College of Lake County, 19351 West Washington Street, Grayslake, IL 60030
Many years ago, a runaway truck ended up in our swimming pool. Long story short, Ed, the pool guy (among other titles), masterfully rebuilt the pool.
A few years ago, we called Ed to open our pool years after the incident. We needed him to start opening and closing the pool for the seasons. Ed is a very, very, very busy guy. But he remembered us. While standing in the backyard for the first time in years, with a start, Ed exclaimed, “You’re the ones who had the truck in the pool!”
Ed is the pool guy; and, we soon found out, the bee guy.
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“Bees make honey to survive droughts and last through winter. If nectar were stored, it would spoil. That’s why bees make honey so it will last forever. It’s the only known food that has an indefinite shelf life. It’s been found in Egyptian tombs, and still good!”
As we rolled up to take a tour of the hidden apiary on the main campus of College of Lake County in Grayslake, Lisa and I could feel the energy buzzing off Edward Popelka as he approached us with excitement. I could hardly get everything started since Ed was already going. Ed is Maintenance Engineer at College of Lake County. He’s also the beekeeper. He’s the pool guy. He teaches classes. He takes classes. Special Bee Products is his brand.
Let’s tour the apiary, learn more about bees, bee products and sustainable living.
Ed: “I love and live for talking about our honey bees and our native bees. I love this. I live for this. Special Bee Products is my brand. It all started with my love of honey and then bees.
I had read that I could treat my seasonal allergies with honey. I used to buy my honey from the guy across the street. I bought a quart, and I loved the honey so much that I bought a gallon, and then I bought a five-gallon bucket. But the next year, he was out. His bees had died, he didn’t have as much, and I was too late getting it. I ended up at a farmers market where I bought some ‘honey’ that turned out to be sorghum syrup. I was super mad. And then I calmed down. I said to myself, ‘If I really want to know where honey comes from I need to be the beekeeper.’ That happened in 2009. In 2010, I took a beekeeper class right here at the College of Lake County, and I started attending beekeeper meetings.
I’ve been beekeeping for 10 years. I absolutely love the bees. They are my passion and joy. It’s all about the bees protecting our pollinators. It all started with my love of honey and how well honey treated my seasonal allergies.
I have a very, very close relationship with my bees. I love them. I breathe on them and I get close to them. I listen to my bees. I normally work in shorts and sandals.
The first honey season is black locust honey; you might find that in May. After that it could be basswood honey, more like in June. About 80%-90% of honey arrives in May and June. After that it’s a variety of wildflowers. The colors change. Honey starts out very light and clear. The accumulation of nectars and the types of nectar determine the color. Once honey gets dark, it can’t get light again. When bees gather out in the wild from many flowers I call it wildflower honey. There is really no significant source. It’s sourced from multiple nectars of wildflowers. At the end of the year it’s goldenrod and aster. You could see five different colors and flavors throughout the year right here.
There are about 320 varieties of honey in the United States. I have a personal collection of honey from all over the world, probably about 300 varieties. My favorite honey is sourwood honey from the Appalachian mountains. It tastes sweet and sour with a hint of spice. I love it. It’s almost kind of buttery. I would pay a premium for it. Tupelo honey is amazing. Orange blossom honey is pretty highly sought after. My favorite Florida honey is gallberry honey. I was just down there. I bought some saw palmetto honey. Every honey has some kind of value and medicinal benefit.
Right now, the significant source of nectar is goldenrod and aster. We’ve been in a drought the past month, and it’s called a dearth. This usually happens from the middle of July to the third week of August. After the dearth is over, the last nectar that we’re going to find is goldenrod. If you look over here, as we start to go out into the sun, it’s just starting to come in. This is the last food of the year before winter sets in.
We’ve probably had this apiary for about three years. Before we had this apiary, I kept my bees in that marsh. And before I had my bees over there, when I first became a beekeeper in 2010, I put my bees in the woods near the silo.
Most mornings, I am free to go out into the apiary and work on the hives. I’m always out in the apiary on Thursdays with my volunteer. I actually have two volunteers and an apprentice who work in the apiary on the campus.
