‘Newbees’ learn the language of the hive

Text & Photographs |  Nancy Dymond
Additional photographs |  Tina Spangler and Jeff Sidle

“We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well—for we will not fight to save what we do not love.”  —Stephen Jay Gould

Last month I tucked my pants into my boots, pulled on long, leather gloves and fastened a veil over my head in an attempt to learn the secrets of the ancient order of Apis Mellifera. I was not alone.
Moving quietly into the seething swarm issuing from a tower of wooden boxes beside the garden of Narrowsburg, NY resident Rick Maloney, Tom Morrisette of Dingman’s Ferry, PA, bravely held his smoker aloft. In another minute Morrisette had pried off the lid of the buzzing colony with his hive tool to reveal the mysterious inhabitants within. Calmed by smoke and encouraged by an early thaw, the season’s survivors broke slowly from their winter cluster. Some explored around the entrance to the hive while others clung to the honey-filled frames, symmetrical rows of hexagonal cells that contained the colony’s entire winter food stores.
Maloney became fascinated by the tiny nectar collectors when he worked on an estate that used bees as pollinators for the orchards. “The trees just hummed,” he remembers. When he was alerted to Morrisette’s internet ad seeking land for bee hives last spring, he was quick to respond. Morrisette, who also placed hives at two other properties, installed two bee hives on Maloney’s property in June. Eventually Maloney bought the hives, though Morrisette continues to manage them.
Legendary status
Honeybees are not native to North America. It is widely accepted that the species originated in Southeast Asia. Honeybees evolved along with flowering plants during the Cenozoic Era and their bodies have been found preserved in amber dating back millions of years. Depictions of honeybees appear in Egypt’s tombs and temples as far back as 2400 BC, when they were first domesticated. Aristotle, Greek philosopher and naturalist, was the first to make written descriptions of honeybees around 325 BC. According to legend, the body of his famous pupil, Alexander the Great, was embalmed in a coffin filled with honey. In this country, honeybees were introduced to the colonies by the British in the early 1700s and spread westward. From hives shipped to San Francisco in the mid 1800s, the culture of beekeeping fanned eastward until the entire continent was enveloped by colonies of buzzing honey producers.
Thanks in part to Cleopatra’s enduring legend, we know honey as a skin softener and beautifier. Although honey has been replaced by sugar on the grocer’s shelf, scientific studies are mounting that indicate honey has powerful antioxidant, antiseptic, antifungal and antibacterial properties, making it an option in wound healing therapies. Other health benefits attributed to honey are as an aid to digestion, a soothing gargle for irritated throats and a gentle cough suppressant.
The process of honey production
Honey, gathered in the form of nectar, is collected by thousands of worker bees.  Returning to the hive, they are met by other worker bees that process the nectar in their honey stomachs, adding enzymes that turn the nectar’s sucrose into glucose and fructose, sugars more digestible by the bees. By vibrating their wings over the nectar deposited in droplets on the hexagonal cell walls, the bees create a breeze that reduces the 80% water content to 17%.
Each season’s honey will vary in flavor and fragrance in step with the variety and abundance of flowering plants. In the spring, bees gather nectar from tree blossoms and early flowers such as dandelions and phlox. Summer’s plentiful crop will include milkweed, red clover and sumac. Autumn’s nectar is gathered from goldenrod, Joe Pye weed and New England asters, among others.
The use of honeybees to increase the yield and improve the quality of plants is a very recent development. In late 18th-century Germany, Christian Konrad Sprengel, a non-botanist and the son of a clergyman, became the first to systematically record his observations of the pollination activities of honeybees. Today the use of honeybees as pollinators of about 100 flowering food crops (1/3 of the crop species in the U.S.) has superseded the importance of honey as a sweetener. Honeybee pollination is responsible for the abundance of many of the foods we enjoy such as  apples, blueberries, strawberries, cantaloupe, nuts and broccoli, as well as feed crops like clover for dairy cows.
Beekeeping society
“Beekeeping is a lifelong learning experience,” says Charlie Kinbar, PA bee inspector and vice president of the Wayne County Beekeepers Association (WCBA), welcoming about 50 beekeepers, mostly newbies, to the WCBA’s first meeting of the year. The club has been a respected gathering place for bee lovers since the 1950s, when Francis Motichka and two other local men started it in order to compare experiences and later to help others learn the basics of beekeeping.  In November his daughter, Dolores Motichka, who had helped her father tend his beehives in his failing years, was elected president of the WCBA.
“Becoming a beekeeper does not entail years of study beforehand,” says Motichka. “The normal process, and the one that works, is to make your commitment to beekeeping, invest about $1,000 initially (the price of two working hives and accessories), and join a club.  From there, the bees become your teacher.”
