A day in the life of a West Virginia beekeeper

FAIRMONT, W.Va. (WBOY) — Ever wonder how your honey ends up on the table? Sure, it comes from bees, everyone knows that, but what about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into that bear-shaped bottle?

Debbie Martin, Master Beekeeper (Photo by WBOY)

Meet Debbie Martin, the third female master beekeeper in West Virginia and one of many beekeepers in the state. She has been dealing with beekeeping for 14 years and at the same time managed as many as 32 different hives.

There are three ranks of beekeepers: apprentice, certified and master, and each level requires a written and practical exam for advancement. Martin has been working on becoming a master beekeeper for five years, but she said that without the pandemic, she could have gotten it sooner.

So how is honey actually made?

To understand how honey is made, let’s go through the different types of bees in the hive:

  • Queen – The queen lays her eggs and everyone pet her.
  • Workers – Workers perform several jobs for the hive, such as foraging for nectar, maintaining the hive, and feeding the larvae.
  • Drones – Drones are the only males in the hive, and their only existence in life is to find a queen, mate with her, and then die.
LISTEN: Queen bees will “bleep” to communicate with other bees or to find other queens so they can fight to become the only queen in the hive.

First, forager bees will leave the hive to collect nectar from flowers, visiting between 50 and 100 flowers in one trip. The foragers will return and regurgitate the nectar into the mouths of other waiting worker bees. These workers will continue to return nectar to each other until their digestive enzymes break down the nectar into simple sugars like glucose and fructose. Charming.

Even after the nectar is broken down, the water content is still very high, so the bees will beat the honey with their wings to dry it, creating a cell full of viscous honey. The cell is then covered with beeswax and is likely to be eaten during the winter when the bees can no longer feed.

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Those plates are called “honey supers” and when they are full, the lids will be cut off and the super will be put into an extractor that spins it until the honey is empty. From there, the honey is ready to be bottled and sold.

“We don’t filter our honey, we don’t squeeze it, we don’t freeze it, we don’t cook it. It’s pure, raw, straight out of the box, honey,” Martin said.

Martin said she puts her sneakers on in April and takes them off at the end of July for harvest. The rest of the honey produced by the bees is left for use during the winter.

How often do you get stung?

Bee swarms can go from between 60,000 to 80,000 bees in the summer to as few as 5,000 to 10,000 bees in the winter. Martin said that currently each of her boxes contains between 50,000 and 60,000 bees.

She has been very lucky so far this year and has only stung three times, and one was at a different apiary.

“Other people didn’t have it so well. We had a man in our club who had 30 stab wounds to his head, they went into his helmet… Yeah, it was bad,” said Martin. “We always recommend that people wear a veil over their face to protect their eyes because if you get stung in the eye it can be very bad. It can blind you.”

Martin said the first thing she hears from people is that they want to get into beekeeping but don’t want to get stung.

Debbie Martin’s Hives

“You’re going to get stabbed,” Martin said with a slight smile.

Author’s Note: While filming the video linked above, I was wearing a full bee suit, even though I had no gloves. While a lot of bees were crawling on my hand (bees are strangely fuzzy) I was not stung once. Just don’t make them angry!

Bees are also the only bees that die after stinging. When they sting, they leave the stinger along with a bag of venom, so the best practice is to remove bee stings as soon as possible to reduce the severity of the sting.

How do you take care of bees?

Bees, although mostly self-sufficient, are still vulnerable to nature. Wild animals, especially bears and skunks, are one of the biggest threats to any hive, hence the electric fence Martin keeps around his boxes.

A common misconception is that bears go to beehives to get at the honey inside. Although they will eat honey, they are actually mostly looking for the bugs themselves, as bees and larvae are a good source of protein. When ferrets find a hive, they will sit at the entrance and scratch the outside and eat any bees that come to investigate. Martin said that with this method, ferrets can clean out entire hives in just a few hours.

There are also a number of pests that affect bees, such as varroa mites and wax moths, which will burrow into the hive and feed on the beeswax and nectar inside the hive. Varroa mites are an invasive species from Asia that came to America in 1987. They will attach to the exterior of bees and feed on their bodies, which can cause the bees to act sluggish or be born with defects such as deformed wings.

Originally, hives would simply be burned or eradicated, as no one knew how to treat or deal with mites. Today, however, there are several less destructive ways to combat varroa.

“We realized that varroa mites are here to stay, we’re never going to get rid of them completely, and eventually we’re just going to have to manage them and keep them down,” Martin said.

Treatment options for mites include oxalic acid, a crystal placed in the hive that vaporizes and coats the bees, killing any attached mites. Another option is to use “Mite-Away Quick Strips”, a gel pad made of formic acid that you tape to the top of the hive. The pads release a heavy gas that will sink to the bottom of the hive which kills the mites attached to the bees, but the gas can also get into the closed cells to kill any mites that might be on the larvae.

Some bees have adapted to deal with mites on their own. These “VSH” (Varroa Sensitive Hygienic) bees, sometimes called “ankle biters” will chew on the legs of varroa mites or destroy mite-infested cells.

It is said that a bee carrying one of these mites is equivalent to a person carrying a 25 pound backpack with them everywhere they go.

Martin said she checks each of her hives at least once a week to check the health of the hive because an outbreak of these pests could kill the hive or prevent it from surviving the winter.

Hives will reduce their numbers as the weather begins to cool to prepare for the winter months. The queen will stop laying as many eggs as possible, and the sow bees and drones will begin to die. In late summer, the queen will start hatching “fat bees” that can live up to six months, long enough to survive the winter and any bad weather.

To survive the changing seasons, bees will huddle together in a ball with the queen in the center and use their chest muscles to vibrate and generate heat for the hive.

“We actually measured temperatures in the winter in the center of the cluster, and on a three-degree day we had the temperature inside the center of the cluster at 94 degrees,” Martin said.

“This all sounds really cool and interesting, I totally want to be a beekeeper!”

You’re right, this all sounds very cool and interesting, but there are a few things you should know before diving into the world of beekeeping.

It can be a hard thing to learn, and many beekeepers will fail the first time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn what to do differently next time. Also, between the protective gear, finding the bees, and getting a brood box or two, you’re probably looking at an upfront cost of several thousand dollars just to get started.

“Most beginners don’t survive the first winter, their bees don’t live and they get discouraged. They have spent all that money and see no reward from it. They lose bees and have to buy new ones again in the spring,” said Martin

And depending on how many hives you have, you’ll be spending a lot of time in the hot sun inspecting your hives.

“People don’t expect to be working in 100 degree weather in a full suit with clothes underneath, sweaty gallons, standing on their feet for hours just trying to get them all through and done. All while trying not to stab himself.”

Martin also recommends keeping thorough records of your bees so you can more easily tell what has changed in the hive since you last looked inside.

Finally, remember that beekeeping is important! West Virginia has numerous beekeepers and beekeeping clubs throughout the state who are happy to help people pursue the hobby, and there are plenty of resources to help you keep your bees healthy and managed properly.

“We need more beekeepers,” Martin said. “People should teach their children about the importance of bees. If young people don’t get involved, it will simply go away and be done with it. And we won’t be here long without bee pollination.”

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