The buzz about beekeeping
BUDDY ROSS HAS BEEN CARING FOR BEES ‘ALL HIS LIFE’Most folks don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how important the work of honeybees is to the food chain.
But George “Buddy” Ross knows this well.
“I’ve been taking care of bees all my life, ever since I was a kid,” he said.
Buddy and his wife, Brenda, live on a scenic ridge at the top of Drip Rock Mountain near the Estill/Jackson County line. He bought the farm from his father who was a beekeeper too.
Across the road from the house, six hives of bees busy themselves in the apple orchard. They work and live in sets of stacked brood boxes painted white.
The trees overhead are laden with ripening fruit now, thanks in part to the bees. When the apple trees bloom, “the bees pollinate the trees,” Buddy explains.
Not only do the bees benefit the trees, but “the bees work best in the shade.”
No matter how hot it gets, when it comes time to “work” the bees, Buddy dresses in a “bee bonnet” and white jumpsuit, protective gear that keeps him from getting stung when he opens the hive. Occasionally a bee will work its way under his suit and sting him anyway.
When Buddy slowly lifts the lid to the top box on the hive and turns it over, the bottom of the lid is covered in clinging bees. None of them attack.
“These are pretty good here,” Buddy says, “but if they get after you, just take off.
“The key to working with bees is to move real gentle.” He explains that sudden movements will stir up the bees and provoke an attack.
“Sometimes when you open them up, they’ll come pouring out.”
The aggressiveness of a hive often depends on the personality of the queen bee. “Some are mean, some are good,” Buddy says. Most of his hives are good.
The worker bees are named so because they stay busy feeding the queen. They also work tirelessly to keep the hive cool in summer and warm in winter.
While a queen bee can live five or six years, worker bees only live about six weeks in summer and six months in winter. In summer, they literally work themselves to an early death. Drones, whose main purpose is to mate with the queen, usually live about four months.
“There were just a handful of bees in here when I started this hive,” Buddy says. “I ordered a queen and put her in there. The workers gathered right around, because she’s the queen, you see.”
Buddy says the queen lays as many as 1800 eggs a month. When the hive becomes too crowded, some of the bees will leave, or swarm, as they look for another home. “You have to give them plenty of room. Like people, if you put them too close together, they’ll fly the coop.”
Whenever Buddy starts a new hive, he feeds the bees sugar water until they get established. “You back off when they get started, and let them feed themselves.”
The worker bees are constantly in and out of the hive to feed on flower nectar, and in the process spread pollen from bloom to bloom, thus pollinating the fruit trees. It’s estimated that one-fourth of the pollination of all fruit produced in the United States is completed this way.
Buddy says he’s willing to come and get a swarm if anyone ever hears one.
“If a swarm goes over, get a wash pan or something and beat on it. The bees’ coordination fails and they’ll settle.”
They typically look for a hollow tree to house their hive.
“If the bees settle on a limb, you climb up and tie a rope on the limb. You cut the limb and let it down easy. You put a sheet down and set a gum, or brood box, down on top of that. Shake ‘em off the limb and they’ll go right in the box.”
Blue moths can be a problem if they infest a bee hive.
Ross says his job as a kid was to fish the “millers,” or moths, out of his dad’s hives every morning. “I’d take an elder branch, split it and stick it back in the hive. The grubs would get in the pith. I’d fish them out every morning. That was my job.”
He says the hives can be chemically treated to kill the moths, but he knows of someone who did and killed 25 of their 40 hives.
Mites can infest the hives too. “If your bees are out crawling around in the grass that means you have a diseased hive.”
Queen bees aren’t cheap if you have to buy them, Buddy says. “They are twenty-something dollars now, and three pounds of bees and a queen cost seventy-some dollars.”
Whenever Buddy “robs” the hives, he pulls the trays, or frames, out of the brood boxes, and opens the top of the honey up by raking through the waxy layer of comb that caps if off. The frames are then placed in an extractor, which slings the honey out by centrifugal force.
Buddy says the bees seem to be tamer when the owner spends more time around them. “Some people talk to them,” he laughs.
Buddy mows the grass right next to his hives, but the bees don’t attack. “They think that a bigger bee is a goin’ around,” he says.
The bees work all spring, summer and fall creating enough honey to get them through the winter. Their brood boxes become very heavy as they fill up.
“One time I had a bull that turned one of the hives over.” Buddy says he and his son “liked to have never got that thing set back up. I’ll bet it weighed 200 pounds.”
He typically extracts the honey in July because, “Honey runs better in summer. It gets stiff in the fall.” This summer’s extremely hot and dry weather has forced him to hold off on “robbing” the bees because production is down.
“It takes 60 pounds of honey to take the hive through the winter. You can’t rob too much, or they’ll starve to death,” Buddy says.
Buddy will be 82 in November. He was born in Owensboro, when his father worked in the oil fields there. When he was a baby, his family moved to the Brushy Mountain area, then finally to Drip Rock.
Buddy says he came from a family of 14 kids, “all pretty-well normal.”
“Dad taught me to work. If it’s pretty outside, I’ve got to be out doing something,” he says.
Bees require a lot of time and attention, but Buddy says, “I just like to fool with them. Without bees we’d be a’ hurtin’!”