Earth Month

Q&A with a Beekeeper

Beekeeper in a netted hat

Mandy Shaw is a beekeeper, educator, artist, and designer of beekeeping gear. When she's not raising two sons, Winnie the dog, chickens, fish, bees, and plants, she humbly and enthusiastically shares her love of nature through many mediums, including podcasts, lectures, and workshops.

"I love being a beekeeper," Mandy writes. "Working with bees has granted me access to so much more than fresh from the hive honey. It has been a passport to a global community of like minded individuals who share a similar passion for bees and environmental issues."

Her passion started from curiosity and brought her into science research laboratories, being President of Portland Urban Beekeepers, being interviewed on Ologies, and capturing swarms with a bucket and a ladder on the fly. If there were a Queen of beekeepers, Mandy would be her! So during Leaf Shave's pollinator-focused Earth Month, we reached out to our customers to see what they wanted to know about bees. We gathered many fascinating inquiries and asked Mandy for guidance. Here's what she had to say:

Question: What can we as individuals do to help the bee population thrive?
Some examples of individual actions with a big impact include: planting a pollinator garden, providing water sources for bees, reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides in your garden. Use your voice! Even talking about the importance of pollinators can have a butterfly effect. Haha, see what I did there?

Question: How small is a baby bee?
A baby bee is actually "born" the same size as an adult bee! Bees start out as eggs that are the size tiny whiskers. Once the egg hatches, a larva emerges and when it grows big enough it goes through a pupation stage where it turns into a complete bee!

Question: What are some red flags when buying honey?
Adulterated honey is a very real problem, and one that as a consumer can be difficult to identify. Your best bet is to purchase your honey from local beekeepers at the farmers market, or at the store looking specifically for honey produced in your area.

Question: How is beeswax made?
In order to make beeswax, there must be plentiful nectar sources available. The nectar stimulates the bees wax producing glands and tiny flakes of wax are excreted from plates on the underside of the bees abdomen. In a group, the bees work together to take those tiny wax flakes and mold them into combs which are then used for food storage, and raising baby bees. Without wax, the bees couldn't do all of the amazing things that they do!

Question: How long do mason bees prefer their tubes?
Mason bees will fill up as many tubes as they can during a season. Once they fill it with egg chambers, they will move onto another tube. It is important to harvest the mason bee cocoons, clean and or replace the tubes each season to mitigate pests and pathogens that can harm mason bee nests.

Question: Do bees have migration patterns?
Bees do not migrate in the same way that birds and mammals can. Honey bees travel in swarms but those are generally within 3 miles of their original nest site.

Question: How can I help protect the bees?
Get involved by volunteering with pollinator advocacy groups.

Question: What is putting bees most at risk right now?
Right now, bees are faced with habitat loss, inadequate forage, pesticide exposure, pests (such as mites), pathogens, and viruses.  

Question: What do bees do if a honeycomb goes bad?
In wild beehives, bees will eventually abandon a nest if the comb becomes too old to use. Wax moths (natures clean up crew!) come in and will digest the wax, leaving the cavity ready for new bees and new comb. In managed beehives, beekeepers will remove wax that has gotten too old. Wax has a "memory" and will hold onto traces of what the forager bees bring back to the hive, including pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Over time, these residues can cause a bee colony to suffer from low grade chronic pesticide exposure.

Question: How many different dances do bees have?
Waggle dance, round dance, and sickle dance. All are used to communicate food, water, or a new place to live but the dance itself depends on the distance from the hive.

Question: What is the minimum number of bees required to upkeep the ecosystem and how close are we to that number?
That is a tough one to answer. We need diversity of pollinators as much as we need volumes. Pollinators (bees especially) each have their specific role in pollination. Some bees are experts at pollinating certain crops. Bumble bees for example, are experts at pollinating tomato plants.

Question: Do more people keeping bees reduce the likelihood of hive collapse/mitigate threats to species survival?
Definitely not. Beekeeping has a very steep learning curve and there is a high colony loss rate in a beekeepers early learning years. Even skilled beekeepers experience colony losses.

Question: What’s your favorite bee?
I get pretty excited when I see green metallic sweat bees in my garden!

Question: How do bees keep track of which blossom they have already visited?
Studies have shown that bumble bees leave behind a scent, or a footprint which signals that a particular flower has already been visited. Is it intentional? Probably not. Honey bees remember locations of foraging sites and will return to that location as long as there is nectar or pollen available.

Question: How do bees communicate with one another?
Honey bees use dances, sounds, vibrations, and pheromones to communicate. Their communication methods are the most widely studied and discussed because their nests are easier to observe than other bee species.

Question: What kind of time investment does it take to set up a backyard beehive?
Getting started with a backyard hive can be costly. Hives range from around $150 - $400, bees are about $175, then another $200-$400 for the tools, smoker, bee suit, and gloves.

Question: How are bees different from wasps and hornets?
Wasps and hornets are carnivorous, though some do function as pollinators during their hunt for food. Wasp and hornet nests also do not survive the winter. Their nest will raise new queens in the fall, and those queens will start new nests the following season. Some solitary bees follow a similar life cycle, but honey bees can live through the winter as a full colony.

Question: Do bees like humans?
It depends on the circumstances. Generally bees are too busy working to notice us.

Question: What is a bee’s favorite flower/nectar source?
I am not sure, but I can tell you that borage is a highly nutritious source of pollen and nectar. Plus us humans can eat it, too!

A beekeeper looking at bees under a microscope

Listen to Beekeeper Confidential to learn about the secret lives of bees and beekeepers, and follow Mandy & Beekeeper Confidential on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. Featured image of Mandy Shaw photographed by Matt Reed.


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