Ever thought about commercial beekeeping? What beekeeper hasn’t? I’ll wager quite a few have considered the option. I’m no different and when I finished my basic beekeeping education, I was ready to go commercial and make my million. I was fortunate. My commercial beekeeping education began with an internship in one of the largest commercial queen and package bee producers in south Georgia.
“Cleaning” a Bee Yard:
True to tradition, I was to start at the bottom and work my way up. The bottom in any apiary is the yard crew responsible for maintenance operations, and my experience was to show me that commercial beekeeping is virtually all maintenance! I was employed during the month of August, when the yards are mowed, nuclei (nucs) made and queens reared for the yearly re-queening. The slow season.
Work started at 7:30 a.m. At first this was a bit difficult for me being used to university hours, but I bad adjusted to schedule changes before. I arrived at work that first morning eagerly anticipating the day’s events. The crew loaded the truck, and we lumbered out the main gate towing a bright yellow trailer filled with mowers, gas cans, rakes and a variety of other equipment.
“Where are we going?” I tentatively asked the fellow seated next to me on a large sofa in the bed of the truck. “Going to Jergens to clean off a bee yard,” came the reply. I nodded in agreement, not wishing to show my ignorance any further. Wonder where Jergens is, and how do you “clean” off a bee yard anyway? I asked myself. Jergens, it turned out, was over behind a sleepy south Georgia church and graveyard. Sixty beehives set in neat rows with grass grown up about them were nestled in a grove of trees. After the trailer was positioned with much ceremony, the lawnmowers were off-loaded and started. They began moving with great racket up and down the rows.
“Get your smoker lit” a voice said behind me. I needed no further encouragement. A cloud of angry bees had emerged from the nearest hive, and I had just received my first sting of the day. I went up and down the rows heavily smoking the entrances trying to quiet the bees, frenzied now from the mowers’ vibrations. The mowing was methodical and proceeded so that the material from the blades was heaped up in long windrows between the hives. Another crew member then took a pitchfork and began to run the tines down a windrow until a huge pile was perched precariously on the fork. He lifted the pile and in a single, smooth motion, threw it out of the yard.
When most of the windrows between the hives had been removed, we started a small mower to cut around the edge of each hive. The colonies were set on bricks so that the mower could get close, cutting almost all the grass present. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew raked up the remaining grass bits, trimmed low-hanging limbs of trees, checked and counted arms reminded me of the work as we boarded the truck. I felt pretty good; we handled that yard with dispatch. No problem!
My smugness was short lived. The next yard was only a few miles away. As we bounced through a large pasture, my companion said to me, “Can you see the bee yard?” Nothing before me indicated such, just a barbed wire fence on the other side of which was an old field with chest high grass interspersed with six-foot saplings and large brush. The truck abruptly stopped and the engine was switched off. “There it is,” I heard someone in the cab remark. I noticed the cheshire-cat smile on my companion begin to spread into a great big grin. Slowly, I began to realize that the field and forest was the bee yard. I was flabbergasted! There wasn’t a single colony in sight! What about snakes and other vermin? I thought, as we lighted our smokers.
The big riding mowers were used to break trail through the brush. They protested, grinding to a halt with finality on occasion, but eventually began to make some headway. It was becoming hotter, and this yard was not shaded by pines as the other had been. I began to sweat profusely under my veil as I labored to smoke the entrances of the hives hidden deep in the grass.
About half way through we stopped for lunch. It was a welcome break, as all these occasions were to become during my stay. Small talk mostly, but lunch in the outdoors near a busy bee yard is always a pleasant interlude. Early in the afternoon, we finished cleaning this second bee yard. While I sat on the truck about to leave, I looked up to see a cloud of bees climbing to dizzying heights. They were re-orienting as if to celebrate their freedom from the brush and grass that shortly before had obstructed their flight.