She described the membership as mainly made up of hobbyists, managing two to 10 hives, with a sprinkling of commercial beekeepers, who keep upward of 100 hives. The $15 annual fee entitles members to use the club’s new beekeeping library, be advised by experienced members and participate in special events.  At the upcoming “Field Day for New Members,” newbies will have the opportunity to observe a successful and well-run operation.  The owner of the hives will demonstrate proper procedure for entering the hive, explain what to observe when you get there, give tips and advice and answer questions.
“Our membership is very diversified,” says Motichka, “from farmers to engineers and everything in between. It used to be individuals but now it is often a couple who will go into beekeeping together, or family members. Many are retirees.” In recent years she has observed an explosion in the number of new beekeepers.  She credits media publicity surrounding Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) for the influx. Although the puzzling phenomenon of the disappearing bees is tragic in one sense, she is pleased to see that “more people are becoming aware of honeybees as pollinators, rather than just as producers of honey.”
Startup expenses of $700 to $1,000 may seem steep for the beginner. The starter hive consists of a bottom board (to keep the hive off the ground), frames and foundation (where the bees build comb), deep super (large hive box for brood and the colony’s honey store), queen excluder (restricts the queen to the brood chambers), shallow supers (where surplus honey is made and stored), inner cover (insulator), outer cover (weather protection) and feeders (to hold sugar syrup for the bees). The beekeeper will also need a smoker (to calm the bees), a hive tool (for prying frames loose from supers) and a veil and gloves (to protect from stings).
Beekeeping is considered an agricultural process and is regulated by each state’s department of agriculture.  In Pennsylvania, the first Bee Law was passed in 1921 in an effort to control a lethal and highly contagious disease of honeybees called American Foul Brood (AFB). Other serious infestations such as the parasitic Varroa mites and tracheal mites have led to the mandatory licensing and regular inspections of apiaries. When a colony is suspected of containing AFB in Pennsylvania, the entire apiary is quarantined. If positive results are confirmed, treatment options are outlined and must be completed within a specified period in order for the quarantine to be lifted. In some states, a hive positive for AFB must be destroyed.
Challenges and rewards
In addition to diseases, beekeepers must stay alert for predators of other kinds. Bears, skunks, wax moths, hive beetles, mice, even other bees will attack a weak or unguarded hive. Beekeepers have found that the most effective protection against bears is a 12-volt electric fence. An additional lower strand on the fence will deter skunks, which find the bees as delicious as the honey.
Second-year beekeeper Kathleen Schloesser of Bethany, PA says she received her bees too late last year to get any honey in the fall from her two hives. She experienced setbacks when swarming left one of her hives weakened and later, when she found that one of her queens was laying only drone eggs. Drones, the males of the hive, have one function, to impregnate the queen. They do not forage, clean the hive, feed the larvae, build comb cells or perform any of the tasks necessary to maintain a healthy hive. Kathleen, a WCBA member, called on Motichka for help. “Her help has been invaluable,” says Schloesser. “She’ll talk on the phone or come out. She’s been here to help several times.”  Despite problems, Schloesser’s hives survived the winter and she looks forward to enjoying her own honey and serving it to her guests.
Motichka’s respect for the social organism of honeybees is reflected in her attentiveness to newbie beekeepers.  “It’s a learn-as-you-go process,” she admits. “Sometimes beekeepers, even experienced beekeepers, lose a hive or two, especially over the winter. There are many reasons for that. The bees may have run out of food. They may freeze if wind takes the top off the hive. People are going to make mistakes and they will learn from them.”

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For information on how to contact the Wayne County Beekeepers Association, contact Edward D. Pruss, Penn State Cooperative Extension office, 648 Park St., Ste. E, Honesdale, PA 18431, 570/253-5970 ext. 4110,

Beekeepers serving Beekeepers from upstate NY

Beekeeper Resources   (Pocono Bazaar Flea Market, Rte. 209, Marshalls Creek, PA. Most Saturdays and Sundays beekeeper Tom Morrisette, “The Honey Man,” may be found here conducting honey tastings at his booth.)

Fun Bee and Honey Links (New York Times article, “The Mystery of the Red Bees of Red Hook”) (Make your own animated honey bee and send it in a Bee Mail to friends and family: from Haagen Dasz) (Bee Songs)


Honey-Fried Bananas
Juice of half a lemon
4 bananas, cut in half lengthwise
2 oz butter
1 ounce slivered almonds
2 tablespoons honey
Sprinkle the lemon juice over the bananas. Melt the butter in a frying pan, add the bananas and cook, turning once, until browned on both sides. Transfer to a warmed serving plate. Add the almonds to the butter remaining in the pan and cooked until lightly browned. Stir in the honey and heat through. Pour over the bananas and serve immediately.


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