Cooler weather in the autumn and early winter always makes me think of warm biscuits with melted butter, covered in sweet honey. Growing up locally, I remember autumn as “honey time” because it was a good time for many local beekeepers to harvest their honey after all the blooming flowers and crops were gone and the bees were hunkering down for the winter. Of course, honey is harvested throughout the year as the active bees cover the honeycomb cells with wax.
A BIG AND SWEET BUSINESS
In a typical year in North Carolina, beekeepers (and the bees) produce between 5 and 6 million pounds of honey with a value of approximately $10 million dollars. In addition, they also produce over 120,000 pounds of beeswax. In comparison, the top honey producing state of North Dakota produces over 38 million pounds of honey in a year worth over $70 million. The next four top producers in the U.S. are Montana, California, South Dakota and Florida. Since it gets so cold in North Dakota and Montana, in the winter, the beekeepers in those states will move their bees to warmer climates to keep producing honey. One of the favorite places to go is to all the almond farms in California where almond farmers pay the beekeepers to pollinate their almond trees. The main pollen crops for the bees in the northern cold states is alfalfa and clover which are grown as cover crops to enrich their soils between grain crops.
Honey is a thick liquid produced by certain types of bees from the nectar of flowers. While many species of insects consume nectar, honeybees refine and concentrate nectar to make honey. Honey is a source of simple carbohydrates. Its composition on average is 17.1% water, 82.4% total carbohydrate and 0.5% proteins, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. The average carbohydrate content is mainly fructose (38.5%) and glucose (31%). The remaining 12.9% of carbohydrates is made up of maltose, sucrose and other sugars.
A POLLINATING SOCIETY
According to NC State University, honeybees can be kept almost anywhere there are flowering plants that produce nectar and pollen. Beekeepers should choose a site for beehives that is discrete, sheltered from winds and partially shaded. Avoid low spots in a yard where cold, damp air accumulates in winter.
The NC Beekeepers’ Association encourages beekeepers to be considerate of non-beekeeping neighbors. Hives should be placed so that bee flight paths do not cross sidewalks, playgrounds, or other public areas. In dry weather, bees may collect water at neighbors’ swimming pools or water spigots. Avoid this by giving your bees a water source in your yard such as a container with floating wood or Styrofoam chips. The floating objects prevent bees from drowning.
Honeybees, like ants, termites, and some wasps, are social insects. Entomologists report that unlike ants and wasps, bees are vegetarians; their protein comes from pollen and their carbohydrate comes from honey which they make from nectar. Honeybees cooperate in foraging tasks and the care of young, and have different types, or “castes,” of individuals. There are three castes of honeybees: drones, worker bees and queens.
During winter, bees cluster in a tight ball. In January, the queen starts laying eggs in the center of the nest. Beekeepers know that since stored honey and pollen are used to feed these larvae, colony stores may fall dangerously low in late winter when brood production has started but plants are not yet producing nectar or pollen. When spring “nectar flows” begin, bee populations grow rapidly. By April and May, many colonies are crowded with bees, and these congested colonies may split and form new colonies by a process called “swarming.” A crowded colony rears several daughter queens, and then the original mother queen flies away from the colony, accompanied by up to 60% of the workers. These swarms then cluster on some object such as a tree branch while scout bees search for a more permanent nest site — usually a hollow tree or wall void. Within 24 hours the swarm moves to the new nest. One of the daughter queens that were left behind inherits the original colony according to the University of Georgia.
Beekeepers know that after the swarming season, bees concentrate on storing honey and pollen for winter. By late summer, a colony has a core of brood below insulating layers of honey, pollen, and a honey-pollen mix. In autumn, bees concentrate in the lower half of their nest, and during winter they move upward slowly to eat the honey and pollen.
A GREAT AND REWARDING HOBBY
Beekeeping is a very popular hobby and the need for good pollinators of crops is greater than ever. There are over 10,000 beekeepers in the state and about 1,200 of them belong to the N. C. State Beekeepers Association. In addition, the NCSBA has beekeeping chapters in most of the N.C. counties.
If you want to learn more about beekeeping, there are many programs such as regular courses on honeybees at N.C. State University, short courses offered at the annual NCBA conventions (twice a year) and at local NCSBA chapter (county) meetings, and of course the N.C. Master Beekeeper Program. The N.C. Master Beekeeper Program is the largest and most long-lived state head beekeeping educational program in the United States. The program is completely free of charge to N.C. residents and is sponsored by the N.C. State Beekeepers Association, N.C. State University (Extension Service), and the N.C. Dept. of Agriculture.
SOME REAL HONEY FACTS
• Bees have 5 eyes
• Bees fly about 20 mph
• Bees are insects, so they have 6 legs
• The state insect for North Carolina is the honeybee
• Male bees in the hive are called drones
• Female bees in the hive (except the queen) are called worker bees
• Losing its stinger will cause a bee to die
• Bees have been here around 30 million years!
• Bees carry pollen on their hind legs called a pollen basket.
• An average beehive can hold around 50,000 bees
• Foragers must collect nectar from about 2 million flowers to make 1 pound of honey.
• The average forager makes about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
• Average per capita honey consumption in the US is 1.3 pounds.
• Bees have 2 pairs of wings.
• The principal form of communication among honeybees is through chemicals called pheromones.
• Bees are important because they pollinate approximately 130 agricultural crops in the US including fruit, fiber, nut, and vegetable crops. Bee pollination adds approximately 14 billion dollars annually to improved crop yield and quality.
Gwyn Riddick is a North Carolina Certified Plantsman and former owner of Riddick Greenhouses & Nursery. He is a Fellow of the Natural Resources Leadership Institute (NCSU). If you have gardening questions, send them to Gwyn Riddick at The High Point Enterprise, 213 Woodbine St., High Point, N.C. 27260, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.