The Bee Man of Orn

Yesterday my daughter S and I attended a meeting of the Prince William Regional Beekeepers Association in Manassas, Virginia.  It was our first meeting and I think we both enjoyed ourselves.  I told her it would be boring – best to set expectations such that she wouldn’t be disappointed – and she wanted to come anyway. The simple pleasures of parenting.

This was our first beekeepers meeting and there were more people than I expected, perhaps 30 or so. The club seems quite active, they discussed three volunteering activities in the past couple months as well as preparations for the upcoming Bee School in January. They asked for any newbies, and when we introduced ourselves one person commented that our area is good for bees, which was nice. S is enthusiastically interested in the Bee School so I guess we are attending. It is quite the commitment for a teenager at two hours a week for 8 weeks.

We spoke with one of the instructors during a break, and she repeated what others have said: that they train on Langstroth hives and do not recommend keeping top bar hives in my first year. I’m starting to wonder if perhaps we should have a Langstroth hive just to “fit in” and gain some experience with it. I would still like to try my top bar hive, though, and worry about having different sized frames.

The main speaker for the meeting was bee man Bob Wellemeyer of Windsong Apiaries. Bob is an Apiary Inspector for our region under the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS). He also runs a regional pollination business from Virginia to New Jersey, pollinating apples, blueberries, and other crops.

Bob described how bees are migrated on large trucks holding up to 500 hives. The hives are kept on pallets for easy loading and unloading with forklifts.  The pallets are loaded late when most bees are in the hive, and tied down with a net to keep the bees from escaping. Then they are driven anywhere from a few hours to a few days to their destination. The most Bob transports his bees is around 11 hours, and the bees are unloaded to a staging field before being transferred to the crops. He recommends one hive per acre for most crops, and five hives per acre for blueberries. Blueberries have numerous flowers in a bud, with dozens of seeds in a single blossom that have to be individually pollinated to form a proper blueberry. The growers don’t always take his advice until they see what a difference good pollination can make, and even then it sometimes depends on their budget.

As for pollination contracts, Bob said he is not a fan. He’s had one contract in all his years, and the grower was one of the most difficult to work with. He prefers to look a grower in the eye and shake their hand, then work with the grower to be successful. Most growers form a long-term relationship with a pollinator, and they are not inclined to change unless there is a problem. The pollinator, he says, is responsible for providing good bees, normally a 1½ story hive with 4-7 frames of brood depending on the type of field.  If he promises a grower 100 hives then he likes to have 150 hives available early in the season to make sure he can provide 100 good strong hives.

He currently manages 400 to 500 hives, and the work is very intense as he checks every hive after every move. He doesn’t like to use a smoker, as a hive takes four hours to fully recover after they are smoked and he doesn’t want to lose the time. So he wears two bee suits in hot weather and works through the hives as fast as he can, and by the end there are thousands of angry bees and he still gets stung. It sounds like a lot of work to me. When the grower has to spray because of an insect problem, they give a day or two notice and Bob has to get all his hives out in time.

When asked about hive problems, Bob said the pests are about the same as stationary hives, perhaps fewer mites as he is typically in fields that were previously treated. He loses 25% to 30% of his hives each year, so in early spring he splits and re-queens all his hives to build up for growing season. Interestingly, he re-queens without checking for an existing queen as that takes too much time. In October 2006 Bob had around 1200 hives, and lost nearly all of them in less than 30 days. The bees just left, no dead bodies but full comb, still no idea why. That was the last time he kept bees in Florida, and he built up from the fewer than 100 hives left and now overwinters in Georgia.

A great first meeting, and was fun to enjoy it with my daughter. I look forward to interacting with the group in the coming months.

The Bee Man of Orn is a lovely short story by Frank R. Stockton written in 1887 about a man searching for his true purpose in life. You can find a collection of Stockton’s works, including this tale, at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/12067/12067-h/12067-h.htm. Go read it now, you’ll enjoy it.

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10 thoughts on “The Bee Man of Orn

  1. “He loses 25% to 30% of his hives each year” – that’s not a good loss rate. I wonder if the bees are getting poor nutrition as a result of pollinating monocrops. Studies have shown that feeding on a wide variety of pollens helps bees keep healthy.

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    • My impression was that this was pretty common for migratory colonies. He seems to feed them constantly as well, and mentioned that he doesn’t want the hives to be too well off so they are anxious to pollinate.So you may be right. Tough time for the bees.

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      • Unfortunately I think that loss rate is pretty common among commercial beekeepers. That doesn’t mean it’s good! All the travelling about combined with poor nutrition must be stressful for them. I know some beekeeper friends who don’t eat almonds anymore.

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  2. I don’t eat almonds or buy almond oil! Even blueberries are a rarity in our fridge! 😉 Yet it’s a shame as consumers that we want so much of everything all the time.

    Personally, I don’t think any animals were meant to be kept en mass in cramped conditions, and I say this as the daughter of a butcher and a girlfriend of a farmer’s son, both who’d agree that ‘searing greed’ leads to such intensive over-farming. Sadly the animals of this world are in our care, a word that seems to have gone out of many people’s vocabulary.

    This is a great post because it gives the perspective of the migratory beekeeper whose liking for his bees comes through in your write-up of the talk. His practices seem an improvement on those seen in the documentary More than Honey. But I don’t think it is near enough.

    Those colony losses are high and requeening without checking for the old queen, constant feeding and monoculture, keeping bees ‘anxious’, ‘going through’ 100s of hives – I’d be surprised to meet a happy healthy bee after all that.

    I understand that commercial beekeepers have a bigger challenge to get through more hive inspections than a hobbyist, but because they are insects I think people are failing to make the connection of what is really happening. We know as beekeepers how many bees can be crushed to death, maimed and torn apart if a hive inspection is done hurriedly. Imagine that en mass then imagine replacing those bees with ducks, pigs, cows being crushed flat, drowned in their own feed, and legs torn off… People might feel differently about the pollination industry then – or at least I hope they would!

    Great post, keep writing up the talks from your meetings – fascinating stuff!

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  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Emma, There is such a disparity between the big agricultural practices and the small farmer, for both plants and animals. I just hope we sort out the right balance someday soon. In the meantime I’ll have to add almonds to my list of organic-only foods.

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