Directing Sunbeams

July 1, 2016 | By More

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Nothing says the growing season is here quite like the drone of bees diligently collecting their golden nectar, and nothing tastes quite as nice as sweet wildflower honey. Just northeast of Russellville, Rick Holland’s bees have been gathering nectar in Hector since 1986, making Holland Family Honey a staple in the River Valley for 30 years. Rick started with just two colonies, but over the years the operation has grown into a full fledged honey farm: 150 hives strong.

The idea took shape in a doctor’s office. Rick’s allergies were causing chronic sinus infections, and he had tried everything with minimal success. An acupuncturist recommended eating local honey, but Rick was unable to find any local honey in the area. Fortunately for Rick, a copy of Field & Stream magazine in that doctor’s office held the answer to his troubles. In the back of the magazine he saw an ad for a bee supply company. A few weeks later his hives and bees were on their way.

The hives — wooden boxes with structures for the bees to build upon and removable frames allowing the beekeeper to harvest honey and monitor colony health — arrived first.  A few days later the bees arrived. “They came through the US Post Office,” Rick recalls. The bees came in small wooden boxes with a screen mesh on either side. Inside each box was a queen along with three pounds of worker bees. The bees were provided with enough sugar water to sustain them during transit. “The Post Office called when the bees came in,” Rick said. “They told me to get there and get there quick.”

Rick has amassed a wealth of knowledge over his 30 years on the farm, and he is eager to share his experience with curious customers and writers. During our interview he was able to sense what his bees were doing just by the sound of their buzzing. “That lower humming means that the males [drones] are leaving the hive to find mates,” he said. Drones are one of three types of bees in the hive. These three types work together as a unit to produce the honey we know and love.

The queen bee arguably plays the most important role in the hive, and a colony couldn’t survive without her. She is also the biggest bee in the hive and is responsible for laying eggs and leading the hive through pheromone signals. A queen bee can lay about 1,500 eggs per day during the spring build up. She mates with up to eighteen drones during one short period, just a few days, of her life. Afterward she can produce fertile eggs for the rest of her 3-4 year lifetime.

Each hive has up to 200 male drones whose only purpose is to mate with a queen. They’re bigger than the average worker bee and have more sensitive eyes, useful for spotting queens on their nuptial flights. The drone lives a short, tragic life. They are fed and cared for by worker bees until they are strong enough to begin mating flights. During these flights, the drone will find a place to congregate with other drones from other hives sometimes up to four miles from their home colony. If they are lucky they will have a chance to mate with a virgin queen. Upon fertilization the drone will die. To conserve energy within the hive, any drones still alive when winter draws near will be forced out of the hive to starve.

The bees most often seen collecting nectar and pollinating plants are female worker bees. As the name suggests, worker bees labor for the hive to ensure its survival. Worker bees take on many jobs. Their first job is nurse duty. They feed and take care of their larvae siblings for about two weeks. After serving time with the young, they take responsibility for carrying food and storing nectar gathered by the foragers. Once a worker reaches adulthood she gathers nectar for the hive until she dies of exhaustion. A worker bee lives only three weeks during peak foraging season.

A single worker bee produces only one-eighth teaspoon of honey in its lifetime, and a single teaspoon of honey requires 10,000 miles of flight. Rick estimates that a good honey producing hive consists of 60,000 – 80,000 bees during the summer months. Any less than that and the bees can only produce just enough honey to provide for themselves. A strong hive will produce more honey than they can use; that’s the honey that goes to market. Rick estimates that one colony produces 100 pounds of honey each year. “We produced eleven 55-gallon barrels of honey last season,” he said.

Rick explains that bees produce honey as food for themselves. “We don’t feed our bees,” he said. “They have to sustain themselves.” If a hive is weak Rick will supplement them with sugar water, but natural honey is healthier. “Sugar will get them through. It will help them build up and produce more brood to increase their numbers, but in my opinion the honey is a better source of food for them,” he said.

Honey bees are one of the few insects that survive winter as a colony, but they don’t hibernate. They just slow down. The queen stops laying in the winter, and most of the hive dies off. Drone bees are forced outside the hive to starve, and worker bees form a cluster around the queen to keep her warm. They use their body heat and stores of honey to keep her at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The queen begins laying again soon after the winter solstice. 

As the days grow warmer, the queen builds up her colony, hatching thousands of new worker bees and replacing the old winter bees who gradually die off. Additionally, the queen will rear drones and up to four new queens. “A hive swarms in the springtime every year to ensure the survival of the species,” Rick said.“The old queen and half the bees leave the hive to start another colony somewhere else.” These bees will cluster on a tree limb just long enough for scout bees to find a perfect location for the new hive. In nature, scout bees will decide on a location and perform a dance to inform the rest of the swarm of the location. Once the swarm decides on a location, they break up and settle in the new spot where they immediately start building wax structures. A lucky beekeeper may be able to capture a swarm before it settles and brush them into a new hive.

Keeping bees has far reaching benefits on the farm. Holding a blackberry, Rick said, “The size of the fruit is determined by the pollination.” A well pollinated flower produces more seeds per berry and bigger fruit. Rick’s blackberries are often the size of his thumb. His homegrown squash and cucumber benefit from honeybee pollination as well since both plants have a male and female flower. Without pollination from bees they won’t bear fruit. With the bee’s help they produce delicious summertime snacks. “We picked 90 pounds [of squash] yesterday and we’ll pick about the same amount tomorrow,” Rick said.

The bees also produce useful wax that Rick and his wife incorporate into chapstick and a lotion stick for rough skin areas. In addition, they produce a hand lotion that doesn’t leave your hands greasy. In some cases they send the wax to a bee supplier who will reform it into a foundation that bees can form their honeycombs on.

Rick inspects his hives every two to three weeks to keep an eye on hive health, honey stores, and space needs. He doesn’t usually wear a suit, but does wear gloves and a veil. “If you handle your smoker right, and your bees are calm enough, you don’t always have to have a suit,” he said. However, there are two situations when he does wears the full suit: in the early spring when they first open the hives, and in the late fall when they medicate for mites. “Bees are more aggressive in the fall when their crop is stored and they don’t have as much to gather,” he said. When the bees are less busy, they’re especially aggressive.

You may have seen one of Rick’s observation hives at Lake Dardanelle State Park. He donated the colony in 2005 and regularly maintains it. You can watch worker bees go about their business, collecting pollen and nectar and caring for the hive. The queen bee has a white dot painted on her for easy identification.

If you wish to purchase Holland Family Honey, it can be found at the Russellville Farmer’s Market, Harps in Dover and Russellville, B & W Feed in Dover, and Mac’s Food Market in Hector.

As for Rick’s allergies, he said he hasn’t been to the doctor with a sinus infection in 30 years.

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