Conversation with a Beekeeper (audio)

Did you know that bees dance? How about why they swarm? Listen and learn!

On Monday, October 29th, I had a virtual sit down with Ben Gajewski to speak bees as a follow up to his guest post. The final product is just over an hour in length – we covered a lot of ground. There are around 40 sub-topics, from social biology (biologist Tom Seeley of Cornell gets a shout-out) and beekeeping regulations to buying tractor trailers of corn syrup and why Ben has “a lot of dead bees in the garage”.

BEN: Want me to introduce myself again, or…?

PAT: No, I have to introduce you, and then you say ‘thank you for having me’.

BEN: I can’t wait for this interview, I think it will be fantastic.

PAT: Hello everybody, this is Pat from poikiloblastic, interviewing my good friend Ben Gajewski from Geneseo, NY about his beekeeping facilities…

BEN: Thanks, thanks for having me, Pat. Good to chat with you again.

PAT: So we’re talking with Ben today about bees. And Ben has been beekeeping for…X number of years now, Ben?

BEN: About four years now I think it is.

PAT: So X-6, OK [roman numeral joke]. Well…

BEN: Do you have questions prepared, or are you going to wing it?

PAT: I had a couple of things written down, but they are on a notebook in the office.

BEN: Nice, well done.

PAT: This’ll be one for the record books.

BEN: We’re getting hit by Hurricane Sandy, so you know it’s all very exciting going on right now.

PAT: Is the front end of it just hitting you guys right now?

BEN: Yeah, it just started to, it’s been rainy and drizzly the last few days, but probably around three or so it started getting windier, and it’s starting to pick up now a little bit more.

PAT: So how will that affect your bees?

BEN: Well the bees are inside for the winter.

PAT: You bring them in the house?

BEN: Yeah, yes. No, they’re in their hives and sort of finished their collecting, so they’re just going into cluster and they’ll just hang out there until springtime. They might come out a couple more times this fall if it gets warm enough for them, but right now it’s too cool and they also don’t go out in rain and inclement weather.

Insulated hives prepped for winter
Insulated hives prepped for winter

PAT: Do you have any idea of how warm it has to be before they come back out?

BEN: They…They’ll typically fly in the mid-40’s, somewhere in there. Anything cooler than that they can’t really function. They’re too small and they need to stay clustered up with each other to stay warm enough survive. So even in the winter if you get a sunny day they might fly a little bit if it’s warm enough, just do some short flights around the hives.

PAT: These are just typical honeybees? Your average American.

BEN: Yep, I don’t actually know the species that they are, but yeah. I should look that up some time.

PAT: They’re all the same, though? Because you captured different hives in that post that you put up.

BEN: The ones I have, one hive I purchased the queen and bees from a beekeeper over in Syracuse. The other three that I have right now are ones that I captured swarms of that were mobile, so they either spun off from another beekeeper in the area, or were just natural, you know, just part of western New York. So, a mix of them, and that’s pretty good, too. It’s nice to capture a swarm and keep them because they’ve already overwintered a year, and the idea that they’re natural, they’re more likely to sort of be prepared to sustain themselves through the winter. You can buy bees from the South, from Florida or Arizona, Georgia or whatever, but they don’t really have the same sort of winters. I don’t know if there’s hard data on it, but just sort of the concept that they haven’t been accustomed to the long winters and the cold winters, it just affects them a little bit differently.

PAT: They haven’t been field tested.

BEN: Yeah, they’ve been tested and they survive, and you know, other ones that don’t make it, they die off and it’s bad for that group of bees, but it’s better for the overall system. You keep trying to breed bee colonies that survive the winter and deal with the elements well.

PAT: I proably should have read the post more closely, but…

BEN: At all?

PAT: What was the bees that you buy, you get a queen and then…a few starter bees, or…?

BEN: You can buy bees a couple of different ways. You can buy a package, which is basically a queen caged and then inside a box with maybe three pounds of other bees, so probably –

PAT: They sell bees by the pound?

BEN: Yeah, they sell them by the pound, so you can buy packages of three or five pounds, but three is most common. And so that’s one way to do it, or another way to do it is to buy a nuc, which is basically a beekeeper will take a hive that exists and take half the bees out, half the honey out, half the pollen out, and take the queen that is living in there and bring them all over so they’re kind of already an established hive, just a smaller portion. Or you can capture swarms, which is the other way to get bees. It’s interesting to buy them by the pound, and then when you get a package of bees they come in a wire cage basically from the post office, which is a weird experience and really freaks out the postmen. I’ve done that twice and I get calls instantly from them saying ‘we have a package here with bees and you need to come pick them up right away’. They won’t touch them. And so they’re just in this wire box with a little jar of sugar water to keep them alive during the trip, and you literally pop the top open and pour them into a box, into a hive that you have prepared. And there’s just so many of them and they just sort of cling to each other that they flow out like water. It’s a really weird thing to experience.

PAT: Do you have a picture of that that we could put up?

BEN: I don’t. Unfortunately a lot of the stuff I’ve done with beekeeping I don’t have photos of because I’m doing it myself alone out there so it’s hard to manage to take photos, or especially interesting photos of what I’m doing. So what I need is to find someone who’s brave enough to do it so I can actually do some photography.

PAT: You could probably only just set up a wide angle lens for general stuff at best, with a remote or something.

BEN: Right yeah, if I had a remote, that would be a little bit more helpful.

PAT: Oh yeah you don’t have a remote.

