Arkansas Times publisher Alan Leveritt has lived on his great grandparents’ farm in North Pulaski County for 40 years. This is the second in a series of columns about day-to-day life on the land where he raises heirloom tomatoes and other crops for local restaurants and the Hillcrest Farmer’s Market.
My Uncle Elsie was a big, smiling man who worked in the oil fields outside of Smackover. In my memory he always wore blue overalls, had quite a few old trucks that didn’t run and about a dozen beehives. He and Aunt Helen and my cousins lived on Highway 78 just outside of Smackover in an unpainted handmade house with a swept yard next door to my grandmother’s rambling farmhouse. When my dad’s Studebaker pulled into the yard, my cousins would surround it and moments later, we would be running through the watermelons headed to the creek bottoms. I loved going there.
Elsie kept a honey stand on the highway with fruit jars full of glowing amber honey and comb. I’d watch my uncle, covered in bees as he smoked the hives and removed frames full of golden capped honey. This was always in the hot summer, and he smelled of sweat, smoke and honey. To this day when I am working with my bees, covered in sweat, honey and burlap smoke from my smoker, it smells as if my uncle is standing behind me.
I wound up keeping bees by accident 10 or 15 years ago. For two seasons I’d had beautiful tomato vines but no tomatoes, which I ascribed to a lack of pollinators. I didn’t know back then that tomatoes are self-pollinating and the lack of fruit was due to late planting and the hot night time temperatures which caused the flowers to fall off. But by that time I had two hives, about 60,000 bees, a bee veil, hive tool and a smoker. I was committed, as they say.
When spring arrives and the hive becomes crowded with new brood, the workers decide it is time to swarm, with about a third electing to swarm with the existing queen and two-thirds electing to stay with a new queen. Each year, stories and photos begin to appear of giant swarms of bees hanging from light posts or tree limbs. This is how bee colonies replicate. One spring I came home to discover a swarm from our hive had moved into a wall in my farmhouse with a couple of thousands bees flying through the kitchen. The queen had set up residence in the wall and there was no way we could remove her and the hive without disassembling much of the house. Ultimately and sadly we had to call the exterminator.
Sometimes the queen will hesitate to leave her hive at swarming time, provoking the workers to start feeding her less and less and even physically shake her. The hive will die without her egg-laying ability, but she is not the boss. She goes when and where she is told to. As she and her followers leave, she is replaced by several young queen candidates who are emerging from their cocoons at about the same time. This is no peaceful transfer of power. The first new queen to emerge promptly stings to death all her sister queens while they are still in their brood cells. If one gets out before being killed, the two queen candidates will fight to the death.
Then there is bee sex, the ultimate kink.
A few days after emerging and dispatching her rivals, the virgin queen leaves the hive to mate. Some distance away but always about 100 feet in the air, exists a giant singles bar for bees with hundreds of male drones flying around waiting for a virgin queen to make an appearance. Somehow she knows where the party is and upon arrival, is promptly pursued by the circling drones. After a chase, one of the drones will get lucky, and they have sex in midair. But when the drone pulls out, he disembowels himself, leaving the queen to continue on her merry way as he lays dying on the ground. She will do this between 10 and 50 times (entomologists disagree on the exact number) until she is carrying enough sperm to lay hundreds of thousands of eggs over her lifetime.
Last year one of my oldest hives died, and I have no idea why. I noticed fewer bees flying around the entrance, and then one day there was nothing. I opened the hive to find the queen and thousands of workers dead in the hive bottom. I waited until this spring and went to Bemis Honey Bee Supply south of Little Rock and bought a replacement package of 10,000 female worker bees along with a queen in a 2-inch-long wire cage with a stopper on the end made of hard candy. The idea was to pour the workers into the hive box containing the frames, and, after they were in, I would wedge the tubular queen cage in between the frames so that the workers would discover her.
This queen is a stranger to them and they will begin the one or two day task of chewing through the candy plug so that they can get in and kill her. But by the time they get through to her, she has released enough pheromones into the hive that they now accept her as their queen. Unfortunately I accidentally dropped the cage, dislodging the candy plug and out she flew into the air. I thought she might return to the hive and the next day I checked only to find her dead in the bottom of the hive. It was a regicide. She had flown into the hive cold, without the adjustment period for releasing pheromones. The next day I returned from Bemis with a new queen and cage and this time the handoff was successful. Today the hive is thriving.
A beekeeper friend told me once that the time to rob your bees is anytime the hive is full of honey. The bottom “deep hive box” is for brood and the next one is for honey to feed the hive through the winter. In theory everything above that belongs to the beekeeper. I was ready to rob the third deep hive box but left it alone when I realized there was a capped brood in among the capped honey cells. But my top medium hive box was heavy with about 40 pounds of golden capped honey.
My girlfriend, Suzanne Boscarolo and her sister Dora Trachsel, a bee enthusiast visiting from Switzerland came out one Sunday to help me rob the bees. Wearing long sleeves, long pants, gloves and a bee veil, we popped the top off of my older hive and Dora began smoking the bees, driving them off the honey frames and deeper into the hive. I’d hand the full honey frames to Suzanne and she would brush the remaining bees away with a soft brush and deposit the frames into a closed ice chest. Retreating to a screened-in porch to keep the bees away, we scraped the caps off of the honey comb and inserted the frames into an electric honey extractor/spinner, which a kind neighbor had loaned me. Centrifugal force spins the honey out of the comb, and it collects into the bottom of the extractor. Opening a valve at the bottom of the extractor, we drained the honey through a filter and into plastic buckets. Ultimately we harvested about 3 gallons of raw honey into several dozen fruit jars, which I will give away or sell at the Hillcrest Farmers Market later this year.
I raise cut flowers for the farmer’s market, even though I don’t have enough produce right now to warrant my 6 a.m. journey into town every Saturday. The flowers, especially the celosia, are in full bloom and covered with my honey bees, butterflies and other pollinators. The bees have plenty of honey for the winter in the lower hive boxes and they will be able to replenish some of the robbed honey with pollen from the celosia. Just to be sure, once we get our first killing frost in November, I will feed them weekly with dense sugar water until the peach trees bloom in the spring and the cycle starts over again.
When I first got interested in beekeeping, I started attending the Central Arkansas Beekeepers Association meetings the second Monday of each month at the Levy Church of Christ on Camp Robinson Road in North Little Rock. People were enthusiastic and welcoming to a beginner and I learned quite a lot. I went through one of their periodic ‘“Beekeeping for Beginners” course, and soon I had bought a hive with a “nuc” of 10,000 bees and a queen from one of the members. Most cities in Arkansas including Little Rock permit residents to keep bees with some restrictions regarding hive numbers and nearness to neighbors.