Busy as a bee
EVART – After caring for millions of honey bees over the past 18 years, Terry Peterson disagrees with the buzz on the street.
Many people are scared the bees will sting them, Peterson said, but stinging a human is the last thing on the busy insect’s mind as they work to create honey with thousands of their siblings.
“Honey bees get a bad rep,” he said, placing his exposed index finger within a centimeter of the bees. “They don’t want to sting you because they die after they sting you. A hornet or a wasp - they’ll sting you.”
A self-proclaimed “honey perpetrator,” Peterson, 67, owns 21 hives south of Evart on four different properties. He estimates his hives currently house around 600,000 honey bees.
He harvests between 2.5 and 4 pounds of honey per year from the top two sections of each hive - called supors - and said the bees don’t mind his presence the majority of the time. But when he starts taking their honey, the lifetime Evart resident is glad a white suit and screened hat separates him from the angry bees.
“After you start stealing stuff out of their home, it’s no different than you,” Peterson said. “You’d retaliate if somebody stole stuff out of your home.”
He only has been stung three times in his 18 years of beekeeping, but he blames himself for poor choices rather than the hard-working bees. It takes 60,000 hours of combined work for the bees to produce one pound of honey, but together the bees can build out a chamber with one pound of honey in 30 days, depending on the weather.
Peterson’s fascination for the insects began as a child when he followed bees from flower to flower, then watched as they made a bee-line back to their hive.
“If you watch one take off (from a flower), whatever direction he goes, that’s where he lives. That’s why they call it the bee-line,” Peterson said.
Following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father, Peterson decided to enter the beekeeping business 18 years ago. The business is more of a hobby, Peterson said, as the cost far outweighs the profit he receives from selling honey.
“On a small scale, like I am, it’s got to be more of a hobby,” Peterson said. “You can’t be doing it for the money. You lose money.”
One hive costs around $300 and the honeycomb foundations must be replaced every three to five years, Peterson
A hive’s queen bee - the bee that lays eggs and produces scent to guide the worker bees - also must be replaced frequently, in a process called “re-queening.”
He orders queen bees from California, Georgia or Russia and they are delivered to him through the mail in a small wooden box. He then puts the new queen in the hive, while still inside the box and leaves her there for two or three days while the other bees get used to her scent.
“They will smell every bee that comes in to make sure it’s their own,” Peterson said. “If it’s not (part of their hive), they’ll kill it.”
Once the bees get used to the new queen, she will leave and breed with a male from another colony.
“The queen will go up to a mile or two miles away.” Peterson said. “That’s how they keep the species going.”
Keeping their hive functioning is a group effort for the bees, who find creative ways to solve problems that arise within the hive.
Their home must be near 90 degrees Fahrenheit to sustain honey production, but on extremely warm days the temperature can be too hot for the insects. When that happens, the bees unite to cool the hive.
“They line up in perfect rows in the front (of the hive) and raise their butts up and flap their wings to force air in the hive to cool it off,” Peterson said. “They’re really amazing little creatures.”
Along with solving temperature issues, the bees also send messages through movements.
“They’ll come up and do a little dance and they’ll jump up and down,” Peterson said. “I don’t know what they’re saying or what the message is, but (I think) they’re saying they found a good place to eat.”
In the winter, the bees come together in a ball inside the hive. They stop producing honey and feed on honey in the bottom two hive sections - called brood chambers - as well as an 8-pound block of sugar Peterson puts in each hive to ensure they have enough food.
“They get in a big ball and they’ll change spots. The ones on the outside will get on the inside and they stay alive all winter,” Peterson said.
The inside of the hive maintains 50-degree temperatures and most bee farmers wrap their hives with tar paper to hold in the heat. Peterson takes his hives to Kentucky where the winters aren’t so brutal and it’s easier for the bees to withstand the season.
A loss of bees over the winter months could impact their production of honey, Peterson said, which recently has been more popular because of the health benefits.
Peterson’s honey is not pasteurized, but filtered three times and bottled. Because the bees feed on the sap of trees, goldenrods and flowers, the honey has health benefits for individuals with allergies, as it helps create antibodies to fight off the allergy.
“They’re a fascinating little creature,” Peterson said. “They’re not mean like a yellow jacket or a hornet. They’re pretty passionate.”