BEN: ….I’m kind of an amateur. The other thing I’ve done is I’ve used my point and shoot and done video and that works a little bit better because I can set it up and start it and then do a certain activity in the hive, and show it on the film without having to…you know, usually you need two hands. But I’ve thought of going to, there’s a bunch of beekeepers in the area, so going to one of their yards and photographing them doing an inspection or introduce the hive or something like that. It’s just too hard to do both simultaneously. Especially that they sting and stuff so you want to keep gloves on so it makes it harder to use the camera in that sort of stuff.

PAT: Have you been stung a lot then?

BEN: Not often. Usually I think I’m averaging once a season. I wear gloves and I wear a mask so they can’t really get to me. The only times I actually have been stung are when I’ve gone to look at the hive just casually on an afternoon when I’m not working on them and I just go up in my shorts and t-shirt, you know, get too close and one runs into me or something and freaks out. But I’ve never been stung when I’ve actually been taking apart the hive and taking out honey and doing all these other really intrusive things, so it’s kind of ironic.

PAT: Surprising since they probably don’t really like it when you mess with them.

BEN: You wouldn’t think, going through their house and stealing stuff from them that they worked really hard at. But the interesting thing is that honey bees are really docile in terms of their — they’re not very aggressive. There’s other bees and wasps and things that are really aggressive and will attack anything that gets close. And there are certain honeybees that will do that, like Africanized honeybees are super aggressive, but most common honeybees and the ones that I have — If you open them up as long as you move slowly they don’t even seem to notice, they just keep working. Really only if you started hitting the hive, or jarring them, making a lot of noises — loud or fast…

PAT: Do you try to move slower at all?

BEN: You move more slowly. It just sort of lets them adjust to it or they ignore it then. So if you’re taking the top off or you’re moving a whole box, you just do it a little more slowly and they don’t really seem to notice. The other thing that you can do is if you smoke them with a smoker – and I’m not sure that I put a  photo in the blog or not – but sending smoke into the hive helps a little bit, too. Sometimes I don’t even need it because they’re that docile. The smoke gives them their instinctual fears of a fire coming, so what they do is quickly eat up some honey, fill themselves so that if they have to evacuate the hive they can go land somewhere new and start a new colony – make wax and that sort of stuff much more quickly. When they fill up on fat they don’t fly as well and they’re also less prone to stings, so adding smoke to the hive can help avoid stings as well. Interesting biological evolutionary [thing].

PAT: You mentioned there were some other beekeepers in the area. Is there a big community there? You said you were a member of…something?

BEN: I’m a member of the Ontario Finger Lakes Beekeepers Association, which is a pretty broad sort of regional thing. A lot of beekeepers you don’t really know they are there because a hive is so small that — I have three hives in the village behind my garage. Really that’s the area and most people don’t even know I have them here. There’s a lot of beekeepers out there that folks aren’t aware of. It could just be one or two boxes behind their house, anywhere. Even in New York City people keep bees up on top of apartment buildings and things. But there’s a mix. In the club there’s folks like myself that have just a few hives and just do it as a hobby. And then there’s professionals that have five hundred or a thousand hives and that’s their entire business is making honey and bee-related products. Those ones you notice a little bit more, but those ones typically too are out in farmer’s fields and they’re moving based on crops or pollination times. There’s one yard that’s probably five or so miles from my house that is professional, and you can tell because there’s pallets and each pallet has four hives on it. There’s probably a total of maybe 40 or so hives in this one pretty tight compact area of farmland on the side of the road. There’s a number of others I see around that are just one hive in a corner of a field that’s probably just a hobbyist.

PAT: Is the professional one, is that their business then, or is that also a part time thing for them?

BEN: I don’t know who’s it is. I haven’t really tried to figure that out yet. There’s a couple professionals I know in the area. That’s their full time job. Either just for one of them, or there’s one couple that that’s all they do is raise queens to sell to other beekeepers, make honey and sell commercially or sell at farmer’s markets — Make soaps and candles and those sort of value-added products.

PAT: And how much time to do put into it, say per week or per month?

BEN: It kind of varies based on the season and what’s going on. Like in the fall now and I’ve already harvested so I just need to clean up the equipment and put it away for the winter and then get the hives ready. So I’ll spend a couple of hours wrapping them and putting a little insulation on them, blocking the wind. Then I won’t really touch them throughout the winter except for maybe go check and see how they’re doing on warmer days if they’re flying. It changes. In the spring it takes a little bit more. You might need to feed them, sort of get them going and then you watch them every couple of weeks. See if you need to add boxes so they can build up more honeycomb. Or depending on how the hive’s doing, you might need to add space for them or split them up, and take the hive and make it into two so they don’t flee and start their own colony somewhere. It’s kind of spring and early summer’s probably the more active times, but it kind of goes in bursts. It’s one of those sort of things that you have — you know, if you have one hive or if you have five hives it’s probably about the same amount of work that you have to do. A lot of the stuff doesn’t take too long, so I can prepare my hives, four hives for winter just as easily as I could when I only had one hive. There’s some threshold out there where having a certain number of hives that makes it a lot more work, but I’m not sure quite where that number is. Probably up in the eight or ten hives range.

PAT: Are you thinking of expanding any more than you have now with more than four hives?

BEN: I don’t plan to. I’m already way bigger than I had expected or wanted to be. It really started just as a little interesting hobby or conversation point, a talking point for parties and things.

PAT: You weren’t interesting enough?

