PERU — On what seemed like the first truly nice, warm, sunny day in May this year, Kevin Ward was looking for his queens.
Stuck in their hives for much of a spectacularly miserable spring, the bees at Pappy’s Honey Bee Farm in rural Miami County were mostly out and about that day, leaving Ward’s 30 or so hives thinly populated.
The queens, which Ward breeds for sale, were mostly out taking their virgin flights, in search of drones to mate with, Ward said.
By the end of the day, he said, about 75 percent of the queens would be back at their respective hives, the rest having fallen victim to predators or injury.
Still, Ward managed to find one hive where a queen was present. She didn’t look much bigger or different than any of the other bees present, apart from the fact Ward had placed a spot of non-toxic white paint on her back.
She was a young queen, which meant she hadn’t really started to lay eggs and which also, fortunately, meant there weren’t a host of angry guard bees attacking the bee-suited intruders.
Bees buzzed and moved around and over each other, always with a purpose. New honeycomb was forming. The air smelled fresh.
“It’s just a fascination,” Ward said. “We cannot duplicate the honey. We can’t make pollen into what the bees make it into. It’s good for the soul and good for the bones.”
What the bees do is a grand process that starts afresh each spring, a process of gathering nectar and pollen, breeding, and creating and storing up enough food for the hive to survive through the winter.
Ward’s particular obsession is with the queens.
“Gentle. Hygienic. Mite Resistant. Winter Hardy. Quality Queens,” is the motto on his business card.
He calls it a “mutt bee” breeding program, because his bees are a cross between domestic and wild bees.
For instance, last August, Ward drew a bit of media notice when he removed about 10 pounds of live bees from an abandoned farmhouse. The bees had created a 15-foot-tall hive, 8 inches thick, containing about 150 pounds of honey.
Instead of dispersing the bees and selling the honey, Ward found hives for the bees, and kept the honey so the bees would have food for the winter.
As they do every winter, some of the bees made it through, and some didn’t.
Some beekeepers pay close attention to winter survival rates. Others don’t, saying the statistics are about as useful as reading tea leaves.
One thing is certain, the heavy rains kept the bees in their hives.
“This particular spring has been really good for the bee population,” said Danville beekeeper Randy Richards, spokesman for the Indiana Beekeeper’s Association. “The weather plays such a huge role in it.”
Richards said he thinks the extra time spent between the queen and her hive this rainy spring helped the hives get organized and ready to make the most of it when they emerged.
Ward prefers to keep close watch on each of his hives, trying to find clues as to the health and productivity of the hives.
If a hive is healthy and productive, he’ll use it as a breeding laboratory for his queens. If a newly “grafted” queen starts laying eggs prolifically, Ward will put her up for sale.
He uses social media (try searching for “Pappy’s Honey Bee Farm” on Facebook) to keep in touch with other beekeepers.
His queens sell for around $25 apiece, but to make that money, he has to withdraw a day-old larvae from a hive, put it into a piece of honeycomb the bees have specially formed into a cup shape (he calls it a “queen cup,” and it looks kind of like a morel mushroom), put the queen cup onto a wood slat, and then hang the wood slat in a queenless hive.
Then the emergent queen has to come back fertilized from her virgin flight, and show some egg-laying prowess. Then, and only then, will Ward pack her into a tiny wooden cage and send her out via Priority Mail.
“It’s an amazing thing to graft a larvae, and you know she’s gonna be a queen, and she’s going to make another 100,000 bees,” he said.
“When I first started, I thought I was going to do it straight up for the honey,” Ward said. “But I got to doing research, and I started to find out how bad of a situation we’re in with the bees.”
Like most things in beekeeping, there’s plenty of room for debate on how badly the bee populations are doing. Intense media coverage of the frightening sounding “colony collapse disorder” has meant Richards and his fellow beekeepers now answer a steady stream of questions about whether bees are becoming extinct when they set up their annual presentation booth at the Indiana State Fair.
“If you went back in time, I think you’d find there were a lot more beekeepers. A century ago, almost every farmer had beehives. And I think if you had more beekeepers, you’d find you’d have more honeybees out everywhere,” Richards said.
Ward also thinks the talk is overblown.
Overbred, domesticated bees, he said, have lost certain genetic qualities needed for survival.
And queens from the southern U.S., he said, aren’t programmed like Indiana queens to direct the production and storage of honey. Indiana queens, he said, force their hives to produce honey to last five months, not one or two months.
Which brings us back to his “mutt” breeding program.
The bees he took out of the vacant farmhouse last year, he said, will become part of his breeding stock if they survive the coming winter.
“They know what it takes to make it through the winter, because they were in that house for years, with nothing but some old siding and some foam board protecting them.”
• Scott Smith is a Kokomo Tribune staff writer. He may be reached at 765-454-8569 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org