On my first visit to learn about bees, all I got was sunburn on the top of my head and a bunch of things to think about before I’d be ready to slip on a beekeeper’s overalls and meet the bees.
My newly minted beekeeping mentor, Steve May, told me bees are just another kind of livestock. In that way, keeping bees isn’t really all that different from keeping cows or goats.
I imagined cows and goats with wings and stingers.
May’s point is that, sure, bees are insects, but insects need the same things every other living thing requires to survive and thrive. They need space to move around and grow, access to food — and a pool pass.
“Bees like swimming pools,” he explained. “They like chlorinated water.”
I blinked and said, “What?”
To be sure, I’d seen plenty of bees those teenage summers I’d spent splashing around in the above-ground pool behind my friend Robbie Santolla’s house.
More times than I rightly remembered, bees buzzed our waterlogged heads, and we’d dove under the water to escape a sting.
It happened pretty much every summer, and we never figured out what we’d done to deserve the anger of the local hive.
Instead, we just made uneducated guesses — the proximity of an old apple tree, even though it hadn’t borne fruit in years; the Avon brand cologne Robbie’s grandmother got him for his birthday that smelled like a mix of Pine-Sol and strawberries; or the coconut scented lotion we slathered on in hopes of being a rich, golden brown and not bright, lobster red.
May said it had more to do with the chlorine and the water.
“If you’re going to keep bees, you have to have access to a water source,” he said.
It needed to be a little more than a bird bath or a mud puddle; more like a pond or a stream. Bees would travel a ways to get water if they had to, but bees leaned toward being industrious and efficient ... or just systematically lazy.
They would take the closest good water source they could find, and if there wasn’t a nearby lake or creek, they were completely fine with pulling water out of a backyard pool — though they would tend to skim from the sides of the pool or where water splashed in the grass.
Bees aren’t noted for their swimming, and the chlorine didn’t seem to help or hurt them.
I researched the topic (slightly) after I got home, and there was some concern that chlorine could be bad for bees. Some thought it might be a neurotoxin, but the best I could come up with was that it probably didn’t help them any.
Wasps apparently were attracted to chlorine fumes, but wasps are weird, evil things who only seem to exist to cause misery and suffering. Of course they like chlorine.
A few agricultural writers pointed out that if bees did have a problem with chlorine, hives would have died off decades ago just through the sheer number of swimming pools already in existence. They allowed that while chlorine might not be great for the bees, it was low on the list of troubles that included murder hornets, various mites, pesticides and diseases.
Bees have 99 problems, but a pool ain’t one.
However, bees do reportedly like saltwater pools. The salt, along with the water, they need — the same as other animals.
May said that in raising bees, you had to be aware of what the bees were going to eat. You couldn’t just count on them to go find food on their own. You had to know what was in bloom and when, particularly if you’re hoping to raise bees for their honey.
Bees can fly a couple of miles to find food, but like everybody else, they’d rather not. And not all blooming plants are equal; some produce more and better nectar.
“Bees will go looking for major sources of nectar,” he said. “Ideally, they’ll go from major source to major source.”
They will do this methodically, he explained.
“They’ll work one major source and then go on to the next one, after it’s been worked,” May said.
If I understood it correctly, bees will eat the same thing until they run out and then they’ll move on — sort of like how I live on the same pot of chili for days.
Major sources of nectar would include the tulip poplar and sumac, but May said sometimes there isn’t a major source available. Sometimes, bees take whatever they can get to get by.
“Think of it as eating ramen,” he said.
If bees aren’t able to get nectar, they’ll live off the stored honey, which can be bad in the long term for honey production. If it goes on long enough, the bees will starve.
“You want to set up your hive where you know different things are blooming at different times and not all at once,” May said.
In a pinch, a beekeeper could feed his bees a mix of water and sugar, but that was kind of budget ramen.
Like other livestock, bees have predators and need to be protected.
Hives, he told me, should be kept about 2 feet off the ground, which was meant to passively ward off skunks, which like to drop by and munch on the bees.
The way a frame hive (the kind of habitat used to keep domestic bees) is built, bees slip out toward the bottom of the structure to go about their business of gathering nectar or whatever else is on the day’s work schedule.
Skunks, which are low to the ground, will crawl up next to the entrance and pick out bees and munch on them like popcorn. The bees can’t do a lot about it, except make a satisfying crunching sound as they’re devoured.
May told me skunks will keep eating until they’re full, and then come back later for seconds.
The thick, luxurious fur of the skunk will protect it from being stung, but the fur thins out across the animal’s belly.
Placing the hives up away from the ground forces skunks to rear up on their hind legs to get to the opening of the hive, which exposes their skin. When the hive is under attack, the bees will jam stingers into the skunk’s stomach until he decides to move along and take the party elsewhere.
May said beekeepers sometimes had to deal with bears, which could be scary. Bears will sometimes eat people.
Like everybody else who grew up watching Winnie the Pooh, I thought bears were just big fans of honey, that they were crazy for the stuff.
Not exactly, May said.
“They’ll eat the honey, of course,” he said. “They’ll eat just about anything. But they’ll go through a hive to eat the bee larva. It’s a good source of protein.”
Once again, I felt betrayed by Disney.