Sunday, June 2, 2013

Keeping the Bees Buzzing in Wilco

Published in the Sun June 1, 2013

Mary Bost and Jimmie Oakley examine a hive
Jimmie Oakley, beekeeper, had an infected bee sting on his thumb yesterday.  Today it is healing, a change which he attributes to the application of bee propolis, also called “bee glue.”  I have never heard of propolis, but Jimmie describes it as “anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-communist.”  Propolis is a sticky product bees make from tree resins, beeswax, and pollen, and use like caulk to close up small holes in the hive.  If a small creature finds its way into the hive and then dies there, the bees use propolis to permanently entomb the body so they don’t have to live with a stinky carcass.  Jimmie collects propolis from his hives and uses it as a tincture for small injuries or cold sores, a practice which has several thousand years of precedent and some support in the scientific literature.


It turns out that Jimmie’s bee sting was actually self-inflicted.  He has repetitive stress injuries of his thumbs from using his bee smoker, and when the pain flares up he treats it with a bee sting on the thumb joint.  (The bee is conscripted into this treatment reluctantly, because when a bee stings a person, the barbed stinger tears away from the bee’s abdomen, and the bee dies.)  The resulting inflammation is supposed to help the pain in his thumbs, although maybe the sting just hurts so much that it takes one’s mind off the problem.  Jimmie laughs and admits that he might get more relief, with less risk of infection, if he actually rested his thumbs from the smoker for a while.


I must look skeptical about the medicinal properties of bee stings, because Mary Bost, unofficial dowager queen bee of the Williamson County Area Beekeepers Association and Jimmie’s employer, shows me her hands also.  At 91, Mary has some painful osteoarthritis.  Periodically she numbs her hands really well with ice, and lets Jimmie coerce a couple of unlucky bees into stinging her palms.  She affirms this treatment is effective, but I notice she hasn’t done it for about 6 months.


Mary and her late husband, Robert, bought this farm southeast of Georgetown in 1952.  They liked the taste of honey, so they decided to install a beehive.  Knowing nothing about beekeeping, Mary says they made every mistake possible.  Robert ordered one hive of bees from the Sears and Roebuck catalog and they set it up in the yard.  Robert was so excited about his new project that he opened the hive every day to check on his bees.  It turns out that bees prefer privacy, so after a week of Robert’s unwanted intrusions the bees got fed up and left.  Undaunted, Mary and Robert continued to learn about bees and at the peak of their beekeeping career had 150 hives and sold honey to six different HEB grocery stores in the area.  Since Robert died, Mary has slowed down a bit, and now Jimmie does most of the hard work for her.


Jimmie got his start with bees in 1976 when he dropped out of the data processing world and answered a classified ad from a commercial beekeeper in North Dakota.  He and his new business partner would load up thousands of hives on trailers.  They would winter the bees in Texas and let them forage on the flowers in the early spring.   About May, when it started to heat up down here, they would load the bees up again and take them back to North Dakota where spring was just getting underway.  After enjoying the nectar of two springs, Jimmie’s bees could eventually produce over a hundred pounds of honey per hive, twice what they could produce if they hung around in Texas all year.


Jimmie and Mary agree that it was easier to raise bees back in the good old days.  The only bee disease they worried about back then was American foulbrood, a highly infectious, but relatively uncommon, bacteria that could wipe out a hive.  Mary recalls the day the state bee inspector made Robert destroy 15 hives because of foulbrood.  They built a big bonfire and had to burn up all the bees, as well as the boxes and honey frames.  It was the worst day of their beekeeping career.


These days the scourge is Varroa mites, accidently imported into the US in 1987 from Russia or eastern Asia and now affecting all US honeybee hives.  The Varroa mite is a blood-sucking parasite about 1.5 millimeters in size, which is pretty big in relation to a honeybee.  It would be like a person having a tick the size of a softball; not something you would enjoy on your body.  When Varroa mites first arrived in North America they almost wiped out the feral honeybee colonies, the colonies living in trees and not owned by anybody.  Now the wild bees may be developing some resistance, just like the Russian bees who have had to endure Varroa mites for a longer time.  Some beekeepers use mitiicides to control the mites, but it’s hard to kill the mites without also killing the bees, since they are both insects.


The honeybee is not native to America.  It was brought here by European colonists who wanted honey.  As valuable as honey is, the greater economic value of bees is the work they do pollinating our agricultural crops.  Up to one-third of the food we eat relies on bee pollination.  Unfortunately, the bee population is in trouble.  Jimmie says we have half the bees we had twenty or thirty years ago.  That population decline affects our native bumblebees as well, which are also important pollinators.


The cause of the bee decline is not yet completely clear and certainly is multi-factorial.  Widespread use of pesticides may have a role.  Jimmie points out that even if a pesticide doesn’t kill a bee immediately, it could have a long term effect on reproduction or even navigational skills.  If a bee can’t navigate, she can’t find her way back to the hive.


Selective breeding of queen bees for maximum egg-laying ability and honey production has led to a shallow gene pool that may have adverse consequences for long term survival.  Much to my amazement, queen bees can be artificially inseminated!


Other important factors in bee decline are habitat loss and poor nutrition.  Bees like a meadow filled with a variety of flowering plants, blooming one after another all year long.  A monoculture of corn or soy as far as the eye can see is a food desert to a bee.  It blooms once for a week or two, but after that there is nothing for a hungry bee to eat.  Malnutrition is made worse by the harvesting of the bee’s honey, which is their food for the winter and contains nutrients essential for bee health.  Commercial beekeepers often take all the honey and feed the bees instead with high fructose corn syrup.  That would be exactly like us giving up vegetables and whole grains and trying to survive on soda pop.  Mary and Jimmie reassure me that at Bost Farms they always leave enough honey in the hives for the bees to eat.


You can make your yard bee-friendly by planting a variety of native plants that bloom throughout the growing season, providing a source of water, and avoiding insecticides.  If you would like to learn more about beekeeping, contact the Williamson County Area Beekeepers Association at

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