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Bees-ness is booming

Wayne brothers reap sweet success with honeybees

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If businesses are gauged by the number of workers, Gary Selman and his brother, Terry, just might be the largest “employers” in McClain County.

Their workers require no supervision to get the job done. In fact, the brothers’ shared business is buzzing these days.

You see, the brothers, who both live in the Wayne area, are beekeepers and between them care for 26 boxes alive with what may be nature’s most industrious insect.

And to think it all started by accident because Gary likes hummingbirds.

Gary was born in Purcell and graduated from Wayne High School in 1969. He spent the next 50-plus years installing drywall. He retired about a month ago.

Every spring he puts up hummingbird feeders on his large covered back porch that overlooks a verdant pasture, small pond and his horses. He took great pleasure in the serene scene and watching the hummingbirds that flocked to partake the sweet nectar in the feeders.

One day seven or eight years ago, he hung a feeder, not noticing it was cracked. All the nectar leaked out and within 15 minutes the spill was covered in honeybees.

“It took them 20 minutes to drink about a half gallon of nectar,” Gary said.

The bees hung around for two or three weeks. Gary continued to feed them – he filled a dish with nectar and added some sticks to give the bees a perch so they wouldn’t drown in the sticky liquid.

Gary began observing their comings and goings. One thing he noticed was the bees would always leave 15 or 20 minutes before a rain. Television meteorologists should be so accurate.

Gary asked his brother what he needed to do to care for his bees.

He bought a box in which to house them and began to read and study on honeybees and what they do.

“The more I learned about bees, the more passionate I got about them,” he said.

When he and Terry would hear about a swarm of bees, they would collect them and give them a home.

“A swarm is a bunch of bees that don’t have a nest,” he said. “Eventually we started taking them out of houses.”

A swarm consists of three different kinds of bees – the females or worker bees, stingless drones which are male and one queen.

“If you don’t get the queen and put the bees in a box, they will leave,” he said, adding there are “all kinds of tricks” to encourage bees to stay.

A worker honeybee lives just 4 to 6 weeks. In that brief lifetime, a single bee will make about 1/8 teaspoon of honey. And every bee in the colony has a job.

The most visible are the bees that leave the box to gather nectar and pollen. Other workers are the baby-sitters, caring for the developing larvae. There are scout bees that seek out a food source and return to the hive to inform the other bees.

“They do a waggly dance,” that communicates the direction and distance to the food course, Gary said, adding there are three different waggly dances.

There are also guards to keep predators and errant bees from entering the hive, and mortuary bees that remove dead bees and debris.

Other workers are the hive’s architects, building complex layers of honeycomb in precise measurements.

The queen is the mother of all the bees in the hive. Her lifespan is measured in years, not weeks. Five is the average.

The queen leaves the hive for only one reason. She goes on a mating flight three or four times a year, followed by drones. As each drone mates with her, it drops from the sky and dies. On a typical flight, the queen will mate seven or eight times.

During her absence, the bees in the hive are agitated awaiting her return. Back in the hive, the queen lays her eggs. The fertile eggs will emerge as females. Unfertilized eggs will become a new generation of drones.

The queen can determine whether the eggs she lays are fertile or infertile.

The workers are also capable of laying eggs, but they can’t be bred. However, they can make a queen out of any fertile egg by feeding that larva royal jelly. The royal jelly is the sole diet for a queen and her workers will feed her up to 100 times a day.

A new generation hatches 14 days after the eggs are laid. Newly hatched bees stay in the hive for a week or so after hatching.

Worker bees will fly as far as two miles from the hive to feed. Fragile wings take a beating and that determines how long a worker will live.

Gary said female worker bees make up about 95 percent of a hive’s population.

There’s no doubt that females rule the hive.

In the fall, it isn’t uncommon for the worker bees to drive out all the drones, leaving the hapless males to the elements and certain death.

One thing he’s noticed is making it harder for honeybees to survive. That is some of the chemicals and genetically-modified seed in use today.

That’s not good for the bees. If it doesn’t kill them outright, it messes up their digestive system so they can’t make honey.

Bees live on nectar or pollen and genetically modified plants may not produce enough of either. Bees won’t visit those plants and therein is the problem.

Gary recalled setting a hive adjacent to an alfalfa field in full bloom. It should have been a perfect pairing. But when he visited the field a few days later, there’s wasn’t a single bee in sight.

Puzzled, he called the Extension office in Purcell and was told it was due to the genetically modified seed the farmer had planted.

Temperament in bees is inherited from the queen. An aggressive queen will produce aggressive bees. But replacing that queen with a more docile queen will breed the aggression out of the hive over the course of a few brief generations.

Gary said the cycle of life for honeybees is explained in two births. The first is the birth of the individual bee. The second is the birth of a new colony through swarming.

“Before the queen leaves, she hatches a new queen,” Gary said.

Scout bees search out a home for the new colony.

Honeybees are gifted with amazing navigational skills, returning unerringly to their specific hive.

But Gary said moving a box just a few feet or turning it 180 degrees so the entrance faces a new direction leaves the bees confused or lost.

However, a beekeeper can cover the entrance at night and move the hive several miles and that presents no problem. The bees’ homing instinct will lead them back to the box every time.

Honeybees use their wings and body heat to maintain a constant year-round temperature of 92 degrees inside the hive.

As the temperature outside falls, they form a ball with the queen at the center. It is a state of near-hibernation and the bees on the outer edge change places regularly with the bees at the center so all stay warm.

“They are incredible little insects,” he said.                                                                                                                                            

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