Beginner beekeeping

Elodie Reed

By Elodie Reed

Staff Writer

The Facts

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Couple undertakes pollination test

GEORGIA — At the outset, Gail Wells, wasn’t too keen on the 600 fruit trees her husband, Silas, bought and planted three years ago. Nor was she eager to add 30,000 to 40,000 bees to their Georgia home’s backyard this spring.

“The trees were not my idea,” Gail said in a recent interview. “The bees were not either. I said, ‘Bees? Oh no, are you kidding me?’ Then I really kind of freaked out a little bit.”

Silas said the idea was to help pollinate this peach and apple trees, which yielded just 185 pieces of fruit the year they were planted. “Every year after that, it’s been declining,” he said.

With the bees, Silas said he hopes he’s solved his problem, though he acknowledges it’s not a sure thing. “This is an experiment for us,” he said.

Fortunately, the first part of the experiment has gone well – Gail likes, and one may daresay loves, the bees. The three hives arrived in two batches, one on May 3 and the other on May 25, and now, they all live at the back of the Wells’ yard.

“I find them very fascinating,” said Gail. As she and Silas walked towards the hives through a row of apple trees one warm, sun-dappled evening, Gail explained the bees’ unique social structure.

“Their one purpose is for the thriving of the colony,” she said. “It’s all about one thing.”

Gail added that 85 percent of the hives were made up of female worker bees and one queen bee, and then the rest were drone, or male, bees. “The whole hive is kind of run by females,” she said. “They’re so structured.”

The Wellses, who are in their sixties, are learning to support and maintain that structure by providing the best care they can for their bees. Wanting to be responsible hobby beekeepers, they did as much research as they could before the hives arrived. For months, they read books, did online research, watched instructional videos and asked other local beekeepers for advice. They also joined the Vermont Beekeepers Association.

Unfortunately, Silas said, everyone does things a little different, so the bees are an experiment in that respect, too.

“You talk to 20 different people and they all tell you a different story,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out what the best way of doing this is.”

In checking the beehives one recent evening, it appeared whatever the Wellses were doing, it was working so far. Gail, dressed in a full white suit complete with gloves and a netted hat, removed and replaced screens in the hives as she did her weekly check on the bees. She looked to see that the brood – or the bee larvae – had hatched and that honey was being produced.

“You want to make sure they’re eating well,” she said. With starter “pollen patties,” containers full of syrup on each hive, and clover planted nearby with other flowering plants, the bees appeared to be well supplied. Gail also checked for the queen bee – without her, the hives don’t function. “Sometimes you can miss her,” she said.

As she gently lifted up screens and then placed them back in the hive boxes, single bees crawled along Gail’s sleeves, some with bright, orange spots of pollen in “baskets” on their hind legs.

“They’re working,” said Gail, referring to the honey clinging inside honeycomb on the corners of the screens. “This is just a month.”

As Gail moved from hive to hive, she puffed a little pine needle smoke to calm the bees. “It’s a cool smoke, so it doesn’t hurt them,” she explained.

The Wellses began using a smoker after receiving several hives of hyperactive bees. “The bees, when we got them, were very, very rambunctious,” said Gail.

On this recent night as Gail checked the hives, however, the smoke may not have been necessary.

“They’ve settled in,” said Silas, observing.

Everything, in fact, seemed copacetic in the fourth week of the Wellses beekeeping experience. When the newest hive, which had only been there for two weeks, appeared to have little honey on its screens, the Wellses re-queened it. Soon enough, that hive held healthy, working and honey-producing bees, too.

“They’re very easy to care for,” said Gail. The trouble will come with cold weather and high humidity, both conditions that endanger the hive. If they’re healthy, Gail said the bees will make it through the winter by literally huddling and shivering to keep warm, creating heat with their wings.

The plan, according to Gail, is to put medicated strips in the hives during the fall in order to prepare the bees for the colder months ahead.

As for humidity, it’s best to keep bees dry. “They can’t stand to get wet,” said Gail.

The Wellses – especially Gail – are dedicated to giving the bees the best life they can. They’ve committed to using only organic fertilizer products on their plants, and they continue researching the best way to care for the bees.

“They have such a short life, you try not to kill them,” said Gail. While a queen bee can live up to five years, worker bees live up to six months in the winter and only three weeks in the summer.

“They literally work themselves to death,” she said. “They work so hard, so you don’t want anything to happen to the poor things. You just try to take care of them.”

Though Gail said she wouldn’t mind selling honey in the future, the focus is on keeping the bees alive, and of course, waiting to see whether Silas’ fruit trees are more productive.

“We’re just beginners,” said Gail. “We’re trying to do everything as best as we can.”

As Gail and Silas walked away from the hives and back through the rows of apple trees towards their home, Gail stopped and noticed one of the trees. Its branches were heavy with little round, healthy-looking apples.