The guest speaker at the Garberville Rotary Club on Tuesday, Oct. 22 was Garrett Brinton, beekeeper and instructor for beginning and advanced beekeeping at Humboldt State University.
Brinton graduated from the University of Connecticut and now lives on a farm in Bayside. He has beehives in all parts of the county from Northern Humboldt as far south as Woods Ranch outside Garberville.
Brinton said more people are becoming aware of the how important honeybees are in the pollination of many food crops.
Honeybees are native to Africa, Europe and Asia but not North or South America. But they have become crucial to our environment because many of our crops were brought over with the colonists and the honeybees came with them, Brinton explained. A third to a half of all the foods we eat are pollinated by honeybees, including dairy and beef because what they eat is pollinated by honeybees.
In the 1940s there were about five million managed colonies of honeybees and countless feral colonies. Now honeybee populations are down to two and a half million managed colonies and feral colonies have dropped by about 90%.
”Most bees in the world are solitary bees,” Brinton said, “but not honeybees.” They cannot live away from the colony for more than a day so they are called a colony organism or a super organism.
Brinton described a hive as having a queen and usually about 60,000 or 80,000 bees.
Honeybees interact with each other through pheromones (chemicals that convey information), vibrations, and dances in a complex language system (that some say is only second to human communication) about where the good flowers are, where the water is, where the good nesting sites are and so on. “Individually a bee doesn’t know very much but 50,000 of them put together with these complex communication behaviors know a tremendous amount about their environment,” said Brinton.
Brinton explained that bees survive the winter because they save up pollen and nectar they have collected during the spring and summer that they turn into honey.
Their protein source is stored pollen, also called beebread. They can build up their population and be ready in the spring when the main nectar flows with the blooming of the flowers. Honeybees are a tropical animal species that has adapted to this environment by learning how to hoard food.
Most of the bees in a hive are workers, which are female. They do all the work, gather the food, raise the babies, clean the hive, make the wax, guard the door, gather pollen, and keep the hive cool or warm.
The queen is a little bit bigger than the rest of the bees. She is very important to the hive and is well loved by the beekeeper. Sometimes they mark the queen with a blue or green dot for easy identification.
The queen lays the eggs. She puts out pheromones that suppress hormones in the workers so they do not lay any eggs.
The males, called drones, have only one purpose. On a certain day, when conditions are just right, they will fly to a drone congregation area, usually about 50 to 100 feet up in the air, like a singles bar for bees, Brinton explained. If a virgin queen has hatched out somewhere she flies by the congregation and the males take off after her. One catches her. But after he accomplishes his mission, his apparatus breaks off, his belly explodes and he falls to the ground dead. “But that is considered success among honeybees,” Brinton said.
Most of the males do not get to do that. At the end of the season, the drones get kicked out of the hive by their sisters. This system has been working for bees for about 50 million years.
The bees make little wax cells then bring in nectar. They add some enzymes to it and dry it and it turns into honey. They also store pollen in the hive, the beebread, as a protein source. After it is made into honey the bees can cap over the cells with wax and it can last for hundreds of years.
The queen sticks her head in a cell and checks whether it is a worker cell or a drone cell. She lays either a fertilized egg to be a female or an unfertilized egg to become a drone. The transformation only takes about three weeks from egg to bee. The workers feed them hundreds of times a day.
When the larvae hatch out they turn around and clean their cell.
Honeybees do a special food exchange all day and keep the food moving through the hive.
There is a special cell for a new queen and she is fed special high protein food. The queen can live up to five years.
It is good for honeybee genetics for the hive to occasionally reproduce itself by splitting the colony. To do that, the hive will make some new queen cells and the old queen will take a portion of the bees, fly out and cluster up somewhere nearby while some scouts go out and check out new places to live. When the scouts come back the bees reach consensus and move into a new site.
When they are swarming they usually won’t hurt you because they are intent on finding someplace to live, Brinton explained. They often swarm on branches of trees.
Sometimes beekeepers will catch a swarming hive by shaking the branch into a special tub. If you get the queen the bees will follow easily, Brinton said.
In Humboldt County bees can live in trees, caves and certainly they can live in the walls of your house, Brinton said. Sometimes they live in the attics of houses. They will defend their hives.
Humans have adapted to bees by providing hives for bees to live in. Beekeepers’ hives have frames inside that make it easy for the honeybees to build their honeycombs and make it easy for the beekeepers to inspect them and later to collect some of the honey. But they leave some for the bees.
There are many kinds of man-made hives. Some are in rural areas and some in urban areas. Beekeeping was recently legalized in Eureka and Fortuna through the efforts of devoted beekeepers. In rural areas sometimes an electric fence is needed around hives to keep the bears out, or some people keep their hives on their roof if they have an easy way to access it. Beekeepers who have a series of hives paint them different colors so the bees know which one is theirs.
Beekeepers have different ways of harvesting the honey, from scraping it off the frame with a knife to getting together with other beekeepers and employing special equipment.
A current problem bee populations face is economic. There is not a lot of money in beekeeping and there is the competition of honey from other countries now.
Also, honeybees can fall prey to new diseases, parasites, fungal diseases and viruses they are not immune to yet.
There is also the loss of forage from monocropping. Bees need a multiplicity of protein sources. What humans consider “weeds” are actually food variety for bees.
Pesticides either kill bees outright or else slowly, infecting the whole hive.
There is a new kind of insecticide called neonicotinoids that is a systemic pesticide. That means it is coated on the seed and absorbed through the whole plant so every flower is an insecticide.
Brinton said the European Union has banned neonicotinoids, but not the U.S.
To help honeybees people can plant good plants for bees like clover and sunflowers or anything you like but a variety is best. Do not use insecticides, he said. Find out which pesticides are neonicontinoids and do not use them. Neonicontinoids are not labeled as such on the container. One must find out the brand names to avoid them.
Buying local honey supports local beekeepers and will help build immunities to local allergens.
Brinton teaches classes through the Humboldt State University Extension Education, 707-826-3731. He has taught a beginning beekeeping class at South Fork.
REDWOOD TIMES PHOTO BY SANDY FERETTO
Garrett Brinton, beekeeper and HSU instructor talked about the wonders of honeybees at Rotary.