave here,” Taylor said.
While bees will travel about 100 yards in an adequately pollinated area, they can travel up to three miles hunting for their favorite plants or water — which is key, she said.
If the neighbor has a pool, make sure to keep a sufficient amount of water nearby the hive to prevent the bees from surrounding the pool. Along with pollen, a water source is critical to honey production.
Bee farmers should also strap down their hives somehow or fence them in to prevent predators from attacking them. This year, Taylor said she has seen more animals than usual daring to romp around homes forging for food, which for many could include her bees and their honey store.
“Think about it,” she said. “What did Winnie-the-Pooh love?”
The beekeeper must not be greedy and take all the honey either as it keeps honeybee alive during the winter.
“If we extract too much, then we take away from the bees,” Taylor said.
Standing just more than five feet tall, Taylor is the type of person who greets everyone, even complete strangers, with the phrase “Hello, precious.”
Her naturally nurturing personality has become quite handy during the past few years as she cares for and expands her beekeeping operations — which can be an arduous task.
Taylor backed into beekeeping after her husband retired in 2006.
“He said, ‘What are we going to do?’ and I said, ‘Let’s start an orchard,’” she said.
As she began, Taylor, owner of KT’s Orchard & Apiary Barn in Canton, saw the need to nurture bees alongside her fruit trees and bushes, but she didn’t know where to start. At the time, Haywood County did not offer beginner beekeeping classes so she traveled to Hendersonville.
Taylor began beekeeping in 2007 with two hives, which during the years expanded to 21 colonies housed at various locations near her Pigeon Ford Road home in Canton, in Beaver Dam, and in Buncombe and Jackson counties.
Several years later, in early 2010, Taylor helped charter the more than 75-member Haywood County Beekeepers Association.
The group holds school events, participates in local festivals and teaches beginner classes for burgeoning beekeepers.
Taylor suggested that any new or wannabe beekeepers take a beginning beekeeping course. The class teaches the basics of beekeeping and allows people to get acclimated to the bees and overcome any fears they might have.
“The bees know if you’re not calm,” she said. “That’s why beginner bee school is so important.”
And, any gardener or farmer has good reason to keep bees, she said, and bees have made a resurgence alongside the buy local movement as people realize that they need pollinators to help grow other products.
“Just think of the things you would not have without bees,” she said.
Bees cross-pollinate at least 30 percent of crops, including apples, berries, cucumbers and almonds, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The bees also teach the novice or less experienced grower about their favored plants.
“Dandelions, oh my goodness gracious,” Taylor said of the bees love for that particular weed.
The Haywood County Beekeepers Association will host a two-day introductory course starting this Saturday. The class will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Feb. 18 and 25 at the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service building.
Topics include equipment, selecting beehive locations and getting honeybees.
The cost is $35 per person, $45 per couple and free for students under 18. The fee includes a yearlong membership with the association.
The Smoky Mountain Beekeepers is another local organization that brings together beekeepers and offers starter classes for novices in Swain and Jackson counties. The association will host a course in beginner beekeeping from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., April 14, in Bryson City. Robert Brewer, University of Georgia’s Apiculture Extension Coordinator, will lead the bee school. Brewer is a certified International Honey Judge and co-founder of the Young Harris Beekeeping Institute. Topics covered will include basic bee biology, how to get started in beekeeping, insect and disease control.
The pre-registration fee is $15 prior to April 1 and $20 thereafter or at the door. The course fee will cover the cost of lunch and reference materials.
A number of readers have informed me that the agonizing sting I described in last week’s column was the work of a Japanese hornet. That sent me trotting to my computer, where I read a description of being stung by one. He wrote the sting of a Japanese hornet felt like having a hot nail driven into his leg.
I guess one man’s hot nail is another woman’s hot poker. I had written it felt akin to a hot metal poker being jabbed in my foot.
In actuality, a European hornet probably stung me — the Japanese hornet isn’t present in North America. The European hornet is the largest and, technically, the only true hornet found here. It was first reported in 1840 in New York, and the European hornet has since spread to most of the eastern United States. I certainly don’t remember seeing bees this size while growing up in Bryson City, though maybe I simply didn’t pay attention and they’ve been here all along.
Here’s the official description, courtesy of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service: “Adults somewhat resemble yellow jackets, but are much larger (about one-and-a-half inches) and are brown with yellow markings. Queens, which may be seen in the spring, are more reddish than brown, and are larger than the workers. Nests are typically built in hollow trees, but they are often found in barns, sheds, attics, and wall voids of houses. Unlike its cousin, the bald-faced hornet, European hornets rarely build nests that are free hanging or in unprotected areas. Frequently, the nest is built at the cavity opening, rather than deep within. The outside of the exposed nest will be covered with coarse, thick, tan, paper-like material fashioned from decayed wood fibers. Nests built in wall voids may emit a noticeable stench.”
Now that I’ve been stung by one, I’m seeing them everywhere. Including a nest under the porch of a cabin on the property here. I’m suspicious that the hornets are actually in the wall of the cabin, flying down into a crack through the porch, but I hope that I’m wrong. That will mean suiting up in protective clothing and pulling off boards to get to them. Understandably, I’m not eager to be stung again by one of these monster-sized hornets.