BEN: I wasn’t. I had no — nothing interesting going on in my life, so I needed something very bizarre like beekeeping. I went from one hive and I was satisfied — it was good and I got a little bit of honey. Two was pretty good and now with four I’ve got ten gallons of honey in my kitchen right now and that seems a bit excessive. If I did any more I would really have to start looking at marketing and how to sell the product because it’s expensive to make or buy the hives, and the frames for the honeycomb and the glass jars. All that stuff really adds up. I’m happy right now just keeping it a small hobby or hobby business. We’ll see. If you find swarms like I did this past year you can expand really fast and pretty cheaply, too, if you’re lucky enough to catch some swarms in the springtime.

A typical swarm
A typical swarm

PAT: How do you find the swarms that you found? Because you found at least two this past summer, right?

BEN: I caught three this summer and they were — other folks had found them. One, a friend was out riding a horse on a trail in the woods and came across one. They knew what they looked like so knew to call me. The other one was at a house that — those folks through a couple different connections they knew that I kept bees so they just gave me a try, which seems to be the easiest way to catch swarms is just to have a lot of people know that you’re looking for them because it’s a rather small clump of bees in a large territory so you have to get lucky and have someone happen to spot them and know to call you right away. And hope that the bees don’t take off between the time you get the call and when you can actually get out there.

PAT: Do the swarms move pretty fast then?

BEN: They can. I’ve heard of swarms that stay in one place for up to a day or two. Generally when a swarm lands on a tree, they’re instantly out looking for a permanent place to go and as soon as they find one that’s suitable they’ll take off for it, so it could just be an hour or two that it takes for the scout bees to go find a location, come back. They all agree that this spot over here is the best place to go and they’ll all move so you really can’t tell how much time you have. It could be an hour, it could be a few days, but more likely the shorter end of that time frame.

PAT: Have you looked into why they swarm at all? Is it if they lose the queen then they go somewhere or does the queen go with them? I didn’t imagine that they would be very mobile.

BEN: They’ll swarm for a couple reasons. One, they could swarm if they’re getting overcrowded if they’re in too small of a spot. Half the bees will leave. And when they do that, they have a new queen raised that goes with them, so they’ll always have a queen with them. The other reason that they would swarm is if the queen in the hive’s getting old or sick or dying or something. Once she becomes less productive, the other bees can sense that, and they raise a new queen and then half of them will leave and start a new colony elsewhere. Most often I think probably the sign of a failing queen that they’ll split like that. It’s kind of their — swarms are their way of spreading genetics.

In one of my hives that I have now, every single bee in there has the same exact genetics because they’re all laid by the one queen and the queen mates just once for life. As long as she’s around all of those bees are exactly the same and have the same traits and the same biological flaws, so the way that honeybees as a larger group survive is that they spur off new queens that then leave with some of those old bees. She’ll leave with a new male somewhere else, they’ll start a new colony and it’ll take a few weeks for the bees that went with her to die off, but as soon that they do then all of the new bees are with her new genetics so then there’s two sets of genetics out there, of the original hive and the new hive. It’s their evolutionary way to make new diversity. Based on my extreme research into this topic that I have, my vast years of experience. You can’t see it, but I’m really old. Balding and –

PAT: Oh I just assumed you had a book out in front of you that you were reading.

BEN: No, this is all made up and totally inaccurate. No fact checking on this reading.

PAT: OK, well I’ve decided to release the audio transcript, so…

BEN: Oh no.

PAT: And so for the marketing side, you said you did small scale honey batches for friends and friends of friends.

BEN: Friends and friends of family, yeah. My first few years I just got enough honey for myself and then to give to gifts for friends and family. And then more recently this year because of the increased number of hives, I’ve started selling it to friends and neighbors and whoever spreads the word around. I don’t have a lot, but I’m hoping that this person to person will work well. I don’t really have enough to go down to a store on Main Street or something like that, or go to a farmer’s market. I don’t have the supply, and then the time it would take to do that would be — would make it not worth while.

PAT: Bringing six bottles of honey down to the farmer’s market.

BEN: Right, right, exactly. So, yeah, mostly just selling to friends and neighbors and family.

PAT: Do you have to do any regulation things, like register your hive, or get it inspected for…cleanlines?

BEN: Well you used to, you used to have to…well, you still have to register with New York State, but they used to actually have inspectors from the state that would come and look at your hives and if they saw diseases in there, they would either recommend what you had to medicate with to treat it or they would force you to terminate the hive and that was the way of ensuring the larger picture especially for the commercial guys — There aren’t diseases around there that are bad, really impact the honey crops. But with the state budget the department had to be cut way back so I think the state might only have one or two inspectors now so there’s no way they can inspect every beekeeper, especially small guys. They’re only going to the major commercial operations that have thousands of hives and even those guys probably are not getting checked on as much as they used to.

PAT: So it’s kind of a self-regulation thing now?

BEN: Right now it’s just kind of everybody’s just doing their thing and hopefully the beekeepers know what diseases look like and know to get rid of them when they have a bad hive because you don’t want to have that stuff spread. And if that hive swarms the disease might travel with it and then they breed with another person’s hive so it’s really important to keep an eye on those sort of things.

PAT: You haven’t had any problems like that?

BEN: I haven’t yet, no. I’ve been fortunate that my bees have been pretty good. So we’ll see. Going through the winter is often the time you find out if you have a problem.  The stress of going through the winter is long. If they’re already weakened by some sort of disease, they’re more likely to die out in the winter than they would in the summer maybe when it’s warmer and they’re going full tilt. And the other thing with winter is it’s kind of long and you can’t really do much for them. If they’re going to die, you can’t really save them. You just sit and wait and hope that when spring comes they’re still there.

