Behind the Bonnet: Missouri beekeeper benefits ag

Thursday, October 1, 2015
Amy Giffen, of Marshall, inspects one of her hives, Friday, Sept. 4. "Some people do yoga, I go play in the beeyard," she says. (Michaela Leimkuehler/Democrat-News)

"You know, maybe this was a really bad idea," Amy Giffen thought the first time she checked her beehive. "Maybe I should have a different hobby," she pondered when she cracked the lid and 30,000 bees peered up at her.

Giffen, who lives outside of Marshall, describes her desire for bees as a wild hair that started six years ago.

She did not have any previous experience or influence to own bees, so she just learned as she went. Colony Collapse Disorder was a hot topic in the news at that time. According to the Nature Conservancy online, CCD is the sudden die-off of bee colonies brought on by the disappearance of adult bees from their hives. The reason these losses are occurring is unknown.

A worker bee carries pollen back to the hive in pollen baskets. (Michaela Leimkuehler/Democrat-News)

"I (knew) having one hive of bees (wasn't) going to fix the world but it might be something fun so I ordered them," Giffen said.

Her first package of bees arrived through the mail. They came in a three pound wooden box with screened sides. This bee kit included three pounds of bees and a mated queen.

"The post office called me and said, 'hey your bees are here' and I think they were very happy for me to come get them," Giffen laughed.

To her dismay, all but ten bees were dead. The heat and stress from shipment had stifled her new colony.

She called the company to report her problem and they told her they would reimburse her for her cost but would not be sending any more bees.

Determined not to let her first bad experience squash her new interest, Giffen looked into other ways to acquire bees.

She found a seller in Springfield and the day she picked them up, she ended up catching a swarm of bees on her own.

Catching a 'swarm of bees' means to capture a group of bees who have left their established hive and are scouting for a new place to live.

These bees are in the transition period before relocating to a new home. Usually they are

"I went from going to have one hive of bees to three hives of bees," Giffen remarked.

Hive hierarchy
Beehives are extremely efficient and successful because of an established hierarchy system. Male bees are called drones.

Their only purpose in life is to find a queen to mate with. Once they mate, they will die.

Female bees in the hive are queens or worker bees. The worker bees are responsible for all the foraging and tending to the larva.

"[Worker bees] start out cleaning in the hive, cleaning out the cells, getting them ready for an egg to be laid," Giffen said. "They're feeding the larva and taking care of the queen."

There is only one queen per hive. The queen's only job is to lay eggs. She has control over the fertilization of eggs.

"In a way, the queen bee really is probably the most important bee because without her, the hive won't survive," Giffen explained. "If people could be like bees, our society would be amazing."

Bee-nefiting Agriculture
Honey is the most recognized product acquired from bees. However, many fruits and crops are the product of bee pollination. Bees can collect nectar from soybean blossoms. When bees pollinate a soybean field, that crop will produce a higher yield, as stated by the Nature Conservancy.

"When the almonds bloom out in California, about 75 percent of the colonies of bees in the U.S. go out there," Giffen said. "For that industry, bees are huge."

The Nature Conservancy found that the monetary value of honey bees as commercial pollinators in the U.S. is estimated at $15 billion annually with bees doing almost 80 percent of all crop pollination.

Harvest season for honey can vary depending on each beekeeper. Giffen prefers to harvest in late July, while others might choose to harvest in early June. Harvesting honey is ideal when the honey has been capped.

"The bees have determined that it has the proper moisture content and then they put a wax capping over it," Giffen says. "If it's not caped, they are still drying it out."

She also says that it is a lot easier to harvest with another person to assist you.

"When we go out and harvest honey, it's usually hot, it's sticky, the bees are kind of hacked off because you're stealing their food," Giffen explains.

Giffen said that as a beekeeper you can never estimate how much honey you will harvest.

She predicts that she will have a very small harvest this year due to the excessive rainfall we experienced in spring and early summer. Bees are weather dependent creatures and cannot fly in the rain.

Amy and her husband, Phillip, have a competitive barbecue team. They use their own honey to produce their secret sauce.

"We've got a lady that makes all of our sauces for us and then we use it when we cook so we use quite a bit of it ourselves," Amy said.

Although a majority of their bees' honey is used as an accent to their grilling, Amy's favorite way to consume her honey comes when it's time to extract the honey from the hive.

"After we have extracted, we have rolls -- hot rolls out of the oven with fresh honey on them," Giffen divulged. "It doesn't get any better than that."

Not a buzz kill
The hobby that started off as a 'wild hair' has infatuated Amy and has started a buzz in the community.

She is involved with programs at the library, senior center and elementary school. Giffen brings the bees along in an observation hive with glass panels that allow kids and adults to view the bees as they go about the hive.

Educating others and spending time with her hives gives Giffen a sense of satisfaction.

"You get involved in what you're seeing and what you're doing," Giffen remarked. "You kind of forget about all the crappy parts of your day. It's good therapy."

When Giffen opens up one of her many hives and 30,000 bees peer out at her she still thinks, "You know maybe this was a really bad idea," Giffen said. "But it's been a lot of fun."