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May 4, 2012 > What's the buzz?

What's the buzz?

By William Marshak and Mahima Goel
Photos By Mahima Goel

As April showers bring May flowers, the prospect of bees buzzing nearby can cause trepidation for many; but beekeeper Russel Shaffer of Fremont is delighted. Although beekeeping is a $1.5 billion industry, Shaffer says, "I don't do it for the money. It's just my hobby."

Honeybees (genus Apis), members of an insect order called "Hymenoptera," are one of a number of insects attracted to plant nectar. They not only help spread pollen from plant to plant, a product of their labors is a delicious goo we call "honey." Over many centuries, it probably occurred to human observers that bears and other animals raiding beehives, while suffering from the stinging assault of defenders, continued because the prize inside was worth it. The art of beekeeping was born.

In addition to its use as a flavorful food, honey has a wide range of applications including medicinal and spiritual; it has even been found intact in ancient Egyptian pyramids. Currently, use of honey is mostly as a sweet, high energy food, but another product of honeybees, beeswax, is also in widespread use from candle-making to oil spill cleanup materials.

Although they can deliver a painful sting, most honeybees are not aggressive; they attack in self-defense when threatened or to protect the hive (nest). Bright body coloring is a warning but when that doesn't work, female honeybees, equipped with modified egg-laying tubes and venom will sting; males do not have stingers. A queen bee is the only individual in the colony that can sting repeatedly but for other females, a sting is the ultimate sacrifice since their stinger is barbed and cannot be removed from an aggressor without evisceration of the bee.

A hive of honeybees may contain up to 80,000 individuals that exist in a well-defined social - caste - structure. The queen exists for only one purpose... to lay up to 1,500 eggs per day. The remainder of the occupants are either "drones" whose sole duty is to mate with the queen or sterile female "workers" who live within the hive to build and maintain the hive or forage for nectar, pollen, water and resins used to construct a network of six-sided cells called a "honeycomb." These cells are used as birth chambers and storage containers. A portion of the honey created is destined for winter storage, a reserve to feed the hive during cold winter months; the rest is surplus that can be harvested by beekeepers. Honey appearance and flavor changes during a season based on the source of nectar and pollen within the neighborhood of the hive; as different flowering plants appear, the honeybee food source changes as well.

Knowledgeable beekeepers will locate beehives near ample sources of essential supplies. Shaffer makes sure his honeybees are satisfied in his well-maintained garden filled with flowering plants but honeybees also roam to find additional sources of nectar, sap and pollen. Although some neighbors are leery of the nearby bee hive, Shaffer says honeybees will stay away from people and animals unless something such as tree sap, pollen or nectar attracts them. He adds, "They don't really harm anyone unless they feel threatened." A major benefit of an active and healthy bee population is the cross pollination resulting from movements between different flowers and plants. It is estimated that honeybees are responsible for 25 percent of fruit produced in the United States. Beekeepers have learned how to support colonies of bees and safely remove honey from their hives, leaving enough for them to survive.

The welfare of honeybees is of serious concern to the general population; it can be a key indicator of harmful trends including climate change, pollution or other environmental issues. As president of the Alameda County Beekeepers Association, Shaffer is often asked to help with community and environmental issues. He notes, "It's not just the environment that they [honeybees] help - half the food we eat wouldn't be available without these creatures."

Whether beekeeping is practiced as a commercial venture or hobby, Shaffer says that all beekeepers work toward the same goal... making your community a healthier place to bee!

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