Photo by Melanie Thortis

Since I started beekeeping, the adventure hasn’t stopped. When I moved to Vicksburg after graduate school, I brought my three hives with me in the bed of my truck along with houseplants, guns, alcohol and propane cylinders — items the moving company refused to take. Yes, I traveled the 1,000-mile journey from West Virginia with three beehives full of more than 100,000 honeybees. It’s a good thing I didn’t wreck!

Photo by Melanie Thortis

At Beane Farm today, the beehives are as essential as the garden hoses. Having honeybees provide their pollination service to my garden plants and trees around my home is wonderful. I provide them a place to stay, and they provide me with liquid gold.

I love having bees. Everything about them is enjoyable — with the exception of stings, I suppose. But, I shouldn’t lie. I actually enjoy getting stung once in a while — it really makes me feel alive. Honeybees provide a literal buzz around my home, and they are an unsurpassed link to nature. I study plants for a living, and I can assure you, my extent of learning from the western honeybee is never-ending. From gauging which plants offer certain colored pollen (packed away in the hairy baskets on their knees) to which flowers have the desirable nectar (what bees collect to make honey) is intriguing. Each spring season begins new trekking expeditions around my property to see what flowers they have honed in on.

Life in an apiary, or a bee yard, also attunes the mindful beekeeper to observe the complexity of insect life. In a hive, the queen rules all and at the peak of the summer season, she may rule more than 80,000 workers. Before you go wishing you were a queen, I should warn you, she is slave to her own kingdom. She leaves the hive only once, as a young queen to breed, and will lay up to 2,000 eggs a day to keep her hive in good working order. Her temperament and the pheromones she emits as a result dictate the overall behavior of the hive. The adage, “If mama ain’t happy…” certainly applies here.

The labors of egg-laying by the queen are precise with the size of each cell in the honeycomb determining the type of egg she will lay. A larger cell size is a chamber built precisely for a male and is termed a drone cell, whereas a regular-sized cell is for a female and is a worker cell. The worker cells are more abundant and are used for creating the working force of the hive. It’s also where pollen and honey are stored.
The queen will lay eggs throughout her lifetime and, specifically, must be able to lay both fertilized eggs and unfertilized eggs interchangeably. That is, if a drone cell is present, she will lay an unfertilized egg and, in a worker cell, she will lay a fertilized egg. The queen possesses a specialized organ that serves as the repository for providing the necessary means of fertilizing an egg to create a worker. One can marvel simply at the capability to lay eggs in such a manner.

As worker bees are the true laborers in the hive, they are the most common and the queen produces a consistent workforce of them as they are responsible for cleaning, tending to eggs and the larval stages of young bees, as well as collecting nectar and pollen as sustenance in the hive. The pollen serves as their protein, while the honey provides their energy source. To produce honey, the worker bee collects nectar from flowers and stores it in her abdomen in a specialized organ called the honey gut. When the worker bee returns to the hive, she regurgitates the nectar into a cell for further processing. The selection of particular nectars, the exposure of the nectar within her honey gut and the method of drying honey to 17 percent moisture before capping it with wax is what makes honey unique. It also allows it to keep for such long periods of time without molding or spoilage. Each worker bee produces the wax they use within the hive by using specialized wax glands on their abdomen. Honeybees are a marvel of nature!

Photo by Melanie Thortis

Having an apiary offers VIP access to a world sure to instill a refined appreciation for our natural world. If you’ve never experienced the workings and details of a beehive up close, it should be on your bucket list. Honeybees conduct dances — a joy dance and waggle dance — to show both the excitement and also the location of a nearby nectar source they have discovered. When a worker returns after such a luxurious discovery, a joy dance is performed by the bee jumping on the side of other bees and shaking in an excited fashion.

These fast vibrations excite bees within her vicinity and have them pay close attention to her as she performs her next feat. This is when a waggle dance is performed. This dance includes a waggle motion in a specific direction (they use the sun as north regardless of position) from north to indicate the direction of the newfound nectar source. And even more astoundingly, the number of waggles she makes in the short distance before starting over indicates the distance from the hive the source occurs. The ability of a tiny insect to provide such a visual map is simply incredible. And what a sight to see such a display in your own apiary!
All of the work the hive performs is to systematically and efficiently collect food and nourishment for the hive. This social dynamic is incredibly advanced and the beekeeper not only gets to see it firsthand, but also reaps the greatest reward by ensuring the hives are strong and healthy. You can get a Mycotoxin test kit or some other food safety testing solution to ensure that they are safe and healthy.

Honey — the best part! As a hobby beekeeper, I don’t own an extractor. They are expensive, and I prefer to do things by hand — I believe the quality is improved also. Not having an extractor entails more work for me and my bees as they have to rebuild the honeycomb I harvest.

When I rob my hives of honey, I collect only completely sealed frames of honey and take them inside to remove the honey. I cut each frame of sealed honeycomb into smaller sections and use a potato masher from our kitchen to crush up the honeycomb in a cake pan. Next, I use a straining bucket with filter basket at the top and pour the honeycomb and honey into the top baskets. The mesh filters allow the honey to drip through, leaving the wax up top. To speed up the process, I place a lid on the bucket and set it on my back porch for the afternoon sun to warm up the golden honey inside and speed up the straining process. At the base of each bucket is a honey gate, a tightly sealed latch that opens to allow honey jars to be filled directly from the bucket.

Not everyone loves going into an apiary where several hundred honeybees are buzzing around. However, extracting the honey on our kitchen counter always draws an attentive crowd. Several of our friends have come over and extracted honey by hand to experience the process. Don’t be scared to start beekeeping. If you have land to legally own them and some hobby funds saved up to invest in a couple of beehives and the necessary equipment, you should give it a try. There are several online sources offering a wealth of information as to what equipment is good for beginning beekeepers.

My best advice is to begin with two beehives. That way you can comparatively gauge each hive to assess overall health with respect to number of individuals, laying rates of each queen and also the amount of honey each hive is storing. Being able to gauge the number of bees in each hive is important. I have never for a second regretted becoming a beekeeper. If you have any questions, email me at Beekeeping will provide a buzz you won’t soon forget!