PAT: What’s there to talk about bees? We asked you if they stung you, and they did occasionally.

BEN: How about personality? You could ask about their personality.

PAT: Do bees have personality…s? I heard from a reliable source that sometimes bees can develop personalities. Is that true?

BEN: Hives can develop personalities, that’s true. Each hive reacts differently when you’re going through them. And like what we talked about before with them being docile or aggressive. Stinging you or not when you’re working with them. Certain hives will be what they call hot hives. They’re aggressive and they come after you. They do kind of — each hive is unique and is based on whatever genetics the queen has…

PAT: How long does it take…do they come with a personality or do they change over time after they get settled in? Or do you notice a change?

BEN: I don’t know if they change much when they settle in. They have one — generally a hive has one. When it would change is if you introduced a new queen, it would slowly change. The old bees would still have the old queen’s personality. But once the new queen started laying eggs those developed bees — then those new bees would have new personalities so it could transition slowly like with a swarm. A swarm could leave from a really hot hive, but maybe the queen mates with a male that has some more docile qualities to it and eventually that swarm would become a little more friendly to work with. And that goes for other things, too, in terms of how productive they are honey-wise or how fast they build honeycomb. Just like how people are, they have different traits.

That was an amazing question. I’ll say a bunch of things like that and then you can just throw them in. Wow, I’ve never thought of it that way. Are you a beekeeper? It sounds like you are. For a geologist, you’re pretty smart.

PAT: Hey, wait a minute.

BEN: Aren’t you a geologist? Why are you interviewing someone about bees for a blog?

PAT: It’s a general blog about things.

BEN: A blog about life…

PAT: Yeah, things…that happen.

BEN: People from Geneseo.

PAT: Yep, and areas around. You had mentioned it would slowly change as the bees died off and new bees are born. What’s the overturn for a bee colony?

BEN: Bees will last – er, survive, rather, I think six weeks is the general rule. They wear out pretty quickly, and they have set stages they go through. When they’re born they work inside the hive and do caps in there (for being cleaned?) and feeding other bees, and eventually they leave the hive and they do scavenging work and they’ll go collect pollen and nectar. And really when they get to that last stage of collecting food sources, they wear themselves out. The amount of flights that they do and the miles that they log they literally burn out the wings so they can’t fly anymore. Only about six weeks so it’s kind of a brief time period.

PAT: Are they pretty self selective about when they die? Do they die out of the nest?

BEN: They’re really good about that. They’re very sort of selfless you know for the group like insects and they will leave the hive. If they’re diseased, they’ll often leave the hive. They sort of know that somehow, you’ll find them outside. Certainly there are ones that die inside the hive and bees will quickly drag them out and drop them off the front stoop of the hive. So you can actually go out there on nice days and you can see bees literally dragging others out of the hive and dropping them off the edge into the grass and there’ll be a pile of thousands of dead body parts. A mass graveyard – it’s kind of depressing looking but it’s just part of the normal process and you have a hive of fifty-thousand bees, having a few hundred die a day is really not much at all. They’ll build up more in the wintertime, they’ll die and they’ll fall to the bottom, they can’t leave. It’s too cold for other bees to clean them out. But for the most part bees are really clean creatures and really keep the hive clean because they have to live in there and they want to keep out disease and infections and things like that as much as possible.

PAT: Is fifty-thousand a typical number for hives? Are yours around that size?

BEN: Fifty-thousand would be sort of a general number for a good established hive. You get a package of three pounds that we had mentioned that’s probably in the five thousand or so range of bees. Catching a swarm, depending on the size could be between five and ten thousand bees. Then once they’re in a hive even for a season but especially the second season they’ll get up into that thousand range.

PAT: What are the hives called again? Langstrom…Langs…

BEN: Langstroth hives.

It's a Langstroth hive.
A Langstroth hive.

PAT: Langstroth. Do they hold that many bees or more?

BEN: The hive is expandable – that design is. It’s simply a rectangular box and you add additional boxes on top of it so you can really make it as tall as you want, meaning you can have as many bees in there as can fit. I’ve seen photos of some that are 50 feet tall. It was people trying to get the world’s largest hive or get the hive that produces the most honey in a season. There’s competitions like that. But generally you having it stacked maybe four boxes high or so in a year. And so that’s probably four feet or so sort of the height of the hive but it varies you know — when you first get it it starts small, one box and as the queen lays more eggs the numbers increase. You have to add another box and as they fill it with honey, you add more boxes and as you keep adding boxes they keep making honeycomb and keep making honey — which is the way that you produce the excess that beekeepers want. But then also you make sure you leave enough in there for them so you’ve got to trick them into producing more honey than they actually need to per season because as a beekeeper that’s your product — you want to be able to take some of that away without harming them and their ability to survive through the next winter.

PAT: Right, makes sense. Will they fill out the space, whatever space you give them?

BEN: They will. The one trick is to not do it too quickly. If you add four or five boxes on at once they don’t really have the strength to defend that whole area, so things maybe like a moth or other things can get in there and create problems for them — or they might just decide that the space is just way too big for them and they may leave and try to find a more accommodating space. But if you do it slowly and do it when the box is three quarters full and add another one and then you just keep using that rule they’ll keep producing and keep working in there as long as you let them. And that kind of varies, too, based on the weather of the season. If you get a really early spring like last year the bees started ramping up production sooner and the queen started laying sooner. They were able to collect a lot more nectar from flowers earlier in the year so you could add on boxes sooner than if you have a really late spring. They’re not going to build up as fast. So it kind of varies year to year with how that goes. This is the most fascinating interview I’ve ever done.

