Consider the honey bee. You’re thinking of a warm, sunny summer day, when bees are buzzing from flower to flower and working hard to make that precious, golden elixir, right? But it’s a fall afternoon when Larry Haigh steps into his backyard to show off his bees. They are out and about as much as ever, dipping through plants, buzzing through the air, and fast at work managing their colonies.
Haigh, the president of the South Carolina Beekeepers Association, keeps two large colonies as a hobby in his lush Mt. Pleasant yard. He says it’s still warm enough in our climate for the bees to remain active. As the months grow colder, though, he’ll need to start making preparations for the bees’ winter lifestyle.
Each of his bee colonies has about 20,000 insects in it, and every single bee has a very specific job. There is one queen bee who is the only bee laying eggs. She stays in the center of the hive, laying eggs in the orifices, or “cells” of the honeycomb. Around her, female worker bees keep the hive clean, go foraging for nectar and pollen, bring in water, feed the larvae, and guard the entrance. They are, collectively, the queen’s bitch. No males are allowed inside the hive once they’ve hatched, and there are far fewer males in the colony than females — they only make up about 2 percent of the total population. The male bees, or drones, stay outside the hive and serve the primary purpose of mating with a fertile queen. (They die immediately after mating, giving a whole new meaning to la petite mort.) They help themselves to nectar stores but don’t do much else for the hive. Remarkably, a drone is born from an unfertilized egg, while the fertilized eggs become lady bees.
Right now, the bees are starting to make cold-weather plans. The queen can lay up to 3,000 eggs a day in the springtime, but she’s starting to lay less now. She needs to cut the number down because it’s hard for a large population to survive when the bees begin spending more and more time inside. The worker bees are beginning to kick all the drones out, since they’re basically freeloading and not out scouting for a queen to breed with. Nectar is flowing less and less, so economizing is necessary.
Haigh has to cut corners, too. He’ll soon remove any excess honey and at least one layer of a series of honeycomb frames, leaving only about 40 pounds of honey to keep the bees fed during the winter. When the weather drops below freezing, the bees will “cluster.” They’ll all gather around the queen in a tight mound, fluttering their wings and shivering, their heads touching and their abdomens — which are cooler — facing out. This perpetual motion is how the bees keep the inside of the hive warm. When they’re working full-throttle, the temperature at the core of the huddle can rise as high as 95 degrees, even if it’s below zero outside.
When they’re busy clustering, it’s a lot harder to police the hive and keep out intruders. Beetles and tiny varroa mites, the bane of a beekeeper’s existence, will insinuate themselves and kill the colony. Haigh has to reduce the area the bees are in charge of so that they can handle the added responsibilities that the cold brings. He also tests for the ubiquitous varroa to ensure that they are present only below a safe threshold, because once he sets the bees up for winter, he can’t interfere with them much. He’ll have to treat the hive beforehand if necessary, and he’ll need to set out beetle traps.
Haigh can’t add a food source through an entrance feeder in the dead of winter, which is a device commonly used to supplement the hive when needed. It’ll disturb the cluster and the bees could die of exposure. So he has to place the honey right above the bees inside the colony, esstimating exactly how much they’ll need through the winter. It’s a delicate balance — too much honey, and the bees can’t patrol or operate the colony; too little, and they’ll starve. Clusters cause moisture accumulation, which is bad news in freezing temperatures. Adversely, the honey can crystallize in winter. Appointed “tank” bees have to leave the hive to fetch water in the water sacs, which they pass on to other female workers who apply it to the honey to dissolve it.
Bees are exceptionally socialized animals. As Haigh puts it when describing the colony, “It’s dark as the inside of a can in there.” They have to do it all by feel, pheromones, and bee spidey-sense. If tank bees show up with water and the hive bees are slow in accepting it from them, they know that there’s already enough water in the colony. The next time they go out, they switch to foraging for nectar instead. If it gets too hot inside the hive, they form two groups, one at each entrance to the hive. One group faces out and flutters their wings, while the other faces in and flutters. This creates a giant fan and circulates air to bring the colony down to an appropriate temperature. They feed by connecting to one another, transferring nectar from their special stomachs (they have two—one for honey storage, the other for eating). A pheromone is passed on through food sharing — making dinnertime both an act of eating and an act of intense communication. Bees can even sense when their queen is dying, and they begin bringing in several new, fertilized queen eggs to usurp her. The first egg to hatch becomes the new queen, and the old queen is promptly killed. Ouch.
Haigh knows that he’s mostly just a landlord for the bees; they’ve got the operation down pat. “It’s amazing,” he says. “They somehow know things you or I could never pick up on, but they read each other loud and clear every time.” Haigh is part of a growing number of bee enthusiasts who keep honeybees as a hobby. He points in four directions, telling me that there are neighbors keeping bees at each point, all within a mile of him. Together with his wife, Debbie Fisher, he teaches an annual three-part class to novice beekeepers, the final class is a visit to his home to see his bees and collect their first colonies. He buys colonies jointly to save everyone a bit of money, keeping them in special bee cages in his garage. Haigh won’t give bees to any newbie who hasn’t taken a course in beekeeping. He helps them every step of the way, setting them up with a mentor to guide them through the initial process. The class starts in January so that, by the final class in March, the newcomer has had time to set up a proper apiary. When they started the class six years ago, the couple had less than a dozen students. Now, they’re teaching upwards of 45, with standing room only. They’ll have to break the class into three groups to accommodate this year’s sign-ups, using adjunct instructors and locations.
Haigh mostly keeps his honey for friends and family. Using a large centrifuge, he whirls the combs until the rapid spinning forces the honey out. He only sells it once a year, about 100 pounds worth, at the annual Charleston Honey & Bee Expo. Haigh’s happy to simply enjoy the bees and his opulent vegetation, always flourishing because his yellow buddies are such great pollinators.
In the fall and warmer periods of winter, the source of nectar naturally shifts. The bees go from kissing sweet spring and summer flowers to collecting from fruit trees, goldenrods, rosemary, and camellias to name a few. It can affect the taste of the honey, though typically not in a bad way. When the bees finally hunker down for the winter, Haigh will only check on them every so often. He’ll gently lift the back of the large series of boxes that make up the hive. He can tell by weight if the bees are running low on honey, and in that case he must carefully place more food above them.
At winter’s end, a few “scout” bees will go looking for new, prime real estate. As the weather warms up, the colony expands again. The queen is busy laying eggs, producing more workers and drones. It gets awfully crowded, so some tenants need to be evicted. When it warms up, the colony will “swarm,” splitting in half to form a second colony somewhere else. They’ll bring the queen with them, and a new queen will be installed in the current colony.
Today, though, the bees are prepping for winter with verve, ready to face the cold. Haigh will be there, ever the high-flying helicopter parent, trying to give his little ones enough space to live and learn. He knows they can do it. “Bee-keeping’s not for everyone,” he says. “It’s a challenge to keep your bees alive, and you’re going to have a lot more failures than successes at first. You won’t get honey for at least the first year. It’s a steep learning curve.” For those who aren’t absolutely sure that they’re ready to invest time, money, and resources to the craft, Haigh has a few words of advice:
“Get a puppy,” he says.