To bee or not to bee
By Diana Hammell
“Honey bees are responsible for every third bite of food we eat.”
paraphrased from S.E. McGregor
The honey bees in Jay and Allison Tolleson’s back yard are truly a family affair. Calloway Tolleson did his 4-H project for the county fair on bees and is bursting with little known facts about them. Calloway will be entering the fifth grade this year; brother Gunnar who will be a third grader is equally as knowledgeable about these amazing insects. “One human looks the same as any other to a bee,” said Gunnar.
Jay and Allison Tolleson weren’t happy with how their extensive garden was producing. “Before the bees, our garden was not flourishing. With the zucchini, we would have tons of flowers but no fruit. Now we have tomatoes like you wouldn’t believe,” Jay Tolleson said. The bees will not only benefit the garden and fruit trees in the Tolleson yard, but everything within a two mile radius, so when you pluck that ripe, juicy tomato, whisper a little thank you to the bees at the west end of Jefferson Street. And now, not only will the Tollesons harvest a great vegetable crop, they will also have the honey – nectar of the gods.
Jay said he likes to just stand there and watch the activity of the hive. “We’ve just been fascinated with them,” he said. “They ganged up on a bumble bee and killed it,” Gunnar said. Gunnar also added that the bees really do dance; different dances signal different things. Jay said he’s seen the bees go about their various duties. Each bee has its own job. There are protector bees from enemies, housekeeping bees, nursery bees that care for the larva, bees to go out and gather nectar and pollen and drones to mate with the queen. One of the jobs the housekeeping bees get is to take out the dead and dying bees, giving them an added name of “undertaker” bees.
The bee world is no different when it comes to housework never being done. Some bees take the nectar from the “honey stomachs” of the gathering bees into their own special stomachs where enzymes go to work to begin the honey making process. Nectar is 80 percent water, and the bees make honey from that. They fan the honey as it’s getting thick.
“Workers work until their wings fall off,” Gunnar said. “They only live six weeks,” said Jay. “Drones live longer, but the workers get sick of the lazy, do-nothing-but-see-the-queen-and-eat-the-worker’s-honey drones, that when the drones’ purpose is done, workers drag them out in late fall to die. When more drones, which are the males in the hive, are needed in the spring the queen will choose to make more. When a new queen is needed the workers over feed royal jelly to a selected larva and voila! a new queen.
Royal jelly is a hot seller in the health market. It is sold as capsules, infused in honey and included in many cosmetic creams and lotions. There are claims for royal jelly ranging from healing broken bones and treating skin disorders, to eliminating fatigue and liver diseases. Cosmetically, it is said to tighten the skin, producing an instant “face lift” effect, and is said to fight the sign of aging. Honey itself has been used medicinally for centuries as a topical to cure wounds and keep out infection.
“The queen lays 2,000 eggs a day,” said Calloway. “She decides if the egg will become a drone or a worker.”
The hive has two large boxes at the base. The bees fill these boxes first with honey. The top three boxes are lesser in height than the bottom two are. There is a screen separating these from the large boxes. The worker bees can travel through the screen to put honey there, but the larger drones can’t make it through. It is from these top three boxes that Jay will extract his honey. All the honey in the lower two boxes are for the bees to eat. The bees eat 120 to 200 pounds of honey per year. One of the smaller boxes can weigh 45 pounds when filled with honey.
Tolleson said that bees have been known to establish their hives in garage rafters, attics, on top of flat roofs and the tops of apartment buildings.
An old house in the country had an established colony of bees in the joists between the first and second floors. The family would lift up several floor boards in the upstairs bedroom to take out honey, then they would replace the boards. The bees could access the hive from a hole in the brick mortar. A person could put their ear to the floor and hear the buzzing going on under his head.
Jay said that a beekeeper in Pennsylvania found that the honey his bees made was pink. They followed the bees to a candy factory where they could get through a broken window and then have access to lots of wonderful pink sugar.
In the beginning
The Tollesons purchased their bees from B&B Honey Farm on Hop Hollow Road in Houston. A shipment of bees arrive in a big semi truck at B&B. The one hive of bees the Tollesons ordered weighed three pounds and contained 5,000 bees and one queen. “There are 50,000 bees in the hive today,” said Calloway.
Upon moving into a new hive “the bees clean out every bit of old wax or anything left there. Then, using propolis, a resin-like material the bees collect from tree buds, sap flows or other botanical sources, they seal all cracks, holes and crevices before starting fresh,” Jay said. To give the bees a head start Jay placed a wax foundation in each of the four frames of the hive.
Jay also started out feeding the bees sugar water since they had no honey in the beginning. They also ate pollen they gathered on their own.
George Frisch who had bees for many years in Caledonia is Tolleson’s mentor and benefactor. Frisch gifted Tolleson with his set up consisting of five boxes, and he stops over to see how things are going with the bees.
Jay said that Frisch thinks that his bees are the most docile Frisch has ever seen. “They must be Italian bees,” said Frisch. Little Maverick Tolleson banged away like mad on the top of the hive with a drumstick before his parents could reach him. The bees swarmed out of the hive to see what all the racket was about and buzzed around the toddler. Maverick came away without a single sting. Calloway, however, did get one sting when a bee flew up his pajama pants one evening and the bee stung him amid all the excitement and slapping.
Right now Jay has most of the hands-on interaction with the bees, but even so, the entire family is very involved in the beekeeping endeavor. “It’s a fun thing that we can all learn,” he said. “When I grow up I might be in the honey business,” said Gunnar.