So now that we’re in our apiary, I have signs for a bee crossing. Protection is required. If you would feel more comfortable, I do have bee suits of all sorts. Safety first. I think, at minimum, we might want to consider head gear because bees are attracted to our breath. They smell our breath. They smell our sweat. They see us with five eyes, and they see us as infrared blobs. They see our heat and they smell our breath. My bees know me.
The very first thing that I usually do is work on my weakest hives because they have less bees, and colonies with less bees aren’t as aggressive. Whenever I’m out here working with my bees, I do it first thing in the morning. I work early because half my bees are field bees. They are field workers. For the first three weeks of a bee’s life, it has hive duties. For the second three weeks, it works the field. And if the field worker bee comes back to the hive, then it becomes a guard bee. The bee’s duties change.
Bees gather nectar. But they need to evaporate the moisture. Nectar is 60%-80% moisture by volume. A bee puts nectar in its honey gullet as it gathers nectar in the field. Then the bee adds special enzymes. The bee brings the nectar to another bee, and that bee might put it on its tongue, and then it starts fanning out. Inside the hive, they might do this cooling. And they’re doing this fanning. And they’re doing this circulation because they have to evaporate the moisture out of the nectar. If they didn’t evaporate the moisture out of the nectar, that nectar would spoil because it has too much moisture.
Bees make honey to survive droughts and last through winter. If nectar were stored, it would spoil. That’s why bees make honey so it will last forever. It’s the only known food that has an indefinite shelf life. It’s been found in Egyptian tombs, and still good! Egyptians and Sumerians highly regarded honey. Europeans found some cave paintings dated to 8,000 B.C. And there’s an image of someone with a smoker, smoking the bees. We have had this personal relationship with bees probably since our known civilized existence.
This is a ten-frame Langstroth hive. And what we have here are these deeps. This is their home. This is where they lay their brood. After they build their home really well, I have a queen excluder and honey. All my honey is right here. Home. Honey. I’ll never take honey from their home. They need all that honey in there to feed their babies. This is a healthy hive. There are 40,000-60,000 bees in a healthy hive. I actually don’t want to go in this hive with you right here. I might want to smoke this hive at this time of year since the goldenrod is just coming into bloom and we’re just getting out of this dearth. These bees might get angry. They’re guarding a whole lot of honey.
Those bees over there don’t have a lot of honey to guard. If anything, they need to guard against yellow jackets and bald-faced hornets right now. These pests are trying to get into the hives. Don’t ever walk into the front of a hive entrance and pay attention to where the bees are going. I have entrance reducers. Bees can guard their hive better from bald-faced hornets and yellow jackets. There’s also mice. They love to get in there. There’s a whole food source. It’s a home. There’s a roof. We try to coexist with everything. Early in the year, we see ants, wax moths, and hive beetles. Bees and ants are closely related. They’re cousins. But ants are also a nuisance. The varroa destructor mite can be devastating. Wax moths. Mites. Skunks. Bears. Us. We’re all possible pests and nuisances to bees.”
“I love and live for talking about our honey bees and our native bees. I love this. I live for this.”
Ed: “This is Dan. He’s a volunteer and he’s amazing. I love him because he’s such a great help to me. I’m so busy. I thought maybe he put a queen in this hive. They made their own queen. If there’s a failing queen, they might make a supersedure cell. They did! We’re going to take a light peek. These bees are going to be great because this is a really weak hive and I’ve been in here many times.
You can see what’s going on here. See, they’re all in the center. I keep them in the center, and I work them out like that. I’m going to grab my hive tool, and we’re going to take a peek.
If the bees don’t like us, the very first thing that they might do is buzz in my ear. After that, they might start knocking me. And after that, they might bite me. They don’t want to sting me. That’s a last resort. They die after they sting. They’re going to give me every fair warning. Once a bee is aggravated, it cannot be unaggravated. If I pissed these bees off yesterday, and I came out here today, it might even be a week, they might carry resentments.
A lot of times, I approach the hive from the edge. I have my observation box. I might do some feeding right here. But I’m just going to pull these out right away. Do you see how it just came out right away? Oh, look at this! I love this already. Buzz, buzz in my ear. Do you hear that? They are telling me. ‘What are you doing? You just took our roof off. You let in a bunch of sunshine.’ They actually like it dark inside their hive. They like it 95 degrees and dark. They need it 95 degrees to incubate their brood. In the winter, 85 degrees just to keep them alive. They shiver next to their honey all winter long.
