The use of herbicides and pesticides has become commonplace to protect crops and other plants from harmful weeds and insects. But what many people don’t consider is how these chemicals impact helpful insects such as the honeybees that are essential to the human diet, according to Scottsboro resident and beekeeper Donna Williams.
“We spray our yards, our water, our crops and our grass,” Williams said. “Yes, you get rid of all the pests, but you kill all the beneficial insects too.”
Williams began beekeeping seven years ago after she retired. She said she had been interested in bees beforehand, but after she was given two hives as a Mother’s Day gift, she has been a bee aficionado ever since. Williams said she now has approximately 400,000 honeybees in hives that are located on her and her husband’s land in Stevenson.
“Once I started doing it, I was hooked,” she said. “I would like to get more, but I’m not physically able to do it by myself.”
Maintaining her small beekeeping operation involves several hours of work each week, Williams says, but her process undoubtedly differs from that of other beekeepers.
“If you talk to 11 beekeepers, you will get 13 different stories on what to do, so it’s not an exact science,” she said.
Williams says bees are extremely clean animals and that their hives are cleaner than a hospital. But while the hives may not need cleaning all that often, she still visits them once or twice a week during the summer months. She says these trips to the hives can last up to three to five hours at a time and include inspecting the hives for bee health and honey status as well as a routine refill of sugar water that supplements the bees’ sustenance from nectar.
According to Williams, some bees can live for up to five years, but most have a life span of two to three years. During this short life span, each type of bee (drone, worker and queen) dedicates itself to specific duties.
“The worker bees, all of which are female, control what happens in the hive. The queen puts out a pheromone that lets all the worker bees know that she is laying eggs and everything is good in the hive. The queen can lay up to 1,500 eggs in a day, and when everything is good in the hive, the worker bees are going out collecting nectar, pollen, water and resin,” Williams said. “The drones are only in the hive in the spring and summer. In the fall, they will be driven out of the hive because they don’t do anything except mate with the queen. They’re driven out of the hive because the workers can’t afford to keep feeding them.”
No matter what their role, many people are afraid of bees because of their tendency to sting. But, as with any beekeeper, Williams says she doesn’t mind being around swarms of bees, adding that she was only stung 20 to 25 times all of last year.
“I come out here some days, and they don’t bother me at all,” Williams said.
She says she is intimated of the bees at times, especially when they get angry, but she has never really been fearful of them. However, she adds that she would never approach the hives without wearing her protective beekeeping suit.
According to Williams, who is a member of the Jackson County Beekeepers Association, there are roughly 60 known beekeepers in the county and about 2,000 in the state. She says her operation is relatively small-scale, but she does sell honey (of which she collected 450 pounds of last year), soap, hand cream and lip balm to supplement the cost of her hobby. Williams says she buys what are known as “packaged bees,” which cost $90 for a package of around 15,000 bees.
“Beekeeping is an expensive hobby,” she said.
Despite the expense, Williams says she has enjoyed every minute of her post-retirement hobby.
“Beekeeping is an art,” she said. “I do it because I enjoy it. It’s fun to me.”
But beekeeping has become more than just an enjoyable hobby for Williams, as she recognizes how important honeybees are to nature and our food system.
“They make our world bloom,” she said. “It would be one drab world without pollinators.”
According to an informational pamphlet the National Honey Board, one-third of our food comes from insect-pollinated plants, and honeybees do 80 percent of this pollination. And while honeybees help produce a large variety of plant-based agricultural products, they make their own product, honey, that is edible by humans as well.
“There are more than a million insects in the world, and honeybees are the only insect that directly give us something to eat,” Williams said.
So just how do honeybees make the honey that so many people enjoy? Williams explains this process as one that involves nectar collection (bees travel to between 50 and 100 flowers each trip out of the hive), regurgitation and temperature maintenance.
“The bees go to the flower with nectar in it, and they have a long proboscis that they will use to suck out the nectar into their honey stomach. But before it goes into their honey stomach, there are glands in their neck that have enzymes in it that mixes with the honey, and then it goes into their stomach,” Williams said. “When they get back to the hive, another bee will meet them, and the bee regurgitates the honey into the mouth of the other bee who will mix it with enzymes and find an empty (honeycomb) cell and put it in there. They then start fanning it to keep it at a constant temperature of 93 degrees year-round.”
According to the pamphlet, the honeybees also make the honeycomb in addition to the honey.
“The bees have glands on their stomachs that make beeswax. They then work together to shape the wax into connected hexagons to make the comb,” the pamphlet says. “When the worker bees transfer the honey into the cells, they top each one with a wax cap to seal every full cell. The honey is then ready to eat.”
Williams says the bees themselves require at least 60 pounds of honey to get through the winter and that she harvests what is left over. She then sells this honey, which is a pure, all-natural food that never spoils.
Yes, bees produce a tasty commodity in the form of honey, but with these insects being so important to our survival, Williams says she can’t stress enough that people do what they can to ensure they never go extinct. The best ways of doing so, she says, are to avoid using herbicides and pesticides as well as planting wildflowers and other bee-friendly plants.
While many people may view bees as a nuisance that could result in a painful sting, Williams says maintaining a healthy honeybee population is critical to mankind’s survival.
“Honeybees are directly responsible for one-third of our food chain,” Williams said. “Albert Einstein said that if we lost the honeybees, mankind would follow (in extinction) within four years. So they’re very, very important.”