My assignment was to cover the honeybee Hive Tour, held at Norton Farm. We were also planning to shoot a video of the tour, so I decided I would wear a Bruins sweatshirt with a big “B” on the front and a Red Sox hat with another “B” on the front. “B’s,” get it?
I stopped into the office and bumped into Jack Shea, a hard-nosed freelance reporter for The Times, and I explained that I was wearing the “B’s” because I was doing a video on honeybees. He shook his head and averted his eyes — he couldn’t even look at me. Too late, it was already shot.
We arrived at Norton Farm at 9 am last Saturday, and were joined by about a dozen people who, like myself, were curious to learn the mysteries of the honeybee.
Conducting the tour was Brent Brown, an affable fellow with an encyclopedic knowledge of honeybees; he and his family run Ginny Bee Honey Farms at Norton Farm. I won’t be able to do justice to all the knowledge Brown dispensed to our group but I will try to give you the CliffsNotes version.
We started our tour at the farmstand, where Brent told us that the U.N. did a study of the 100 most common crops that we eat and discovered that 72 of them required cross-pollination by the honeybee, and if the honeybee were to become extinct, mankind would have about four years to go before it too would become extinct. Buoyed with that cheerful thought we set out for our tour.
We began by going down a row of jiló plants, a plant native to Brazil, in search of a honeybee. We saw the next best thing, a bumblebee. The bumblebee is native to North America, but the honeybee was imported to this country in the 1600s, when larger farms required more cross-pollination than bumblebees could provide.
Brown explained that the big difference between the honeybee and the bumblebee is that the bumblebee will collect nectar and store it in wax pots back in its hive, while the honeybee stores nectar in a stomach called a honey sack, and the enzymes in its body start to break down the complex sugars.
Warning, this may fall into the “too much information” category: Once the bees get back to the hive, they regurgitate the nectar into another bee’s mouth, and that bee will deposit it in a honeycomb. On a brighter note, the honeybees wave their wings, creating heat, and the water in the nectar evaporates and turns into honey.
“If honeybees find a good nectar source, they’ll go back to the hive and communicate it to others,” said Brown. “They do a waggle dance. A bee will go into the hive and the way that they waggle and the direction they waggle indicates to other bees where the pollen and nectar are located. No other pollinator does that like the honeybee … they’re the only ones that communicate among themselves and cross-pollinate as a team.”
Brown has six hives in the back corner of Norton’s field, and as we learned, each has its own identity. Each has its own queen, its own worker bees, and its own drones. The honeybees never fly from one hive to another unless the other hive is weaker; if so, they may try to rob the other hive’s honey and bring it home.
Each hive contains between 40,000 and 50,000 bees, and it was now time to take a look inside. But first we had to suit up. Brown instructed us each to put on a helmet, a veil, and a pair of protective gloves. Brown, on the other hand, assessing that the bees didn’t seem that aggressive, just wore a helmet and veil, and a short-sleeved shirt, with no gloves. He got stung.
For my part, I managed to get a bee inside my proverbial bonnet, but escaped unharmed.
Once we were all suitably suited up, we took took turns lifting the frames out of the hive. A frame is where the bees make their honeycombs. As Brown lifted out the first frame, he instructed us to look for the queen. He had painted it with a red dot to make it easy to locate and to signify its age. Each year Brown would paint a new queen a different color.
“Queens generally last four or five years,” Brown said, but he replaces his every two or three years, as they become less productive. If a queen is weak, the other bees will realize it and kill the queen off and replace her. “It’s a bit ‘Game of Thrones,’” said Brown.
The workers replace the queen by performing some nifty genetic engineering involving something called royal jelly. They feed royal jelly, which is a mixture of nectar and pollen secreted from a gland on the worker bees, to the larva for seven to 10 days, which triggers something in the larva DNA so that it will no longer grow into a worker bee, it will grow into a queen.
There was a great Roald Dahl short story called “Royal Jelly” where a baby was fed royal jelly, and … well, that’s a whole different story.
Brown explains that the queen emerges as a virgin and leaves the hive for mating flights with drone bees. During these mating flights she obtains sperm that she uses to fertilize eggs. All the fertilized eggs that she lays become female bees, or worker bees. She can also lay unfertilized eggs, which will grow into male bees or drones.
The drones have only one job, to fertilize eggs of the queen. The drones fly around outside the hive and look for a queen to mate with, and once that mating occurs, she has enough sperm to fertilize all of the eggs she will lay for the rest of her life, so she will never leave the hive again.
“Some life,” I heard a woman next to me say.
After many of us took turns lifting out and inspecting the frames, we headed back across the field and up to the farmstand, where we had a chance to taste some of Brown’s locally grown honey. We started by tasting some off-Island honey which I thought was good — it tasted like honey. We then had a taste of the Ginny Bee Honey Farm honey collected right there at Norton Farm. It had a fuller taste, very unique.
The reason for that, explained Brown, is that the honey is a combination of millions of flowers surrounding the hives — the honeybees can go several miles in search of pollen and nectar. “It’s neat to think,” said Brown, “that the local flavor you get is so specific to this area.”
The consensus around the honey tasting table was that the tour was a big success. “Wasn’t it fantastic?” said Melanie Bilodeau. “Brent was so informed and articulate, makes me want to get involved and be a beekeeper.”