The Buzz on Bees by Mary Stein Hurst

The Buzz on Bees
By Mary Stein Hurst

Backyard beekeepers Bonnie Sprague and her husband Ray Duchesneau don bee keeping veils, gloves and white clothes for their weekly task of making sure their four hives of bees are healthy and happy while not getting stung too many times.

“If you keep bees, you will be stung,” Duchesneau said. “But they are normally not aggressive. I won’t do anything to hurt them if they don’t do anything to hurt me. We are not stung often but when we are, it’s usually our fault. I have to think that somehow they know if they sting us, they’ll die.”

The couple has a back yard garden where she grows flowers and he plants vegetables and fruits. Since they bought their first hive, they have enjoyed yields at least twice what they had been because their bees pollinate the plants.

They moved to Central Florida from Boston, where people were concerned about growing and eating healthy foods. Almost two years ago, the couple decided to invest in bee hives to help them grow bigger and better fresh produce.

The retired couple began investigating beekeeping two years ago, when they attended a beekeeping seminar sponsored by the University of Florida extension service, where experts there advised anyone interested in having bees join a group. They joined the Ridge Beekeepers Association, where they met Pat Allen, another transplant who brought his bees with him from upstate New York several years ago.

“We worked with him in his bee yard for four weeks before we bought a hive,” Sprague said.

Allen owns Pat’s Apiaries, which is a side business for him and his family. Their beekeeping is on a much larger scale than Sprague and Deschenau’s. Allen offers his hives to farmers for crop pollination. He also takes calls from people who need bees removed from their property.

But however many hives people have, there is excess honey. Because Pat’s Apiaries pollinate other crops, he sells orange blossom, wildflower and palmetto honey. Sprague and Duchesneau label theirs wildflower because their bees hang out mostly in the neighborhood taking pollen from plants and nectar from flowers to make honey, the bees extra food supplies for a long, more chilly winter when flowers are dormant.

The Lake Alfred couple has learned much since they began beekeeping. They inspect their four hives and two temporary ones, where they place their overflow.

“The bee colony gets bigger and bigger and bigger,” Duchesneau said. “When they run out of room they swarm.”

They’ve had them swarm in trees in the back yard. One swarm just left, the queen taking the other bees with her. Sprague transferred another to a temporary hive, where the bees make new queens and begin a new colony. They had swarmed on a tree branch and were quiet.

“I handed Ray the branch and said ‘Don’t drop it.’,” Sprague said. “I laid it down in front of the temporary hive and they went right in.”

The queen is about an inch long and all activity centers around her in the natural beehive hierarchy. The average queen lays 1,000 eggs a day for about two years. In three days, the eggs hatch in the hive. As the bees age, they go from being house bees, keeping the hive clean and feeding bee larva, to eventually leaving the hive to forage, bringing back the materials necessary to make honey.

And make honey they do.

The bees take the pollen and nectar, combine it with their digestive juices and fill the cells of the comb with honey.

Sprague and Duchesneau sell their 120 pounds or so of honey because they don’t cook with it, other than to sweeten coffee or tea.

“That’s a lot of honey to have to eat,” she said.

And extracting the honey is a dirty job.  They have to cut the bees’ wax from the comb and store it in the refrigerator.  There are 10 frames in each hive that they must harvest. When they start that, they know it will be hard work. Besides harvesting the honey, they get all dirty because sticky honey attracts dirt.

The Allens sell their honey at the International Flea Market in Auburndale and at area farmers markets. They also ship honey.

While the backyard beekeepers are trained to look for mites and hive, they use very little chemicals in their yard and when they have to spray something, they do so at night, when all the bees are in the hive.

Sprague said they are having a lot of fun with it. One of her cousins up North told her the family never pictured her doing anything like bee keeping.

“It’s fascinating,” she said. “Backyard beekeepers will be the ones that keep the bees going.”

Large commercial beekeepers have 1,000 or more hives and they truck them across the country, mainly to California, for crop pollination. Commercial beekeepers are concerned with bee colony collapse, where experts believe that exposure to agricultural pesticides can destroy the colonies.

“They don’t see their bees every day,” Sprague said. “We can look at ours every day. It makes a huge difference. We aren’t newbies but we’re not ready to keep bees commercially.”

She advises anyone interested in starting beekeeping to attend the University of Florida seminar in Bartow and joining a group, where folks can ask advice and meet people who sell bees.

“A starter kit, with two hives cost us $437.50,” she said. “The bees can cost $125. It’s not a cheap hobby.”

The Ridge Beekeepers Association meets at 7 p.m. on the fourth Monday of each month at the Florida Farm Bureau Building, 1715 U.S. 17 South in Bartow. The meetings are free. A potluck dinner is served. For more information visit