Some people ask, ‘Do bees hibernate?’ They’re cold blooded. They would freeze to death if they hibernated. Some bees do. Bumblebees have glycol in their blood. They thaw out in the spring. Then they’ll just fly around.
If you look right here, that’s a queen cup. If they decide to make a queen, they make a cup. In case they needed to make a supersedure queen, and there it is. They’ll put an egg in there. Maybe that was the one she hatched out of? Do you think so?”
Dan: “I think so because that cup’s a lot more open. A lot of times when you see the queen cups and they haven’t been used, the edges are tucked in.”
Ed: “I’m almost positive that was the supersedure cell that this queen hatched from.
I want to inspect the hive and make sure that the queen is laying eggs well. I see a bunch here. Oh, where it’s all chewed out there, a mouse was in there. It was probably a weak hive and they allowed a mouse to get in there.
I already like what I see. I see babies. I see capped brood. We start them from the middle, then they start working their way out. And there’s the queen! She’s twice the size. Angela can see her. She’s pointing her out. The queen is a beauty. Look at her. She’s sniffing around. If they put some royal jelly, and if they cleaned that little cell with some propolis, then maybe she’s ready to lay an egg. All the workers decide what she’s going to do. She does one thing only. She lays eggs.
If the queen’s not laying well, or if there’s something wrong with her, I think the bees secretly get together and say, ‘Hey, I think something’s wrong with the queen.’ In that case, then they take an egg, put that egg in the queen cup, and raise their own queen. They do a supersedure. And who do you think will kill that queen?”
Dan: “The new virgin queen.”
Ed: “The virgin queen will kill her. They duke it out.”
Dan: “It’s wild. I bought virgin queens to put in my own apiary. I made splits. There’s this thing that the virgin queen does, when she hatches out or is released into a colony, she trumpets. It’s a little tune that you can actually hear. Then she charges down into the hive to duke it out. Sometimes the bees get involved too. It’s fascinating!”
Ed: “When she goes out and mates, she mates with all the drones. All the drones fly straight up.”
Dan: “The queen can fly up to 26 miles away. The drones can also fly that far. If this queen went that far, she could mate with a drone on the far side of downtown Chicago. That is the level of diversity. The average of mating is 16 different drones. Then she can spend her entire lifetime laying eggs to increase the vitality and genetic diversity within the colony. They are a marvel of evolution. They can adapt so easily to environmental changes.”
Ed: “There is honey, pollen, propolis, beeswax, royal jelly, and bee venom. Propolis. What the heck is propolis? It’s 50% beeswax, and the other half is tree sap and tree resins. If you look down here by this draft hole, you see propolis. It’s hard. It’s not wax. It’s very resinous. Why is it by the draft hole? They love to rub their bodies on it. It’s an antiseptic. They clean themselves with it. Before the queen lays an egg in that little comb, they sanitize it with propolis.
Three eighths of an inch is bee space. This is the magic number. We just did a hive inspection. The queen is doing well. She’s laying. I broke all the frames apart. This is a starter hive. This is a super healthy honey producing hive. But what are next year’s successes? We’re getting ready to do some mite treatments. The destructor mite is probably one of the worst pests there could be. They give bees diseases.”
“There’s this thing that the virgin queen does, when she hatches out or is released into a colony, she trumpets. It’s a little tune that you can actually hear. Then she charges down into the hive to duke it out. Sometimes the bees get involved too. It’s fascinating!”
Dan: “This is a special project. The goal was to use a natural material to construct the hive. I talked about the thickness of the Langstroth hives and comparing those to the natural habitat of the bees. The Langstroth is 3/4-inch thick. Bees are used to 4-10 inches of insulation. This is an experiment. The minimum width of these walls is two inches. I wanted to construct it out of natural materials. This is hemp hurd. It’s mixed with lime like in concrete. It’s supposed to be antifungal, antibacterial, and it can’t burn or mold. I coated the outside with a plaster. Then I applied a layer of beeswax mixed with linseed oil. That’s supposed to create a waterproof barrier on the outside. The other thing that’s great about this is, that unlike paint, there’s still a moisture transfer. This can soak up the moisture and sweat it out the other way. The bees are checking it out already. They can smell the wax. This is the first one!”
Part two is next!
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