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Bees not agressive unless they are defending hive, Kathy Brinson says

One third of nation's food pollinated by honeybees

Kiwanians Tommy Gay and Greg Fullerton (foreground) examine a display frame of bees at work brought by Kathy Brinson to the Kiwanis DoCo meeting. (Special Photo: David Shivers)

Kiwanians Tommy Gay and Greg Fullerton (foreground) examine a display frame of bees at work brought by Kathy Brinson to the Kiwanis DoCo meeting. (Special Photo: David Shivers)

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Kathy Brinson discusses the critical role bees play in providing food to Americans. (Special Photo: David Shivers)

ALBANY _ Kathy Brinson, co-founder of the Sowega Beekeepers Club, spoke on a topic that is timely now that spring has arrived and honeybees are about their seasonal business. She touched on a number of different topics concerning beekeeping, including colony formation and structure, life cycle, function, and importance to humans.

Brinson said bee colonies, or hives, are super organisms. “It acts as one organism, working together,” she said. The queen bee’s sole purpose is to lay eggs, which she does at a rate of 1,500 to 3,000 a day. The queen bee is cared for, including cleaning and feeding, by female worker bees. The third category of a hive is the male drone bees, which fertilize the eggs and also help protect against some parasites.

Brinson noted that bees swarming in early spring may be spotted in a tree forming a ball. At this point, she said, people shouldn’t be alarmed; they are not aggressive because they have not yet formed a hive.

“If they don’t have a hive to defend, they are not aggressive,” she said. But later, she cautioned, “If you disturb their hive, they will defend it.” Bees, when disturbed, communicate by emitting an alarm pheromone. “There are the guard bees, the bees that keep peace, and they’re going to send off a pheromone that says, ‘Danger, danger, let’s attack!’” When Brinson goes into her hives, she uses a hand-held smoker that puts out a “cool smoke” which serves to calm the bees, she said. She also wears protective clothing that makes her feel comfortable and calm among the bees, keeping her from making sudden movements or noises that might agitate them.

In feeding, bees collect pollen, which provides protein and nectar, which is a carb source. Nectar mixes with enzymes in a bee’s “honey stomach,” Brinson described, to formulate honey. They bring it back to the hive to deposit it in a comb. Initially it is quite watery, and the moisture must be evaporated to form the consistency of honey. Some bees fan the mixture with their wings to expedite the evaporation process.

The honeycombs are comprised of a wax-like substance called propolis, made from tree and plant resin. “It’s really, really sticky and it helps them knit their hive together,” said Brinson, and it can’t be broken apart without a special tool.

The queen lays eggs that are smaller than a grain of rice. They hatch into larvae, then progress to the pupae stage, and at two to three weeks emerge to begin foraging.

Most beekeepers are hobbyists or home beekeepers . Brinson, with three backyard hives, described herself as a hobbyist which by definition means having fewer than 25 hives. Commercial beekeepers often have from 25 to 399 hives, said Brinson, and some 1,600 beekeepers across the country have 300 or more, perhaps even thousands. Commercial beekeepers often hire their hives out to help pollinate crops such as watermelons, cantelopes, or blueberries, usually placing two hives per acre.

“One third of all food we eat,” said Brinson, “is directly or indirectly related to pollination by the honeybee. It increases the yield greatly…if we’re smart we need to be sure to help the bees along.”

In addition to crop pollination, honeybees provide honey for food as well as ingredients that may be used in medicines, cosmetics, and candles. She noted that honey has one and a half times the sweetening power of sugar. When cooking with it, use a mild-flavored honey, reduce liquid in the recipe by one-fourth per cup of honey, and decrease the cooking temperature by 25 degrees. She also said that due to honey’s acidity, some people add one-fourth teaspoon of baking soda per cup. Recipes using honey can be found online at www.honey.com (National Honey Board) or www.abfnet.org (American B. Federation).

Brinson said she leaves honey in the hive because bees need it to survive the winter. A standard bee hive with tens of thousands of bees requires about 60 pounds of honey for winter nourishment.

Brinson encouraged people who spot a ball of bees to let her know. “It costs about $80 for a three-pound package of bees, so beekeepers like to get swarms.” She added a disclaimer, though: The state Department of Agriculture discourages collecting swarms “if we don’t know where they came from” to prevent the hazard and spread of extremely-aggressive hybrid Africanized bees, also known as “killer bees.” These bees originated in Africa and were brought to Brazil in 1956 as part of an experiment. They migrated from there to Texas by 1990, were reported in Florida in 2005, and were discovered in Albany in 2010.

Brinson invited interested persons to come out for a Sowega Beekeepers Club meeting. The group meets on the second Thursday each month at 6:30 p.m. in Chehaw park’s Creekside Center.