PAT: Yeah, probably, I would imagine. I’m pretty good at this.

BEN: You’re…you must be nationally syndicated now. I guess it’s a blog so you’re international…you’re worldly.

PAT: Interstellar. It’s going into space too, probably.

BEN: Well there are rocks out there so that would make sense.

PAT: I don’t know if you have any other…I can ask the dumb questions like what’s your favorite part of beekeeping?

BEN: My favorite part of beekeeping? I really enjoy sort of the social biology of it. Reading about the bees, their behavioral aspects I find fascinating. They way that they work together they all have distinct jobs, just how precise and accurate they are. And even though the queen gets all the attention she’s really just a worker and part of the whole machine. There’s really no single bee — even the queen is not in charge, she’s just supposed to lay eggs constantly and there’s others that just feed her constantly. So I find those dynamics really fascinating to read about but then also to be able to go in my backyard and watch them and see them happening.

PAT: The social aspects, hmm? Do you have any training in that field of sociology?

BEN: I am a sociologist! Only by undergraduate education, though. Yes, I was a sociology major at SUNY Geneseo so I do have some bias towards group dynamics and things that I think that lead to my interests in beekeeping behavior.

PAT: Have you thought about making any parallels between bees and human populations?

BEN: There have…I haven’t really.

PAT: Well why not?

BEN: That’s….it’s not worth my time. No, there are researchers out there that do exactly this sort of behavioral analysis and work. There’s in particular a guy at Cornell who had done a lot of research on behavioral and especially with swarms and how they choose where to select their new house, their new hive location. So he’s actually gone out to an island that is barren and there’s nothing on there at all and he’ll release a swarm of bees and put out four or five different size boxes and see which one they choose. And he’s run all sorts of experiments like this to determine how they make these decisions. Why don’t they all fly in different directions erratically? And how do they all decide that this location over here in this tree is the best one and we’re all going to go to it and make it the hive?

So there are those parallels out there. And then you can look at that and look at human society and try to determine how better to make decisions or group things and how to improve those sort of things, but I’ll leave that for others. Tom Seeley at Cornell has done a lot of research in this area. He’s written a couple of the popular, most widely distributed books on bee behavior and I’ve seen him speak twice now. He came to SUNY Geneseo and I’ve seen him at a beekeeping conference. Really just fascinating work, especially hard to kind of run an experiment with fifty-thousand wild stinging bees. So I find that interesting as well it’s how you set up these experiments to actually work but then also get some real data out of them. Something a geologist probably wouldn’t understand…You’re going to have to throw in at least one of these digs.

PAT: You recently went on a trip to Utah which according to you is the beehive state, is their motto?

BEN: It’s according to me but it’s also the state motto. It was the motto for the area I think before it even was a state, so they’ve adopted it. Their state seal has a beehive on it, their highway signs, and it represents industry. The sort of collective working together getting stuff done, being productive and efficient. And that stems out of I think some of the Mormon ideals and sort of group collaboration that the Mormons had when they went and found Utah.

PAT: And now my interviewee has left…oh, there he is back. just walked away from the camera and brought back a cat.

BEN: This is radio. I have a magic trick for you. Look at this! Hey, it’s gone! Amazing. What other visual things can I…here, I’ll show you some picture of beekeeping, how does that sound?

PAT: You had mentioned dancing bees, which I had read before about the pheromone signals that they use but I don’t recall much about dancing bees.

BEN: Dancing bees. I did have one photo in there.

bees_dancingPAT: Very blurry photo. Though it’s hard to convey dancing in a photo I suppose.

BEN: Well that’s why it’s blurry is to try and convey that sense of movement they have. And they do that in order to convey information. During the normal course of their work they will dance when a scout finds a good section of pollen or nectar from a tree or flowers. It will come back and through a bunch of waggles and wiggles and the angles that it does it will convey both the distance and direction to go to other bees. When they’re swarming and they’re leaving the hive they’ll do the same sort of thing. When they go out to look for a new hive location they’ll come back to the swarm, they’ll land on it and they’ll again do this dance. In that case they convey not only where the location is but they also convey the size of it the shape of it, if it’s in an ideal spot or not — and that gets into some of the work that Tom Seeley has done video-ing these bee dance, and then actually going out and tracking where the bees were and where they went to and figuring out exactly what the angles and number of waggles means to the other bees. Very hard to convey in a still photo. I might have live bee audio that I can play for you.

PAT: Maybe we can put a little sound clip.

BEN: We could do that. http://clip%20of%20bees So that is some video I shot in front of the entrance to the hive on a warm summer day where thousands of bees were coming and going every minute. I threw in I think in the blog one of the photos is actually from that same day of all the bees landing and leaving the hive. OK, here’s another one. Here’s another beekeeping sound. We’ll let you guess what it is. [mystery semi-mechanical sounding noise]

PAT: Is that you pouring bees into the nest?

BEN: No, that is the sound of the extractor spinning honey out of frames. There is an awful lot of wind created with that, and then you hear some of the machinery whirling.

PAT: Well that was a trick question, gosh!

BEN: I had a photo of that in the blog. I’m organized here, I’m not just doing this haphazardly, come on.

The extractor
The extractor in action.

PAT: Oh so you’re just repeating what you put in the blog to save time?