At 5:15, we finished cleaning our third bee yard of the day. I was exhausted. My legs, arms and shoulders were tense and tight due to the strain of smoking colonies and pitch-forking huge quantities of freshly cut vegetation. But it somehow felt good. A sense of accomplishment and of a job well done came over me. “How many more bee yards left?” I asked in a fit of expansiveness. “Only forty-seven more,” came the reply.
Forty-seven! I repeated this number to myself over and over as we set our sights for home. Fortunately, there were other activities that broke up the beekeeping activity so that each day was slightly different. Nevertheless, the specter of those forty-seven yards left to clean was always there during my stay in south Georgia.
“We’re going to shake down five colonies for grafting and then raise brood in ten finishers,” the boss said as we set out for the “grafting yard.” Queen rearing is not difficult with two or three colonies, but when you have many, it becomes a chore. The “grafting yard” was set in a clump of southern pine. Before it was a sweeping expanse of pasture which the bees used to great advantage as a landing approach. The hives were set next to a small building called the “grafting house.”
We proceeded to “shake down” five colonies by isolating the queen, brood and a few adults from the parent colony. The chamber containing the queen and brood was set to the rear. The other, which had been a deep super above the brood chamber, was left in the old spot, and had only food and a large population of young bees to be further strengthened as the foragers returned from the field. This queenless portion thus became the “starter,” where the very young larvae would be placed to start them on their way to queendom. After 24 hours in this starter colony, the queen cells would be placed in a “cell builder” or “finisher” colony. After ten days in the “finish colony,” the cells were to be removed and then introduced into “mating nuclei.” “Raising brood” is a term for moving young brood up into a second brood chamber of a finisher colony. This draws the nurse bees, which will also care for the recently started queen cells. The parent queen of the “finisher colony” is confined in the bottom brood chamber below an excluder. “Watch out for any queen cells built up top,” I was warned. “If a virgin hatches, we’re in a heap of trouble.”
It seems that bees isolated from a queen by an excluder and with access to young brood, have a tendency to build cells in addition to caring for those introduced by the beekeeper. Should one of these hatch, the virgin queen will commence to tear down all the queen cells she can find. As you can imagine, this is no small-scale disaster for the queen producer. I was carefully picking through the frames concentrating so, trying to find these rogue queen cells, that I didn’t hear the high pitched buzzing of the colony until suddenly a rush of bees attacked my arm with great vigor. “Don’t forget to give’em smoke; it’s cheap!” the boss advised, as I scraped off the offending stingers and puffed smoke over my swelling arms.
When we were through raising brood, we proceeded to a mother colony and selected a couple of combs of young larvae for “grafting”. The boss showed me how to graft in the “grafting house,” by gingerly transferring a delicate larva on the flat part of an old sewing needle with as much adhering jelly as possible. The larva was then placed into a molded wax cup fastened to a special bar. The fan was on in the “grafting house,” but my eyes burned from perspiration brought on by the concentration I had to bring to bear in transferring the small larvae.
“Grafting” should be looked at as simply transferring young larvae, one-day old in age, from the comb into some other receptacle, usually a molded cup of some sort (beeswax or plastic). This is the basis of the so-called “Doolittle” method, named after the man who developed this technique, and is almost in universal use throughout the commercial queen rearing world
We grafted about 180 larvae. A great many, I thought, until I was told that in the spring, perhaps as many as three times that number were grafted per day. After all, they were rearing 15,000 to 20,000 queens a year, and the production season was only about three months long! I was also informed that in the spring, the hours matched nothing I had yet seen. An eighteen hour day was not uncommon as the big tractor trailers from Canada waited to be loaded. Anywhere from 300 to 700 packages of bees might be shaken a day. Then at night, queens and cans of syrup to feed the bees on their long journey were added to these packages. The hours were not exactly short this time of year either, I thought to myself, as we cleaned our eighth bee yard the next day. My arms were still stiff from the previous day’s activities. At quitting time we received a call to go up north about 60 miles and pick up a load of beehives that needed to be moved that night.