I’ve helped with bee removals before at other people’s homes. Usually it’s honeybees that take up residence. Here’s a free tip for those of you who want to do the removal yourself: fill the cavity with fiberglass insulation after you’ve gotten the bees out. Otherwise, it is inevitable that another swarm of honeybees eventually will take up residence in the same place, attracted by the pheromones of their predecessors.
Since the column published last week, I’ve had several people ask me why I fool with honeybees since I react so violently to being stung. There’s a big difference between swelling from the venom — which is what I do — and having an actual life-threatening allergic reaction.
Most people have some sort of reaction — pain, swelling, redness and itching, that kind of thing. I’m in smaller subset, about 10 to 15 percent of people, who experience larger areas of swelling for up to a week. Uncomfortable, yes; unsightly, yes; but not life-threatening.
Over in Macon County, Lewis Penland, who heads up the planning board, falls into the still rarer group (about 3 percent) who have full-blown allergic reactions that cause anaphylaxis. It forced him to give up honeybee keeping.
The same thing happened to my maternal grandfather, if I remember the stories correctly. He had honeybees, but one day he simply couldn’t have them anymore — he’d developed full-blown allergies to the venom. It happens like that sometimes.
Interestingly, the venom of various stinging insects isn’t the same chemically speaking. I hardly swell from yellow jacket stings, or wasps. But let a honeybee pop me and I blow up like a hideous balloon animal.
And, I’ve now learned, from the sting of a Japanese/European hornet.
Spring’s a buzzin’
Mom was a little concerned the other day as she helped Izzy find a butterfly net to catch white-headed “bumblebees.” Izzy was back in a couple of minutes with a roaring buzz emanating from her closed, cupped hands. She deposited her captured quarry into her butterfly cage and there, for all practical purposes, was a large white-headed bumblebee buzzing loudly and bouncing off the netted walls of the cage.
Actually it wasn’t a bumblebee Izzy had caught but an eastern carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica. I was to blame for the misnomer. A few springs ago I had impressed my then 4-year-old daughter with my daring by snatching a “bumblebee” from a flower with my bare hands. Then I told her how, when I was a little boy growing up in Mer Rouge, La., we used to wander the lawns around town catching “white-headed bumblebees” and tying sewing thread around their middle to create bumblebee kites. None of us knew what a carpenter bee was, but we all knew that the bumblebees with the white to yellowish-white square patch on the head could not sting and were fair game.
Humans seem to learn early, perhaps by osmosis in the womb, that if something buzzes and it’s black and yellow — it’s a bumblebee and it will sting you. The white patch on the head or face of the male eastern carpenter bee is a quick give away. It’s prominent and easy to see, and even 8-year-olds can remember that if it has a white head, it doesn’t sting.
The female eastern carpenter bee does not have a white head, and while it is not as aggressive as a bumblebee it can sting. Carpenter bees (even the females) and bumblebees can easily be distinguished by coloration in the field once we get past that “black and yellow sting” thing. The abdomen (remember insects have a head, thorax and abdomen) of the carpenter bee is bare and black. The abdomen of a bumblebee is hairy and yellow.
Carpenter bees are not social nesters like bumblebees and honeybees. The female carpenter bee makes its nest by tunneling into wood. Before the urbanization of America, this meant dry standing wood. Conifers seemed to be preferred. Today carpenter bees are sometimes thought of as pests because they will bore into homes and other structures. The damage is usually confined to a small area, as carpenter bees prefer to lay their eggs in the same hole or tunnel they were born in.
Carpenter bees, especially the females are useful pollinators and gardeners, and orchard keepers sometimes provide softy dry wood for nesting. The male is not as useful as a pollinator because it will sometimes “rob” flowers by chewing through the corolla rather than crawling in, thus bypassing the gathering and dispersing of pollen.
Males are content to spend most of their time hovering around and guarding their territory. While they can’t sting they are quite curious and will quickly come to investigate any intruder, including the two-legged kind.
Little do they know that this plays right into Izzy’s hands, or net.
A beekeepers association has formed in Haywood County.
The club meets at 7 p.m. the first Tuesday of the month at the N.C. Cooperative Extension Office in Waynesville off Raccoon Road.
The club has seen a huge level of interest since forming last fall, with as many as 60 people at the meetings.
“The importance of having an association is that everyone who is interested in bees can talk and share their experiences, their problems and their excitement,” said Kathy Taylor, one of the founders of the new club. “Anyone who is interested in beekeeping or learning about bees is welcome to come.”
Bees are vital to pollination of crops, but the wild bee population is declining, making the role of hobby beekeepers more important than ever.
“When I was growing up every farmer had two or three hives,” Taylor said.
Allen Blanton is also a founder of the club.
For more information, contact Taylor at 828.648.0700 or Blanton at 828.400.1735.
By Kathleen Lamont
I’ve got two cents to add to the honeybee dilemma. There are approximately 20,000 species of bees roaming around, out of which approximately 300 pollinate, and of those 300 most people can identify two — the bumblebee and the honeybee.
With the Africanized honeybee now established in Florida, experts say it is only a matter of time before the so-called “killer bee” is introduced into this state.
Hugh Gibby knows a little something about honeybees. He’s kept them for 63 of his 78 years, following in the footsteps of his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.