BEN: By chance, because that’s the one I clicked on. All right, here’s another one. We’ll see what this one is. [sound of bee swarm and Ben narrating] Nope! Can’t do a video audio on an audio presentation. All right, I guess that will do for that. Those are the bee sounds.

PAT: The studio audience loves it.

BEN: That’s excellent. Any other fantastic questions? Let’s…oh, we can do a live tasting. I could show you the difference between the summer and fall harvest and then we can do a taste and we could compare the flavors.

PAT: Is Flloyd* going to be the judge? [[*note: Flloyd is Ben’s cat]]

BEN: I don’t know if Flloyd would eat honey. We’ll see. I’ll be right back, I’m going to go grab…All right, so here I have two sample jars. One from the summer harvest that you can see here.

PAT: I can see that, yes. If I were to describe that, how would I describe that what I am seeing, more than just ‘honey’.

BEN: You — I’m speechless. A very light amber color honey – very nice.

PAT: This is the spring harvest?

BEN: This is the summer harvest.

PAT: Summer harvest is a very light amber.

BEN: And then you can compare that to this other jar from the fall that is much darker. Clearly. Very clear to see that. Very obvious.

PAT: Yes…they look exactly the same. I mean, no! Oh, I can see the difference distinctly, yes. Ladies and gentlemen, this is astounding.

BEN: A lot darker, different water content.

PAT: Is it more…er, less viscous, then, if there’s –

BEN: It is probably a little bit technically, but –

PAT: It still has that classic honey spread.

The fall (left) and summer harvest (right), just like we said.
The fall (left) and summer harvest (right), just as described so vividly in the interview.

BEN: It’s not less viscous enough that you would not be able to spread it. It’s still very liquid and pourable. But it will tend to solidify more quickly. So this honey here was harvested probably in late June maybe or July this one came off. And this is still liquid and will be fine. The fall honey might congeal up a little more quickly. So in a month or two it might actually solidify and you’d have to re-heat it up to liquify it just based on the moisture content they have. We’ve done video and we’ve done visuals. We’ve done some magic tricks –

PAT: I was sent some honey by someone at some point for my birthday.

BEN: A Colorado viewer.

PAT: Yes, one of my loyal followers on the interwebs.

BEN: The follower that you have…

PAT: She sent me some honey and said that if you microwave it, that it destroys a lot of the nutritional value that honey has.

BEN: They talk about not heating it up for that reason because it would…it changes the properties of it. Not necessarily the taste or things you would notice but some of the, I don’t know what you call those things – the structure. Throw in some scientific word there. They talk about not heating it unless you have to, and a lot of people will heat it up just to make sure you get rid of any imperfections and get the wax to come off to the top. Because if you’re selling it in a store you don’t want to see anything in the jar but honey. If you’re doing small stuff or you’re eating it yourself you don’t care about that as much so you can just use it as it is. Some people really like the creamed or congealed honey and scoop it out that way. Personal preference I guess, and what you intend to do with it.

PAT: I was surprised, I only read it in books for the longest time that people will actually eat the honeycomb or chew on it.

BEN: People will. I’ve never really done that but talking to people who do beekeeping they talk about that a lot. Most people will spit it out sort of like chewing gum but some people will actually eat it. I guess if you’re with 50,000 bees long enough, anything seems like a good idea.

PAT: All that buzzing goes to your head.

BEN: Exactly. Too much time alone in the woods with bees will make you do weird things. If it wasn’t rainy I could go get a bee and actually show you a live bee and point out things on the body and explain it to you, but it’s raining. I have a lot of dead bees in the garage but that wouldn’t make for good audio.

PAT: I think that’s a good quote to put at the top of the page. It’s the title of the post: ‘I have a lot of dead bees in the garage’.

BEN: I do because I extracted honey a few weeks ago and one of the interesting — or one of the unique, fun, convenient things about bees is that you can just leave the equipment out and you put it out in front of the garage or in the yard or whatever. They’ll find it pretty quickly and they’ll go in and clean up any honey that is leftover. So after you’ve spun it out, if the honeycomb still has residue in there, or the machine or the bucket you use to catch it all and then pour it into jars — anything that touched the honey there’s going to be some left. Rather than getting soap and water and washing it up you just leave it out for a few days the bees find it. They come collect it and take it to the hive and fill any gaps in the honeycomb so there’s almost no waste which is terrific. I’ve done that the last few days and a lot of bees were dying because it was pretty cool at night, and they’d be hanging out there by the honey too long they’d eventually die. So there was a mass graveyard in front of my garage. Unpleasant to walk on, but interesting. There’s quite a lot of honey that they were able to clean up and then you’re able to just put the equipment and tools away on the shelf. You don’t have to worry about mice or ants or any other critters getting in there because the bees eat up all the sweet stuff.

PAT: After you tire of your dead bees in the garage, what do you do to get rid of them?

BEN: Those I’ll just sweep out and sweep into the driveway, and they’ll just blow away or whatever just like the bees do in their hive. Too many dead bees in the hive, they take them out and throw them off the front and that’s the end of it and then they decompose.

PAT: You’re just piling them up on your front porch.

BEN: Exactly. It’s a warning to other unfriendly bees that they shouldn’t come near. I thought of dressing up as a beekeeper for Halloween which really would just entail wearing pants and wearing my mask to work. I might actually do this. The fact that I work in an office with three people makes it seem unnecessary, but I thought maybe I could go get the mail that day. I’m not sure (if I should) walk down the street wearing that but it’s the one day of the year I could actually do it, and maybe I’ll actually sell honey. So come look for me on Main Street in Geneseo on Halloween.

