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Busy with bees
Worker bees surround a caged queen bee before the cork was removed for a mini-marshmallow and placed into the hive box. In about three days, the workers will have eaten the marshmallow, and the queen can move into the full colony. This gradual process keeps the other bees from mobbing the queen in a new hive so that she can be accepted over time. Photo by Wayne Nicholls

Busy with bees

May 5, 2013 - By Alejandra Silva, Staff Writer

A large shipment from Paradise, Calif., arrived April 27 at the Riverton residence of Doug Newlin. He's a beekeeper, among other things.

Several bee colonies enclosed in two special glass-sided crates had traveled hundreds of miles to arrive at their new home just in time for the start of growing season.

The production of one of America's original sweeteners remains a difficult job for Newlin and another local beekeeper, Arlie Colva. They are the caretakers of thousands of bees, responsible for the production, the lives and the maintenance of the bee communities.

They take their job seriously. Bee stings seem trivial when compared to the more serious challenges beekeepers face, such as the destruction of a complete colony by parasites or the migration of colonies due to a lack of room in their honeycombs.

Honey production

Each year is a new opportunity for the beekeepers to give bees the time to do what they do best -- make honey. The season begins when the flowers bloom. The bees start the process by gathering nectar and pollen from any nearby flowers or in Wyoming's case, the abundant alfalfa. Many rate honey from the Wind River Basin among the best in the nation.

"The thing about Wyoming is we grow a lot of alfalfa, and alfalfa produces a lot of nectar," Newlin said. "That makes mild and light colored honey -- which is the best honey."

Once they either consume the nectar or attach the pollen to their legs, the worker bees return to their honeycombs.

"They're attracted to their queen bee, and it's a miracle how these bees gather and convert it to honey within their bodies," Colva said. "Once they consume the nectar, they deposit it back into the honeycomb -- some people call that 'bee barf.'"

The bees store the nectar or pollen in their honeycomb cells, located in the brood boxes. The brood box -- or the nest -- measures about 12 inches tall and 20 inches long and is made of timber.

A small gap is left open at the bottom of the box and acts as the entrance and exit for the bees. Several worker bees also hang around here to protect their hives and the queen bee.

The boxes can be built in different sizes or out of different material, so long as enough room is left inside to fit the thousands of offspring that can be produced each day by the queen bee. Newlin estimated that roughly 3,000 eggs are laid a day, and he said it takes about 21 days for the eggs to turn into bees.

The boxes hold 10 rectangular frames that sit about an inch or less apart from each other. Each frame is supplied with a thin sheet of beeswax and has hundreds of tiny hexagon shapes across the sheet called "cells."

The sheet is slid into the frame and serves as the foundation that tells the worker bees this is the spot for their honeycombs.

Bees overproduce honey to help them survive through the winter and seasons when no flowers bloom. That surplus honey is what Newlin and Colva take to package. The hives produce more than 60 to 80 pounds of surplus honey in a season.

"Honey bees are just incredible overproducers," Newlin said. "We make sure we leave them enough."

Colva owns Colva Honey Works in Riverton, a business that provides the honey to distribution companies in other states. Newlin likes to give his away to friends.

For Colva, the bees are his career. For Newlin, it's a hobby.

Wind River Honey is another high-volume local producer of honey, packaging and marketing its brand around Wyoming and neighboring states.

Harvesting the honey

As the months go by and the worker bees multiply, Newlin and Colva stack the brood boxes to keep up with the surplus honey. Once the honeycombs are filled to the top, the worker bees create a final layer of wax. When the entire frame is covered with that layer, Newlin and Colva know it is time to extract the honey. They remove the sheet from the frame, take a heated knife and carefully scrape the top layer off. Then they place the frame in a machine that spins and sucks out the honey. After the frame is put back in the box, the bees know to repair those empty combs and get back to work.

Newlin said it is important to keep up with the bees and their honey production.

"If they run out of room, some of them will take off," Newlin said. "It's bad news for beekeepers to have them swarm."

Newlin said if the bees leave, they will create the round bee hive often seen hanging from trees. As a result, the hives become weak and no extra honey is created.

"We try to prevent that by managing the hives so they have enough room, and it doesn't get overcrowded," Colva said.

Beekeeping beginnings

Newlin was a Peace Corps volunteer in Latin America in the 1960s. While there, he built his first brood box for the hives.

"I built a bee hive down there," he said. "I did it all with a saw."

The box, Newlin said, made the extraction of honey safer and more efficient as opposed to harvesting the honey from a tree or logs -- as was the original method.

"You can harvest a hundred without destroying a colony," Newlin said.

Colva's interest in bees began when he watched his father, also a beekeeper, handle bees. Colva now has taught his daughter to manage the hives. His brother also is a beekeeper in Casper.

Bee stings are part of the job. Newlin recalled being stung by five bees who flew into his veil mask at the same time. He said it made him feel light-headed and itchy, and he had to go to the emergency room. But he said the bees are not interested in stinging because they'll die afterward, but if they think a person is threatening their hives, they become aggressive and will sting.

Colva recalled getting stung by up to 100 bees when he was younger. Even so, he still doesn't wear any protective gear when handling the hives. Newlin jokes that it is the "venom" inside Colva's body from over the years that keeps him immune and safe from bee stings. A fearless Colva, equipped with only his denim overalls, agreed with a smile and claimed an additional secret weapon.

"I'm sweet," he said.

Newlin said anyone else approaching the boxes later in the season would have to wear protective gear because the bees are working harder, there are many more bees, and the activity around the boxes increases.

'A very special culture'

Thousands of year ago, honey was used not only to sweeten dishes but was also packaged to take to the afterlife. Ancient Egyptian and Middle Eastern cultures used honey to embalm the dead. For the Mayans, the bee was sacred, and many other cultures used honey for healing purposes as ointment for burns or rashes. In the Jewish tradition, honey is a symbol of the new year. During the Rosh Hashanah celebration, apple slices are dipped into honey in hopes of bringing in a sweet new year.

For Newlin and Colva, caring for the bees also has great meaning. Newlin described the hobby of beekeeping as "good natured, helpful and rewarding."

"It's not everybody's thing, but the people who really get into it enjoy it," Colva said.

"It's actually hard to describe ... there's a goodness to it, you're working with live things," Newlin said. "There's a bit of a culture that goes along with beekeeping - they have a very special culture."

At one point in last year's season, Newlin said the bees harvested about 500 pounds of honey, and then his entire population was wiped out, possibly because of a dangerous parasitic mite that has devastated bees nationwide.

A solution was used to fight the mites, but Newlin said it was not enough to save his colonies. He added that the mites can build up a resistance to the solution.

"We discovered that they were all dead," Newlin said. "You just have to mourn a little bit."

That feeling of mourning, Newlin and Colva said, is a feeling many beekeepers have learned to deal with because survival factors often are out of their control.

Both Newlin and Colva have been friends for a long time and watch out for each other's beehives. Despite the challenges and dangers they face, both agree that bees are essential to the gardens and fields of Riverton.

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