Monday through Thursday, you can find Jeff Bryer dishing psychology advice, but on weekends you’ll most likely find him surrounded by thousands of bees. Jeff has been a “hobby” beekeeper for 12 years and has over 30 beehives in five locations throughout Chester County. As the owner of Bryer Apiary and a member of the Chester County Beekeepers Association, Jeff was kind enough to teach me about the job of a beekeeper.
My instructions before my visit were simple – wear light colors, because dark colors remind bees of the their predators (bears, birds, skunks, etc). Before Jeff and I donned our white beekeeping suits, Jeff reassured me that there was no reason to fear the thousands of bees we were about toencounter. During our hour long look through the hives, not one bee bothered us, the bees just busily buzzed as if someone hadn’t taken the roof of their hive.
Beekeeping is a year round job and the beekeeper wears many hats-landlord, mediator, inspector, sous chef, and even doctor. During the busy spring months, Jeff will spend most of a weekend day working with the bees in his hives, whereas he may not look at them for months during the winter.
During winter months, the active bees form clusters around the queen bee, keeping her at a toasty 92 degrees. To insure the bees’ survival in the winter, the beekeeper must stay vigilant and make sure the bees have nectar to eat until it is available in nature and they can feed themselves.
From mid-April to June, they gather nectar wherever they can find it, whether from a tulip poplar or dandelion. “If it’s out there, they will find it and as long as there is room in the hive, they will keep bringing it in,” said Bryer.
In the spring, the beekeeper must make sure the hive is healthy, that a good queen is laying enough eggs to produce more bees to gather nectar, and that there is enough room in the hive. If not, the bees will split, raise a new queen, and leave the hive to “swarm”. If you see this ball of bees in a tree in your yard, call a local beekeeper rather than an exterminator, who will be happy to build a new hive for those bees.
The honey is harvested using a honey extractor in mid-July or August. Any excess honey is left to sustain the bees during the winter. If there isn’t enough honey in the hive, Jeff adds sugar that the bees will convert to honey. The beekeeper must monitor the hive throughout the year for illnesses, viruses, fungi or parasitic mites, treating the bees as necessary.
“It’s farming and you never know what is going to happen. You can prepare your fields, get good seeds, plant the seeds, but you don’t know about the weather or if there will be a blight. You kind of take your chances,” said Bryer.
A beekeeper’s hive has at least two wooden boxes stacked on top of each other. The bottom box is filled with nine frames with honeycombs and this “deep super” is home to the queen bee and her nurse bees. The top box is home to the majority of the hive and beekeepers take the honey from this honey super. Some frames contain brood filled with young larvae, while others contain honey in waxed combs.
An overwintered hive that survives the winter has a population of 25,000-30,000 bees with more than 50,000 in the summer. Each hive has one queen who populates the entire hive. The queen only needs one or two days of mating with 12-15 drone bees and then she will lay 1,500 eggs a day for the rest of her life, which is only two to three years. The queen doesn’t lay any new eggs in winter, since there is a limited amount of food. Once the male drones fulfill their only duty- mating with the queen and any new queens produced-they die.
The rest of the hive is made up of female worker bees with a lifespan of six weeks. The first three weeks are spent in the hive nursing the larvae. These female bees are housekeepers – they push dead bees and trash out of the hive, stand guard against bees from other hives, and act as climate control by shivering to create heat or fanning their wings to air condition the hive.
The last three weeks of their lives are spent looking for two essential things-nectar and pollen.
Using their tubelike tongues, the bees suck nectar out of any blossom it finds. In its stomach, the nectar is mixed with enzymes and pollen to produce honey. The bees drop the honey into the hexagon combs on the frames, cover the combs in beeswax and start the process over again. During separate trips, worker bees collect pollen in their pollen sac on their legs, which will be used to feed the brood.
Honey bees certainly live up to their busy reputation. To produce one pound of honey, honey bees must visit 2 million blossoms. During their search for nectar, one bee will travel an average of 500 miles back and forth from flower to hive, producing only 1/12 teaspoon of honey.
A single hive can produce 40-50 pounds of excess honey in an average season, depending on the weather or quality of the hive.
During a foraging trip, the bees will stick with one type of flower. Bees will brush up on pollen-bearing parts of a flower during their search for nectar. The next flower they visit gets sprinkled by the first flower’s pollen, pollinating the flowers in the process. Bees are responsible for pollinating a huge part of our diets, from avocados to watermelon.
“Pollination is the biggest job that the bees do. Their greatest value to us is they pollinate the plants that directly or indirectly produce 1/3 of the food we eat,” said Bryer. “Every almond that you eat, the plant is pollinated by honey bees. No honey bees, no almonds. The honey is just the bonus.”
So how do the bees know where the good nectar spots are? Not by buzzing but with a figure-eight dance. We witnessed the “waggle dance”, that tells the rest of the hive the distance, quality, and location of an excellent nectar source.
Support Your Local Beekeeper
Honey from our region typically comes from a three mile source of the beehive and is wildflower honey. Honey is the only food to never actually spoil as long as it is kept in a closed container. Bits of pollen in honey makes a great immune booster, can be used to treat sore throats and other bacterial infections, and has antimicrobial properties to treat wounds or burns.
Most supermarket honey is a hodge podge of cheap honey from China, Argentina and Mexico. This honey has been cooked, giving it a longer shelf life, but making it less nutritious and flavorful in the process.
You can find Bryers’ Apiary on the last Saturday of the month at the West Chester Growers’ Market. His customers aren’t the only people buzzing about his honey, Bryer Apiary honey has won several first place ribbons at the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association and Goshen Fair competitions in recent years.
Before eating your honey, take a moment to breathe it in before you use it. If your honey doesn’t have the sweet aroma of pure flowers, it’s time to visit your local beekeeper.