I could show you catalogues of beekeeping equipment.

PAT: What’s the most ridiculous bee catalog piece of equipment that you’ve seen?

BEN: Oh, well just anything. They make all kinds of equipment.

PAT: Like the SkyMall equivalent heated oven mitt…

BEN: Oh, man. That’s, that’s a tough question. Good question, Pat. How interesting that you’d want to know that. These are just canned things for any part of the interview

PAT: I’m just going to put this in front of every question.

BEN: ‘How interesting. How interesting.’ People might catch on to that. You’re going to have to change the speed that it’s displayed. I don’t know, it’s all kind of silly. I think this is pretty silly. it’s a whole suit.

PAT: Yeah, protection for the whole family.

BEN: Even little children in there.

PAT: I mean, your protection equipment is gloves. You have an actual beekeeping hat.

BEN: I have a…actually it’s an old life-guarding hat that my father had, and he bought a net and affixed it to the top. So it’s sort of a homemade one of a kind hat and then I wear gloves. Otherwise I just wear jeans and a long sleeve shirt and that does the trick. But you can buy whole suits and stuff.

PAT: You normally think of beekeepers as the big solid white suits, jumpsuit type thing.

BEN: Those are useful because they’re — the material’s really thickly woven together so the bees can’t sting you through it but the material’s very light. So if you’re doing this all day and have to get out there in the summer when it’s 95 degrees and inspect 50 hives, you don’t want to wear much. It’s warm for me to wear a sweatshirt and jeans during the summer, but I’m only doing it for twenty minutes or something so I can manage. They have bee cookie cutters.

PAT: Why would you cut apart bees into shapes?

BEN: And that’s a hive.

PAT: Oh, it’s for actual cookies.

BEN: Dissecting bees is one way to find out if they have certain diseases.

PAT: You probably don’t need the cookie cutters for that.

BEN: No, you need much smaller things. But it’s a good thing that finding out diseases that humans have don’t take the same methods, because it would really be horrible to have to dissect someone to find out why they’re sick. All right, I can’t find anything that’s super ridiculous. Other than maybe this. You can buy a tractor trailer full of high-fructose corn syrup.

PAT: What? Is it a scale model, or is it a tractor trailer delivery to your house?

BEN: Literally a tractor trailer. Here they sell it by 50 gallons to 250 gallons.

PAT: A fifty gallon requires a tractor trailer delivery?

BEN: No, but I guess you could buy a tractor trailer if you wanted.

PAT: I kind of want to know how much a tractor trailer of high-fructose corn syrup would cost. Is it high-fructose or is it just regular corn syrup?

BEN: It’s high-fructose.

PAT: Ah. Isn’t that unhealthy for the bees?

BEN: Bees run on sugar. Actually, it is and there are some people that don’t feel that you should be feeding them that. Commercial beekeepers do because that’s the way they maximize profits. But it’s like putting fertilizer or herbicides or something on plants. It increases productivity but is it impacting or degrading the genetics or the abilities of bees to do their own thing? I manage my hives purely organically, so no medication — no treatments of any kind like that.

PAT: Just good old fashioned sugar and processed sugar and water.

BEN: If I do feed them like in the springtime — sometimes they need it either just to kickstart them and to get them going a little bit faster. Or if they’re not going to quite make it through the winter with enough stores you can feed them straight sugar water combinations. Or you can even feed them honey. So you can just take some of the surplus honey from this year and feed it back to them and they’ll eat it, which is probably the best form because that’s what they’re supposed to be eating during the winter is honey. But in the spring if you want to supplement in early spring or something you can feed sugar water which does them pretty well.

Someone was coming over to look at my beekeeping equipment — a beekeeper from across the river, and he didn’t quite know where I live but he knew pretty close. And he went down to one of my neighbors, two or three doors down, and was like ‘Do you know where Ben lives? He keeps bees…?’ And whoever’s door he knocked on, the guy was like ‘I’m pretty sure that’s illegal’. Luckily my friend was on his toes and said ‘Oh I must have the wrong place then.’ So I was almost found out. I’m not sure if it’s, you know…technically beekeeping is agricultural, so in New York it’s regulated by the Department of Ag and Markets, similar to the dairy farm or horse operations. So it all depends. There are restrictions in urban areas, villages. New York City just recently changed their laws to allow for beekeeping. It had been outlawed for a number of years and many people did it anyway because there really aren’t impacts or threats to society’s health with it. But they just changed the laws so they can allow it now so people can more publicly and openly keep bees on their roofs and porches and things, which has beekeepers in New York City excited.

PAT: Was that, do you think that was motivated a lot by the bee…collapse disorder?

BEN: Yeah I think the colony collapse –

PAT: Colony collapse.

BEN: Why don’t you do some research next time before you do these interviews? Geez. What is this, amateur hour?

PAT: I’m sure bees collapse, too. They fall down…

BEN: Only after a night of mead. I think the colony collapse disorder and the publicity that that’s generated – in the United States, but even internationally – has really brought a lot of attention to beekeeping and has really provoked change in laws like in New York City, but also increased beekeeping as a hobby and an activity. More people are aware of it and people that want to help out or do their part — keeping up a hive in the backyard that only takes three square feet to do is a really easy way for people to feel like they’re contributing to some greater cause and trying to save bees and really save food production, which is tremendously reliant on honeybees as pollinators. The number of beekeepers has soarn (ph) in the last few years since colony collapse has really taken off and become promoted. So it’s a good thing. There’s more people out there doing it. It means there’s more genetics out there and more bees spread out.

