FAIRMONT, W.Va. (WBOY) — Have you ever wondered how your honey ends up on the dinner table? Sure, it comes from bees, everyone knows that, but what about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into that bear-shaped bottle?

Debbie Martin, master beekeeper (WBOY image)

Meet Debbie Martin, the third female Master Beekeeper in West Virginia and one of many beekeepers in the state. She has been an apiarist for 14 years and has managed as many as 32 different hives at a single time.

There are three ranks of beekeepers: apprentice, certified and master, with each level requiring a written and practical exam to advance. Martin has been working on becoming a master beekeeper for five years but said without the pandemic, she would have been able to get it sooner.

So how is honey actually made?

To understand how honey is made, let’s go over the different types of bees in a hive:

  • Queen – The queen lays the eggs and gets pampered by everyone else.
  • Workers – Workers do several jobs for the hive, like foraging for nectar, maintaining the hive and feeding larvae.
  • Drones – Drones are the only males in the hive, and their sole existence in life is to find the queen, mate with her, and then die.
LISTEN: Queen bees will “pipe” to communicate with the other bees or to find other queens so they can fight to become the hive’s only queen.

First, forager bees will leave the hive to get nectar from flowers, visiting anywhere between 50 to 100 flowers in a single trip. The foragers will come back and regurgitate the nectar into the waiting mouths of other worker bees. These workers will continue to regurgitate the nectar to each other until their digestive enzymes break down the nectar into simple sugars like glucose and fructose. Charming.

Even after breaking down the nectar, the water content is still very high, so bees will beat their wings over the honey to dry it out, creating a cell full of viscous honey. The cell is then capped with beeswax and will likely be eaten during the winter when the bees can’t forage for more.

Those panels are called “honey supers,” and once they are full, the caps will be cut off and the super is placed inside an extractor that spins the super until the honey is drained out. From there the honey is ready to be bottled and sold.

“We don’t filter our honey, we don’t strain it, we don’t freeze it, we don’t cook it. It’s pure, raw, right out-of-the-box honey,” Martin said.

Martin said she puts out her supers in April and removes them towards the end of July for harvesting. The rest of the honey the bees produce is left for them to use during the winter.

How often do you get stung?

Clusters of bees can go from having anywhere between 60,000 to 80,000 bees in the summer down to just 5,000 to 10,000 bees in the winter. Martin said that right now, each of her boxes contains somewhere between 50,000 to 60,000 bees.

So far she has been very lucky this year and has only gotten stung three times, and one of them was at another apiary.

“Other people have not had it so well. We had a man in our club that had 30 stings to the head, they got into his helmet… Yeah, it was bad,” Martin said. “We always recommend people wear a veil over their face to protect their eyes because if you get stung in the eye it can be very bad. It can blind you.”

Martin said that the number one thing she hears from people is that they want to take up beekeeping but they don’t want to get stung.

Debbie Martin’s beehives

“You’re gonna get stung,” Martin said with a faint smile.

Author’s note: While shooting the video linked above, I was wearing a full bee suit, though I didn’t have any gloves. While there were a lot of bees crawling on my hand (bees are weirdly fuzzy) I wasn’t stung a single time. Just don’t make them mad!

Honeybees are also the only bees that die after stinging something. When they sting, they leave their stinger behind along with their venom sack, so it’s best practice to remove bee stingers as quickly as possible to minimize the severity of the sting.

How do you care for bees?

Bees, while mostly self-sufficient, are still vulnerable to nature. Wildlife, particularly bears and skunks, are one of the biggest threats to any hive, hence the electric fence Martin keeps around her boxes.

A common misconception is that bears go for beehives to get at the honey inside. While they will eat the honey, they are actually mostly after the bugs themselves, as the bees and larvae are a good source of protein. When skunks find a hive, they will sit at the entrance and scratch at the exterior, and eat the bees that come to investigate. Martin said that with this method, skunks can clear out entire hives in just a few hours.

There are also a number of pests that affect bees as well like varroa mites and wax moths, which will burrow into a hive and feed off the beeswax and nectar within the hive. Varroa mites are an invasive species from Asia that came to America in 1987. They will attach themselves to the bees’ exterior and feed off their bodies, which can cause bees to behave sluggishly or be born with defects like deformed wings.

Originally, hives would simply be burned or eradicated, since no one knew how to treat or deal with the mites. Nowadays though there are several, less destructive ways to deal with varroa mites.

“We’ve come to the realization that varroa mites are here to stay, we’re never going to be completely rid of them, and we’re going to eventually just have to manage them and keep the numbers low,” Martin said.

Ways to treat the mites include oxalic acid, a crystal put inside the hive that evaporates and covers the bees, killing any attached mites. Another option is to use “Mite-Away Quick Strips,” a gel pad made with formic acid that you stick to the top of the hive. The pads release a heavy gas that will sink to the bottom of the hive which kills mites attached to bees, but the gas can also get into the capped cells to kill any mites that might be on larvae.

Some bees have adapted to dealing with the mites themselves. These “VSH” (Varroa Sensitive Hygienic) bees, sometimes called “ankle biters” will chew the legs off varroa mites or destroy mite-infected cells.

It’s said that a bee carrying around one of these mites is the equivalent of a person carrying around a 25-pound backpack with you everywhere you go.

Martin said she checks on each of her brood boxes at least once a week to check the health of the hive because an outbreak of these pests could kill the hive or prevent it from surviving the winter.

Hives will reduce their numbers as the weather starts to get colder to prepare for the winter months. The queen will stop laying as many eggs, and the forager bees and drones will begin to die off. In late summer the queen will start hatching “fat bees” that can live as long as six months, long enough to survive the winter and any bad weather.

To survive the changing seasons, bees will cluster up into a ball with the queen at its center and use their thorax muscles to vibrate and generate heat for the hive.

“We’ve actually taken temperatures in the winter of the center of the cluster, and on a three-degree day we had temperatures inside the center of the cluster at 94 degrees,” Martin said.

“This all sounds very cool and interesting, I totally want to be a beekeeper!”

You’re right, this does all sound very cool and interesting, but there are a few things you should know before you dive into the world of beekeeping.

It can be a tough thing to learn, and many first-time beekeepers will fail, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn what to do differently the next time. Also, between the protective equipment, finding bees and getting one or two brood boxes, you’re probably looking at an upfront cost of a couple of thousand dollars just to get started.

“Most beginners don’t make it past their first winter, their bees don’t live and they get discouraged. They spent all that money and they don’t see any reward from it. They lose their bees and they have to buy new ones again in the spring,” Martin said

And depending on how many hives you have, you’ll be spending a lot of time in the hot sun while inspecting your hives.

“People don’t expect to work in hundred-degree weather wearing a full suit with clothes underneath, sweating gallons, standing on your feet for hours just trying to get through them all and get them all done. All while trying not to get stung.”

Martin also recommends keeping thorough records of your bees so you have an easy time telling what has changed in a hive since the last time you looked inside.

Finally, keep in mind that beekeeping is important! West Virginia has a number of beekeepers and apiary clubs throughout the state that are happy to help people as they get into the hobby, and there are plenty of resources to help you keep your bees healthy and properly managed.

“We need more beekeepers,” Martin said. “People need to be teaching their kids about the importance of the bee. If no young people get involved it’ll just go to the wayside and be done. And we won’t be here very long without pollination from honeybees.”