Benton Franklin Fair

Mid-Columbia beekeepers bringing hive to fair

It's no secret that a honeybee works hard.

Some more than others. And, to say the honeybee world is ruled by women would be an understatement

The worker bees, which are infertile females, far outnumber the drones -- those would be the males.

The workers do all the pollen gathering, take care of the babies, make the honey, guard the hive, as well as keep it clean and functional for all that stored honey they produce.

The drones, on the other hand, pretty much sit around the hive waiting to mate with the queen bee.

And the queen, well, all she does is give birth to millions of bees during her life span, which is only about two to three years.

If you would like to know more about these hard-working insects, head to the Benton Franklin Fair & Rodeo this week, because the Mid-Columbia Beekeepers Association will have a large observation hive set up in the Agricultural building.

The hive will have about 25,000 bees bustling around inside doing their thing.

"The hive is encased behind Plexiglas, so the general public can observe honeybees up close without the fear of getting stung," said David White, a Kennewick beekeeper. "We'll also answer any questions people might have about honeybees."

The association held an extraction party Saturday at the home of Scott Conley, a Finley beekeeper. That's when the honey is harvested from the hive.

Conley has a large metal extracting vat in his shop that is used to draw out the honey. The rectangular honeycombs are placed perpendicular in the vat so that when the drum starts to spin furiously, the centrifugal force pushes the honey out without damaging the wax-based hive.

The honey splashes onto the sides of the vat, then sinks to the bottom, where it drains through a spigot into a large pot. The raw honey then is put through a strainer, separating it from the small chucks of wax that are tossed out along with the honey through the process.

Conley got started in beekeeping about 10 years ago when someone gave him a hive.

"It's very rewarding working with bees," Conley said. "Honey bees are not aggressive and won't sting without provocation. They have a job to do, and they stay focused on that job."

Many beekeepers have stinging stories about their broods. Charles Reynolds, 35, of Richland, has been a beekeeper since he was 16 years old. His most harrowing bee tale happened while he was living in Alaska a few years ago.

"I had to chase a black bear out of my hive once," Reynolds said. "He'd knocked it over in the middle of the night, and I had to put it back together in the dark. That can be tricky because bees navigate by the sun and can get disoriented in the dark."

Naturally, it being Alaska and all, Reynolds was bundled up in warm clothing. The disoriented bees began swarming in frightened chaos around him, searching for the warmth of their hive.

"I didn't know if the queen had been knocked out of the hive by the bear, and I was trying to find her," he said.

Some of the bees found their way under Reynolds' clothing, drawn to his body heat.

"I must have had 20 or 30 stings from that experience," he said with laugh. One of his hands had so many stings that it swelled to the size of a bear paw, he joked.

As for White, he kind of likes being stung by bees, as long as it happens on his arthritic hands.

"The bee venom actually makes my arthritis pain go away for a while because it numbs the area that hurts," he said. White also has been known to hold a glass vile holding the queen bee in his mouth, which will draw all the worker bees around his chin forming a bee beard.

According the Back Yard Beekeepers Association, bees collect about 66 pounds of pollen per year, per hive. The honeybee uses pollen as a food source and pollen is one of the Earth's richest and purest natural foods. It's made up of 35 percent protein, 10 percent sugars, and loaded with all sorts of nutrients that many believe will cure almost any ailment.

There's only one queen per hive and she is the only bee with fully developed ovaries. She mates only once with several drones, then she is fertile for life, producing about 2,000 eggs a day.

When the queen dies, the workers create a new queen by feeding one of the female larvae eggs royal jelly. Royal jelly is a milky substance made of digested pollen and honey mixed with a chemical secreted from a gland in the queen's head, White said.

The female honeybee works so hard gathering pollen in the spring that she literally works herself to death, White said. The hardest working bees only live about six weeks during a busy summer.

When winter comes, all the other workers cluster together in the hive to keep warm, living on the stored honey until spring comes again.

The drones, however, are all tossed out of the hive in winter and must fend for themselves. Mostly that's because they don't contribute to the collective group, as the queen no longer requires their services, White added.

"No matter how cold it gets in winter, the bees stay warm because they bunch up together, then take turns moving to the outside of the bundle so the others can warm up," he said.

The Mid-Columbia Beekeepers Society has more than 100 beekeepers on its roster, all of whom do their best to keep bees happy and healthy.

And there's a reason for that, they say: A world without honeybees spells doom for the planet Earth.