UPDATE (9/19/19 12:00 p.m.):
Since this article was published, the West Virginia Beekeepers Association held their annual conference in Fairmont, where Debbie Martin, the beekeeper we interviewed for this story, won Beekeeper of the Year 2020. She will receive her award in the spring at the WV Honey Show in Parkersburg.
She is in the Master Beekeeping Program and needed to enter two blue-ribbon quality candles, honey, or baked goods. She won first place for cookies that she baked and second place for her candles, but the candles were considered blue ribbon quality. She now needs to take a test to reach the Master level of the program, which is the final level.
Martin also received the WV Beekeepers Association Honey Show Sweepstakes Award and the Debbie & James Copenhaver Award for Best of Show – Honey Bakery this year.
“I want to thank my best friend, Debra Mayne, Monongalia County Beekeepers Treasurer, for nominating me, and Justin and Shanda King from Mountaineer Beekeepers for helping me achieve this goal, as well as Rick and Phyllis Varian from WV Wilderness Apiaries for their continued support and the Women of WV Beekeepers Facebook group,” said Martin, “All of these people were vital to my success, and I need to show people that beekeepers are like an extended family. My bee friends are very good people and have supported me the whole way.”
ORIGINAL (6/28/19 3:30 p.m.):
FAIRMONT, W.Va. – For some, beekeeping is just a hobby, but the practice is also used by farmers and gardeners to pollinate their plants. In fact, bees are so good at pollination that one in three bites of food in America can be tied back to the work of bees, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
For some, beekeeping is just a hobby, but the practice is also used by farmers and gardeners to pollinate their plants. In fact, bees are so good at pollination that one in three bites of food in America can be tied back to the work of bees, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Debbie Martin is the Secretary of the Monongalia County Beekeeper’s Association, and she said she got into beekeeping by accident.
“I didn’t really decide that I wanted to do beekeeping,” Martin said, “My son saw a swarm of bees at tree from the school bus window one night and the weather had gotten cold and he was concerned because they didn’t have a home. And my father in law used to be a beekeeper. And so my husband said, ‘well, he probably still has some equipment.’ So we went and we rescued a swarm and I’ve been doing it for 10 years now and we’ve enjoyed every year.”
They always say to lick the spoon or the knife with honey [on it] because it took a poor bee her whole life of 45 days to make that little cell full of honey for you to eat. So don’t waste a drop.”Debbie Martin, Monongalia County Beekeeper’s Association Secretary
Let’s take a look at how a beehive works. The little hexagon holes bees make are called honeycomb cells. Bees use them for storing food including honey and laying eggs. There are queen bees, worker bees, and drone bees. Queen bees are female bees that lay all the eggs. Drone bees mate with the queen bee, and worker bees are sterile female bees who construct the hive and gather food. When bees don’t have a beehive to live in, they gather in a swarm.
So the first thing beekeepers have to do is set up a hive for the bees to live. Hives that are set up in these boxes are called Langstroth hives. Hives used to be circular and made out of straw, but this type–called a skep hive–is now illegal because you can’t check on the bees inside.
Beekeepers must check on their hives every 7-10 days to make sure the hive is healthy and that a new queen isn’t on the way. It takes 14 days for a queen egg to emerge from a cell, and if that happens, the old queen will leave and take three fourths of the bees with her.
“And when she emerges, if there’s other queen cells in the box, she will chew a hole in the side of the cell and sting the other queens to death and kill them so that she can be the only clean in the box,” said Martin, “And she doesn’t have to fight for the box because if two queens or in there at the same time, they will fight to one dies and the winner gets the box.”
But what do you do if you check the box and find queen eggs in a cell?
“I never recommend killing queens,” said Martin, “Always recommend on a split or you know, use them one of those cells to re-clean a hive that maybe has no queen. And for whatever reason, sometimes, you know, we just go when the box and we don’t know why, but the queen’s gone. So we’ll use that cell maybe to give that box chance to have a queen again.”
For the most part, the hives are self-sustaining. Worker bees typically leave the hive and travel for two miles on average to forage for food, but they always seem to find their way back to the hive.
The hive has guard bees that check to make sure each bee belongs to the hive before they come in to the hive. Robber bees from other hives often try to steal honey from other hives to bring back to their hive. When a bee in the hive dies, a worker bee will take the dead bee and drop it outside. These are some examples of how bees keep order in the hive on their own.
Bees make honey in order to store food for later. They spit out the nectar that they collect from flowers into the honeycomb. Then, they flap their wings to dry out the nectar and put a cap on it. In order to extract the honey, beekeepers cut off the caps with a knife. Then they put it into a spinning machine to drain the honey out.
“They always say to lick the spoon or the knife with honey [on it] because it took a poor bee her whole life of 45 days to make that little cell full of honey for you to eat. So don’t waste a drop,” said Martin.
There are a few more misconceptions people have about bees. First, each type of bee has a different kind of venom, so for example, those who are allergic to wasps may not be allergic to honey bees. Second, honey bees don’t typically sting unless they are provoked because their stinger is barbed, and if they sting you, they will die.
Today, beekeepers are facing a number of problems. Every year, beekeepers lose bees in the winter. But nationally, beekeepers have been losing more and more. The average loss ten years ago was only estimated to be about 26 percent. But this past year, experts estimate a more than 50% average loss, significantly higher than previous years. Some experts blame varroa mites, which are tiny parasites that latch onto a honey bee and suck their blood.
“It’s like a tick on a dog and they say, to a bee, carrying one varroa mite is the equivalent of a person walking around with a 25 pound backpack on all day,” said Martin, “So if that bees carrying 36 milliliters of nectar back to the hive to turn into honey plus the weight of that vote Varroa mite on them, it’s hard for him to do that. So you want to keep your bees healthy, you definitely want to treat for Varroa.”
But Debbie is also concerned about small hive beetles and people spraying pesticides on dandelions
“Small hive beetles are smart. They like it where it’s dark. So they go up in the boxes and hide. Bees don’t like them. They chase them around and try to run them out. They’ll actually corral them in and put propolis around them so they can’t bother the hive or come out that just like put them in a little cell and kill, you know, they die. So small hive beetles have been a little bit of a problem last year. They were really bad. This year we’re not hearing as much bad about the small hive beetle,” said Martin.
Dandelions are a big source of food for bees when they come out of winter.
“So they need the dandelions and they need the maple trees and people who spray their dandy lines and kill them. If a bee gets on that plant with that pesticide on it and takes it back to the hive, it can potentially kill a whole hive,” said Martin.
To a bee, carrying one varroa mite is the equivalent of a person walking around with a 25 pound backpack on all day.Debbie Martin, Monongalia County Beekeeper’s Association Secretary
One way to help the bees is to learn more about them through your local Beekeeper’s Association. The Monongalia County Beekeeper’s Association has meetings once a month, and you don’t have to be a beekeeper to join. Debbie encourages anyone who is interested in bees to get involved in the club.
“We do have people there that come and you know, some of them aren’t even beekeepers. They just come to see what they can learn about beekeeping. We always recommend [to] get on Facebook, find a club that’s in your area. If you don’t know if you have a club in your area, call your local county extension office. They should be able to tell you where your closest meeting place would be and what day and time,” said Martin, “And then you can attend meetings. You can find other beekeepers. A lot of them will let you come and help work their hives to learn or they’ll come to your house and, and tell you how to do it and watch you and let you learn on your own.”
For more information, visit wvbeekeepers.org. There, you will find more information about becoming a beekeeper and bee events being held around the state.