The boss and I in a one-ton truck which vibrated so that my teeth rattled led a small convoy north at what seemed breakneck speed. As luck would have it, we ran into a thunder storm. We couldn’t see more than 50 feet in front as lightning and thunder jarred us, and our radio went berserk. Few can imagine the extreme power of a localized thunder storm in south Georgia until driving through one. More significant for me, the truck’s roof leaked, soaking me to the skin.
At last we ran out of the storm and arrived only a little late at the appointed bee yard. We began loading the beehives by hand, smoking the entrances and hoisting them onto the truck where another man stacked the single-story colonies four and five high. This was made doubly difficult because we had to avoid the numerous fire ant nests around and under the beehives. By the time we were finished, it was almost dark. Then we discovered that the truck wouldn’t start because of a faulty battery. We used a welding cable as a jumper from another vehicle. Just one more example to me of how enterprising most beekeepers can be.
We later drove for what seemed close to an hour following the lights of a car that was to lead us to where we would drop the bees off. It was dark and gloomy that night. The only cheerful sound was the 2-way radio as it cracked occasionally with familiar voices. Finally, we reached a field in the middle of a pine forest, and in the dark, illuminated only by the truck lights, we unloaded the hives. I never thought we’d get the last one off. We began the long drive back frantically trying to reach home base by radio to tell people we would be a little late in returning, but were out of radio range. A little late! What was supposed to be a two-hour job had lasted five! I arrived home around midnight and gratefully sank into bed thinking that this was supposed to be the slack season. “Nothing much going on,” the boss had told me on the phone before I reported for work.
Annual re-queening and cleanup was always on the schedule I found when I was getting my first experience at commercial beekeeping. Every single hive in the outfit (some 3,000 or so) was to be broken into, inspected, cleaned up and re-queened if necessary.
I began to realize the wisdom of “cleaning” the bee yards, not just mowing them. When going through a yard, I found that any little inconvenience which might have impeded progress was unthinkable, it slowed the work immeasurably. Cleaning the yards removed every possible obstacle, and the subsequent activities were thus much easier to do smoothly and efficiently.
I have often been asked how to find a queen and never had an adequate answer. The system used in this operation, however, appeared to be one of the better ways I have seen or read about. The frames were pulled out one by one and stacked upright against the hive. That way, if the queen was overlooked on the first pass, one only had to leaf back through the frames as if they were the pages of a book. Furthermore, with all the frames outside the colony, it was easy to glance on the bottom board or side walls of the hive for the queen. The hives were checked and cleaned with such dispatch that robbing had no time to build up.
The key was dispatch. These folks knew what they wanted to do, got in, did it and put the hive back together in short order. This is an important piece of advice that any beekeeper must think about and take advantage of. Always have a plan of what is important and how to get it accomplished. Getting into and out of a colony quickly should be the goal of any beekeeping operation.
It takes a strong back to bend over beehives all day long. I know, my back still hurts thinking about it. Each frame was scraped of its propolis and burr comb, and repaired or replaced if needed. After going through my second hive with some satisfaction, I looked up to see that the boss and the rest of the crew were working on their fourth! That 40 and 50-year-old men could work faster than me, then a college student, was a challenge. I suspect it was economy of motion learned over many seasons working in the bees. I hope it is. It makes me feel better. Because although I made a valiant effort, I never caught up. And the work continued: cleaning yards, making nuclei, grafting, catching queens, re-queening and the myriad things that always seemed to crop up which needed to be done “right now” around the bee yard and shop.
To this day, I don’t know if they ever got that 47th bee yard cleaned off. When my time was up, and I returned to university life, I realized how much I had accomplished to the tune of aching shoulders and back, and how much more I really needed to learn about the art of beekeeping. But most of all, I got an appreciation for what it’s like to be a commercial beekeeper. I thought one old timer summed it up perfectly in a moment of exhaustion after making up several hundred mating nuclei, “You gotta be hungry to work bees!”