Six years ago, Diane Graves decided to expand her Catlett-based farm business at her 180-acre Moonraker Stable. She boards horses, nurtures fruit trees and grows vegetables and, she said, “I wanted to do something to pollinate the fruit trees.”
So Graves jumped right into honey bees, specifically Apis mellifera. And the learning curve has been steep.
“The first year, I had two hives and lost both,” she sad. “The second year, I had two hives and lost one.”
Still, she kept buzzing along and now has nine successful hives going, with more expected this spring. Not only does she sell wild flower honey (at $8 per pound), she also sells starter hives for those who want to create their own apiary.
At this time of year, the bees hibernate and huddle around the queen for the winter. Bees have a source of central heat: their own bodies. They crowd together in a tight cluster when temperatures drop into the 40s or below, and flex their wing muscles to warm themselves and add heat to the cluster. Phil Craft of Bee Culture Magazine has written that “they can maintain a temperature inside the cluster of between 85 to 95 degrees even when the outside thermometer reads below zero.
“In fact, bees are so efficient at creating their own warmth that, in most places, a healthy colony has no problem dealing with very cold weather without any aid from beekeepers,” he wrote. “All they need is fuel in the form of honey to power their metabolisms. But heat isn’t all they produce. Bees also breathe, and produce moisture that needs an outlet.”
Graves advised: “Beekeepers make sure that this excess moisture from their breathing and metabolism has a way to escape the hive.”
During this downtime of winter, Graves continues her fascination with bees. “I read books and magazines in the winter, you can never learn enough,” she said. “I now know how to keep them alive.”
For beginners thinking about getting into the bee biz, she recommended reading magazines and journals called “Bee Culture’s BEEKeeping,” as well as “Bee Culture” and “American Bee Journal.” Some of the articles include advice on how to label honey; the horizontal two-queen system and details on protective clothing. The equipment and accessories offered for sale are fascinating: ventilated white protective suits, hive tools and anti-bear fencing.
Graves is also a member of the Northern Piedmont Beekeeping Association, which is offering a seven-week beekeeping course. It begins with a meet-and-greet session on Jan. 29 at Verdun Adventure Bound. (See notice on this page.) Graves’ nine hives has a population of about 20,000 each. This will multiply to 60,000 per hive by spring.
But it’s not all pretty flowers, beguiling bees and gooey, sweet honey in this aspect of agriculture. A varmint lurks and wreaks havoc on the hives. It’s called the Varroa destructor, a blood-sucking mite that carries a lethal virus. “It was first identified in 1987 in Wisconsin,” Graves said, adding it eventually found its way here. “It’s the worst parasite to have.”
“Tell everyone to plant wild flowers, because bees love them, “ Graves said. “Even if you don’t keep bees, plant the flowers.”
Vicky Moon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org