MANATEE COUNTY — The buzzword around Neldon Jackson’s house is bees.
Honeybees, to be precise.
Jackson, a resident on Country Creek, is what many would call a backyard beekeeper. He got his first hive about two years ago and now tends up to six hives at any given time.
“We go out and we play with our bees — our girls,” Jackson said, laughing, as he traded looks with his friend Carol Claeys-Hagerman, who lives a few streets away in the Mill Creek community.
Both Jackson and Claeys-Hagerman are members of the Suncoast Beekeepers Association, a local group dedicated to promoting and supporting beekeepers in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
As the duo suited up in their white, hooded beekeeping jackets, they headed toward Jackson’s backyard, where several hives border the back of his property. Although Claeys-Hagerman used Velcro bands to tighten her pant legs around her ankles, neither put on full gear or gloves. This particular hive, Jackson said, is quite gentle.
“Every hive is different,” Jackson said. “I’ve got hives that are so calm you can go (in without any gear). Some get very aggressive.”
As Jackson lifted a portion of the hive — a box so filled with bees and honey it weighed about 50 pounds — from the others, he groaned under the weight. Then, as he pulled out a slat, he excitedly pointed to honeycomb filled with honey.
“I love (my bees’) honey,” Claeys-Hagerman said. “I eat it every day. (The honey from our bees) tastes so much better. Each season, it tastes different, too.”
On the remainder of the hive, dozens of furry heads began to emerge through the slats, and Jackson explained it’s a warning sign the bees are getting nervous. Jackson quickly used smoker to puff a small cloud of smoke their way, and immediately the bees retreated into the hive.
“It’s like a reset button,” he said.
Jackson and Claeys-Hagerman, who are friends from church, have been interested in bees for many years, but their interest in beekeeping, in particular, was sparked after visiting a meeting of Tampa Bay Beekeepers Association about two years ago. It wasn’t long until both had invested in their beekeeping gear and other equipment and were tending to their first hive to promote honeybees and improve the health of their own backyard gardens.
“I must have spent an hour out there every night,” Jackson said of watching his first hive. “It was absolutely fascinating. The different color of pollen on their legs — that was cool. Orange, white, even purple.”
Jackson’s fascination, however soon progressed from the worker bees collecting pollen to their honey production. Inside his hive, a queen bee was laying more than a 1,000 eggs each day, and thousands of worker bees busily buzzed in and out of the hive with pollen and worked to produce honey.
“It’s essential to understand the cycles (of the bees) to determine the health of your hive,” he said, noting each hive has more than a thousand female worker bees, and just a dozen, or so, male bees, called drones, and only one queen bee, who is responsible for laying eggs and determining the gender of each baby bee.
Plenty of eggs mean a healthy queen. Minimal to no eggs means the queen has died and a beekeeper must act quickly to either re-queen the hive or hope the hive feeds a special baby bee, or larvae, plenty of what’s called “royal jelly” so that it grows into the new queen and saves the hive from dying, Jackson said. Eggs hatch in about three days.
“They’re like little baby chickens — all fuzzy,” Jackson said.
Claeys-Hagerman agreed: “It’s fun to watch them come out.”
Jackson and Claeys-Hagerman both said they enjoy tending to honeybee hives in their own backyards and love the idea of helping not only their gardens but also local agriculture in general.
“I like the entire idea of knowing my bees are pollinating my garden and my neighbors and (about) a three mile radius,” Jackson said. “I do everything organic.”
“The fact we are contributing to the production of our food supply by having these bees in our yards is incredibly satisfying,” Claeys-Hagerman said. “That’s why I’d love to have more.”
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].
The buzz on bees
In 2011, hive losses hovered around 30% overall. Pollinators, such as honeybees, are responsible for about 30% of the country’s food supply.
Manatee County has for two consecutive years won first place in the state competition.
“You can go in your backyard and you can make blue-ribbon honey,” Suncoast Beekeepers Association President Kevin Lausen said.
All worker bees flying around collecting pollen from flowers are female bees. They have a barb on their stinger and die if they sting you. Male bees have no stinger at all, because they are in the hive solely to mate with the queen. Only the queen bee has no barb on her stinger, so she can sting multiple times throughout her life without dying.
Additionally, aggressive honeybee hives can be tamed by re-queening the hive with a more docile European-bred queen bee. As soon as the new queen starts laying eggs, the hive’s genetics begin to change.
LONG LIVE THE QUEEN
A queen bee mates at one time in her life with up to 12 male bees, called drones. She has her own eggs and seed for her whole life and can lay between 1,000 and 1,500 eggs daily during the spring season — a regiment she keeps up for about five years.
Colored ant killers, particularly ones that come in orange or yellow, can cause the death of an entire bee colony. Worker bees often mistake the pesticide for pollen and carry it back to their hives.
Kevin Lausen, president of the Suncoast Beekeepers Association said it costs about $300 in equipment to start a hive, and the association works with new and seasoned beekeepers through a mentoring system to ensure beekeepers are successful.
The association meets at 7 p.m., the third Thursday of every month, at Northern Trust, 6320 Venture Drive, No. 100, in Lakewood Ranch.