Thursday, March 15, 2012

And Now, a Few Words from our Favorite Beekeeper: John Howe

As many people learned after the publication of THE HONEYBEE MAN, the story was inspired by two Brooklyn apiarists. One of them, John Howe, spent a lot of time talking to me about the habits of honeybees, and introducing me to his colonies on his Fort Greene rooftop. Yesterday, I asked him a few questions about what bees and beekeepers are up to around these here parts.

It was an warm winter and seems to be an early spring. Does this have any affect on the bees?

“Most people’s bees survived the winter. But otherwise, the warm weather is bad. The bees are more active, but they don’t have enough food in their winter stores. I heard warnings to FEED YOUR BEES all over the internet. There was a hairy period in January and February when there was warm weather but no flowers blooming.  Everyone started freaking out and feeding their bees syrup and fondant (home-made bee candy) like mad in February.

“But then the flowers all started coming out freakishly early and the bees started bringing in the goods – people told me their bees were bringing back pollen, which means they’re probably bringing back nectar as well. So we have averted disaster.”

What are beekeepers in Brooklyn doing to get ready for the warm months ahead?

“They’re inspecting the hives, making sure the queens are okay. They start laying eggs in February, so there should be plenty of brood by now. If not, and the queen is old, she might be out of eggs, so people may be ordering new queens.”

How does that work?

“The new queen gets put in the hive in a box about the size of an iPod. The bees could kill her, but you want to make sure they’ll accept her. They know she’s a queen, but not their queen. So you put her in the hive in this wood-frame box that has screening on the sides and a hole in the bottom that is plugged with fondant. By the time she’s eaten her way through the fondant, she’s free [of the box], and the bees are used to her, and 99% of the time, they accept her.”

Anything else beekeepers are looking for?

“They’re also checking to make sure there are no swarm cells in the hives: if there’s a new queen [that was born in the hive], that means the old queen will  take off with about half the hive to a tree somewhere and scare the daylights out of people.”

Is there any reason to be afraid when bees swarm?

“It’s not dangerous at all. In fact, bees are the least dangerous when swarm. Bees are territorial; they defend their hive. But they don’t consider a temporary home defensible. You can even touch their temporary home and they’ll be passive. And actually, even in the hive they can be gentle. But when people see swarming, they get this ‘killer bee’ mentality.

“When bees swarm, that means their  hive is overcrowded. To find a new home, they send out scouts, who report back. They’re looking for place that’s dry; is of a certain size, like the inside of a refrigerator; and with a small defendable entrance, like in a hollow tree or a crevice in building.

“People wonder, well, different scouts go different places; how do the bees decide which place is the best? How do bees make decisions? They’re very democratic. And bees are very honest. They vote, and there’s no ego involved. A bee that’s found a great location will do a vigorous dance, and  all the other bees will sit up and take notice. If she’s found a mediocre place, she does a less-great dance, and not that many bees will gravitate to her. They gravitate to the bee that does the longest and most vigorous dance – they will move physically around to that bee. Then the scout leads them off to the new location.”

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