- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Arlington resident Bennie Liles does not think twice about the stings he could get working barehanded with the beehives he keeps on a small Vienna farm.

“I’ve been fooling with bees since 1970,” says Mr. Liles, the owner of Liles Apiaries. He keeps 10 hives in Vienna, 11 in Leesburg and five in Annandale and sells the honey at farmers markets. “It’s something that, more or less, is second nature for me,” he says.

Beekeepers like Mr. Liles need to know how to manage an apiary, a place where honeybees and beehives are kept, and also understand the complex social networks of the insects, known by biologists as Apis mellifera.

Beekeepers are considered hobbyists if they manage one to 50 hives or colonies, while sideliners have 50 to several hundred hives to earn extra income, and commercialists own more than 400 to 500 hives, says Richard Fell, professor of entomology at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. He holds a doctorate in entomology.

The hives can be kept in a back yard, on a balcony or on a farm and in urban, suburban and rural settings because bees can range out for miles.

“They’re very gentle. They get a bad rap because of wasps,” says Stephanie Joyner, secretary of the Carroll County Beekeepers Association, a membership organization that meets in Westminster, Md., to provide information and support for beekeepers. “Bees sting only if they think they’re in imminent danger.”

Beekeepers keep 13,000 colonies in Maryland and 38,000 colonies in Virginia, according to the states’ Departments of Agriculture. However, the number of colonies in both states dropped by half in the 1980s and 1990s after the introduction into the United States of two parasitic mites, the tracheal mite in 1985 and the varroa mite two years later.

“The primary concern is the frustration a lot of people are seeing in the survival of the hives, managing and keeping them alive from one year to the next,” says Keith Tignor, state apiarist for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Richmond.

The beekeeping industry responded with several pest control measures.

“If mites are not controlled, they will outright kill the colony, or you’ll have a weakened colony going into the winter. A smaller colony will not survive,” says Bart Smith, entomologist with the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He works in the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center’s bee research laboratory.

In addition, colony strength is dependent on having a healthy queen not older than 3 years, the age when her fertility begins to decline, beekeepers say.

“We don’t raise honeybees; we manage them,” says Jerry Fischer, state apiary inspector for the Maryland Department of Agriculture in Annapolis. “The more we know about the habitat and biology of the bee and what it needs and when it needs it, we can best manage that insect.”

Beekeepers often wear a veil and a white bee suit — bees cannot distinguish the color — when handling the insects.

“Most beekeepers wear some sort of protective equipment to keep honey, beeswax and bees off their clothing,” says David Bernard, president of the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association in Wheaton.

In addition, beekeepers can use smokers to blow smoke into the hives when working with bees.

The smoke interrupts the bees’ chemical communication with one another because they communicate by smell, Mr. Bernard says. The bees gorge on honey in case they have to evacuate the hive, responding as if the smoke is coming from a forest fire, he says.

“It distracts them. It causes them to be less defensive,” Mr. Bernard says.

The hive holds three types of honeybees: the queen, who lays eggs and is mother of all the bees in the hive; the worker or female bees, charged with gathering pollen and nectar, producing honey, protecting the hive and caring for the young, or brood; and the drones or male bees, whose sole function is to mate with the queen.

Worker bees gather pollen and nectar from trees, flowers and other plants to feed themselves, their young and the hive’s drones with a glandular secretion called jelly and to build up honey stores for the winter. The workers pass off their gatherings from bee to bee, using enzymes in their bodies to break down the material and turn it into honey. They keep the honey in wax combs or cells they build in the hive.

The queen, which is cared for by the workers, leaves the hive once for her virgin flight to mate with a drone, who, in turn, waits for her in the drone alleys, the areas outside and close to the hive.

“Most drones live and die without ever coming close to fulfilling their one purpose for existence,” Ms. Joyner says.

In the winter, the female bees kick out the drones because they drain the hive’s resources.

Until then, they “lead a very sheltered life,” Mr. Tignor says.

The number of bees in a hive varies according to the season — from 25,000 to 30,000 in the winter up to 60,000 to 70,000 in the summer, Mr. Bernard says.

If the hive becomes overcrowded, some of the bees will gorge on honey and split from the main colony by taking the current queen to a new site.

The existing hive will raise a new queen by randomly selecting 10 to 20 larvae to feed royal jelly, which has a higher pollen content than worker or drone jelly, Mr. Fell says. The first bee to emerge from a cell, which is larger than the cells for other larvae, seeks out the rival cells and destroys them. If two or more bees emerge from their cells at the same time, the bees will tussle and try to sting each other until one wins, he says.

“The difference between queen and worker bees is the quality and quantity of food fed to them,” Mr. Tignor says.

Beekeepers manage apiaries for the honey product or to pollinate crops but cannot do both because a colony that is moved around will not produce a large honey harvest.

“The primary focus of the beekeeping industry is pollination of food crops,” says David Smith, president of the Maryland State Beekeepers Association in Churchville, Md. “Without honeybees, the country would be in dire straits. There would not be enough food to feed the population.”

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