There’s also interesting research that Tom Seeley and others have done on the way that we keep bees, because we’re keeping them in these hives that are of course not their natural way of living. The space and the shape and the size of it. So he’s done research on the types of locations that bees prefer to choose in nature – natural hives – how far off the ground they are, how big the opening is into the hive, how big the cavity is. And he’s compared that with the Langstroth hive which is the most popular hive design in the world. And we just keep bees in a very different environment and different enclosure. But also the density — he’s looked at natural bees in a couple forests he’s gone into a thousand-acre forest and there will be maybe ten or fifteen bee colonies in that area, and he’s mapped out where they are and how far they are from each other. And it’s very predictable and consistent numbers he finds.

Then if you look at a commercial operation where they have forty or 50 hives on the back of a truck that they just drive around, you can really see how diseases and issues can spread a lot more rapidly between hives the way that we keep them versus the way that the bees have been naturally for centuries. So that’s really interesting research that might help change the way that we keep bees in order to make sure they continue to survive and don’t be overcome by diseases that spread rapidly over short distances. Having a lot of hobby beekeepers with just one hive in their backyard is probably the best way to combat some of this stuff. [That’s] one of the downsides of major food production and the way that food production system has progressed and industrialized, the mass production methods that are out there.

PAT: It would be impossible to get mass produced honey from just scattered farms.

BEN: You couldn’t do that now or go to that sort of method just like you couldn’t go to having a local farm produce everything that you eat — peppers and lettuce and whatever. The system doesn’t work that way. But it’s important to still have at least some of that system around. The whole idea of the local food movement and farmers markets — it’s a great idea and it’s really important to have that option for folks, and that goes with getting local honey. But it’s not going to feed America or the world. There’s got to be some — a mixture of both out there, but maybe there’s ways that commercial beekeepers can change some of their methods that it’s just a little bit more beneficial towards the bees and a little bit more natural just like open pasture chickens, free range…just like free range chickens. There’s different ways to manage food and get the end product, and they have different environmental and social impacts.

That was an excellent question. This is a topic that deeply concerns me. You’re hilarious. Are you also a comedian in your spare time? Wow, that’s deep. You make me think of beekeeping in a whole new way.

PAT: I’m going to quote you on all this.

BEN: There’s never a day that goes by without me thinking about my bees. I hope you do quote me on all this. And I hope they are all right after one another so that it doesn’t make any sense. Trying to make editing hell for you.

PAT: Well, do you have any questions that you want to ask yourself?

BEN: I was going to ask you why are you a geologist? Isn’t that a dead end science?

PAT: No, rocks are always being made.

BEN: That’s what I’ve heard. Seems kind of boring and lifeless

PAT: Exactly, that’s what makes it interesting.

BEN: It suits you well?

PAT: There’s no life to mess things up.

BEN: I see. That’s kind of like my dead bees in the garage. Would you like to come see them?

PAT: Maybe I should look at another bee interview. I’m going to look at a different interview with a beekeeper to ask you questions. Oh, how much of a — this is actually the question I wanted to ask earlier, I didn’t just read it. What was, uh –

BEN: Liar! This is — I’m leaving, that’s, that’s it. OK, I’ll come back.

PAT: So Ben, was it a pretty big monetary investment to start your bee hive..

BEN: Great question, Pat.

PAT: Perfectly worded, too. I wanted to leave it open ended.

BEN: I was wondering what else…you forgot to add the question mark, I think. It’s modest. A package of bees will cost around $100 now, so you need to buy that if you’re going that route but probably the easiest way to get started. A nuc is similar, $100 or so. And then you have to buy one hive box and again probably in the maybe $150 range, $100 range you can get that box and equipment that you need. So it’s not significant –

PAT: Not significant? Did you just cut out? You’re audio cut out, I can’t hear you. You’ll just have to pantomime the rest of the interview and I’ll interpret. Well, this has been an interview with Ben from Geneseo who has abruptly left the interview. Very unprofessional. I don’t know if we’ll have him back on. Hang up and rejoin so we can say goodbye?

BEN: I am very pleased to have been here. It was a joy and I can’t wait to do a follow up interview with you about things like beekeeping that I do. Thanks for having me, Pat.

PAT: Any parting words of wisdom before we fade out?

BEN: For those that want to get into beekeeping, it’s a fun unique interesting hobby and if you’re not an interesting person it’s a great thing to have in your back pocket if you ever get invited to a party. Or so I’ve been told.

[‘Honeycomb’ song part 1]

BEN: And I also think — isn’t this where your professional interview skills jump in and you kind of say ‘Great!’?

PAT: That was the fade-out, the interview’s over.

BEN: Oh it’s over now I didn’t hear the fade-out, I didn’t hear the music.

[‘Honeycomb’ song part 2]

BEN: That last selection was Honeycomb by Jimmy Rodgers from the Greatest Hits Collection of the 50’s. Classic oldies. 97.

PAT: Well this has been my interview…thanks for having…thanks for being here.

BEN: Thanks for me being here. This was fantastic to answer questions. Have you been drinking again?

PAT: [laughs] hic.

BEN: You’re not supposed to do work – [laughs] Let’s spin another one, Pat!

“Technical” stuff
We were speaking in a G+ Hangout and I recorded the audio with GarageBand using the default Mac microphone in my laptop. Edited with the free audio editor Audacity.


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