By Lyle Carter
I've always been fascinated with how bees can produce honey and wax.
A recent visit to the home of Tony Phillips and his wife Sandra in East Mines (near Debert) would only add to that interest.
Wearing a bee suit, I pulled the protective veil over my face. As a hive was opened and thousands of bees seemed to come alive I felt dangerously close. Hopefully, I would not get stung too many times?
"We're feeding the bees sugar syrup," explained Phillips. "The smoke we are releasing masks odours and it induces the bees to eat a little bit of honey. It kind of makes them mellow when they are being worked around."
Phillips, 65, pointed out that bees are fed sugar syrup to supplement the honey they have in storage. Eating honey or sugar syrup is how the bees keep their bodies functioning and make heat.
"A hive needs about 60 pounds of stored food to survive the winter," he said. "In the cold weather they make a cluster in the hive. The bees on the interior of the cluster exercise their wing muscles to make heat. They keep the temperature above freezing even in the winter. Bees do not hibernate."
With a typical hive being home to 50,000 bees, I tried to do the math in my head as to how many bees there were in the Phillip's 150 hives.
Answer? Seven-and-a-half million.
I was also curious as to how Tony, a teacher for 30 years including 28 at CEC, and Sandra, who worked for 25 years at the Colchester-East Hants Public Library in Truro, got involved with honeybees.
"We moved here in 1973," Phillips said. "The next year a neighbour, who had bees, encouraged us to give it a try."
Sandra described a small blueberry patch on their land.
"Our neighbour told us we needed some bees to pollinate the blueberries," Sandra said. "This is sort of how it all started. It grew from there."
Going from three beehives to 150 and from a small blueberry patch to 16 harvested acres, Phillips estimates that honey is approximately one-third of their bee income.
They also rent out beehives for blueberry pollination and for the last few years have been selling nucleus hives (nucs) to other beekeepers and hobbyists.
Phillips said the bee industry has been up and down the past several years.
"If beekeepers had an off year we usually were able to sell them nucs, which is actually a starter hive," he said.
One problem for beekeepers are varria mites, which weaken the bees by feeding on them. Other diseases such as nosema, a gut disease, can cause the bees to starve.
"A main concern is the survival of the queen," Phillips said. "A queen bee could live up to five years. They are important because they lay the eggs. She's the glue that holds the hive together. She gives off chrematistic odour called queen's substance. There's usually one queen bee to every hive."
Phillips explained that summer bees live for about six weeks while the winter bees live at least six months.
"The winter bees have to survive the winter and then they start raising the brood from eggs the queen lays starting in late February or early March."
Harvesting the honey is a key part of the operation.
"September is usually a busy time in the bee industry," Phillips said. "Beekeepers have to take off the honey. Then, the bees have to be medicated for diseases."
I learned about such things as the bees being brushed off the honey comb and that there was a bee-blower which blows the bees off the comb. Patiently, Phillips took me through the steps and methods involved with harvesting the honey.
Learning how the combs are put in a honey extractor and eventually the honey is spun into a drum (filtered) and put into containers, was a another eye-opener.
Lyle Carter's column appears every Tuesday in the Truro Daily News. If you have a column idea, contact him at 673-2857.