Very delicately, and while getting stung only twice, Leigh Hauter this week started 10 new bee hives on Bull Run Farm.
Leigh is acquainted with a man who travels the country with his bees, pollinating crops, and also sells bees on the side. Even though the thermometer barely registered 40 degrees, the bees Leigh ordered had arrived and it was time to transfer them to their boxes in the fields.
The process works something like this:
The bees are sold in cages--one cage for workers, a separate cage for the queen. First a queen is lowered into the box in her cage, then a group of workers--about three pounds of them--are released around her. At one end of the queen's cage is a stopper made of sugar. The worker bees begin to gnaw on the sugar. It takes them about three days to eat the sugar, during which the queen releases all kinds of pheromones that bond the bees to the queen and to each other. When the sugar is gone, a hole is revealed in the cage allowing the queen to escape and join her hive.
Leigh first got involved with bees about 20 years ago when he received a bee hive as a wedding present from his farmer father-in-law. "I didn't know the difference between a bee and wasp. I only knew they stung and I was terrified," Leigh says. But the father-in-law promised that if Leigh learned to care for that hive, he'd get another 100 hives plus the farm. Leigh did eventually inherit the farm, but now his hives number only between 20 and 30, enough to produce about 600 pounds of honey each year that he distributes to his CSA subscribers.
Bees are fascinating creatures, much more organized, sociable and responsible than humans. Raising them used to be a cinch, but times have changed. "The bees are so stressed out from what’s happening to our environment," said Leigh. "When I started out 20 years ago it was easy keeping bees. It was called being a 'bee haver.' Now you have to do a lot of work."
When he first started tending bees, Leigh said he might lose five hives out of 100 in any given year. "Now I lose half of them. It’s pretty typical even for a professional bee keeper to lose 40 or 50 percent of her hives," he says.
We've all heard of the "colony collapse" syndrome that has been devastating bee populations around the world for reasons that aren't entirely clear. Leigh said the deaths in his hives are caused mostly by tiny mites that infect the bees. One type of mite invades the bee's trachea and is considered life-shortening, but not devastating. It first appeared in the U.S. around 1984. Some bee varieties, he said, have been bread to resist the trachea mite. A second type of parasite, the vorroa mite, sucks the blood from bees and can wipe out a hive. It also appeared in the '80s and although they can be treated chemically, Leigh decided not to risk the chemicals getting into his honey.
And then there are bears.
"I lost seven hives to bears last fall," said Leigh. "They just took them out and ate them before I put up electric fences. We had a lot of bears move in through our valley last year. I saw one the night before last."
The bees do not become active until the temperature reaches around 50 degrees, and then they will be gathering most of their pollen for only a brief period, from late April to to early June when the tulip trees are in bloom. "Virginia is not really a great place to raise bees," he said.
So what do the bees do the rest of the summer? "The bees fight with each other," said Leigh. "All those worker bees become soldier bees and go and attack the weaker hives."
For the farmer, bees are work, but also a great source of pleasure. "I could sit there on a nice summer afternoon and just watch them come and go," said Leigh. "Especially if they’re nice, gentle bees."