Bees help food grow in our world. Their work in cross pollination bring forth the seeds to about one third the farmed crops in the world. In the last years, bee keeping has become abuzz under the Big Sky. The popularity is evident with the Yellowstone BeeKeepers with a membership evolving from a handful of members to now around 60. The group that meets at the Last Chance Cider Mill on the second Tuesday of each month is a wealth of resource for the seasoned beekeeper to the novice to someone who just wants to learn.
I went out to Worden to talk to Kim Mueller who started raising bees about three years ago. Before she acquired her bees, she joined her sister at the Billings Public Library where members of the Yellowstone BeeKeepers originally held their meetings. After attending many gatherings, reading and watching YouTube videos, Mueller ordered Italian bees from Minnesota, choosing these docile bees that had acclimated to the dramatic weather.
Before the bees could make their home in Mueller’s backyard, preparations needed to be made. She purchased her equipment, the hive including frames and foundations. Since Mueller purchased a system with raw wood, she had to prime and paint. This way, when the post office called announcing the arrival of her bees, she could bring them home and put them directly into their new abode.
For Mueller, right after she picked up the bees on Earth Day, she said, “Get your protective gear on, put your bee veil on for you certainly do not want those bees in your hair. I chose not to wear gloves because I needed to have the nimbleness to open the box and lift out their syrup can, and then put a big plate over the hole where the syrup can was so they would not escape. Then you take that box with all those swirling bees, and reach in there and take out the little queen cage. Hang on to that, slip that in your pocket, keep her close to you.” Then Mueller takes the package with the bees dump them into the hive. She shared, “They’ll just kind of flow out. They’ll just flow like a big pouring into the box, and you take the queen and fasten her inside the frames that are already in there, and close the box up and leave them alone. Don’t bug them for like 3 or 4 days just let them be and settle in, and they will start making comb and getting the queen accustomed to her new place.”
Mueller admitted to being curious, wanting to know what was happening in her hive. “I really wanted to slide a mirror down inside the bottom,” she said. She knew they were fine because she placed her ear on the outside of the hive and “could hear a steady hum, and you know they are fine. The sound of well-being.”
A queen can lay up to 1500 eggs a day according to Mueller. She is taken care of by the worker bees who are all females. The males, called drones fulfill their sole purpose by impregnating the queen. The drones fly out and wait for a fertile female to come along. She goes out for “a mating flight that would last her a lifetime which is usually two to three years,” Mueller said. The mating flight takes place when the queen is 6 to 16 days old when she mates with about a dozen drones.
Summer is a busy time for the bees as they collect pollen from blooming plants. Kim shared of the bees collecting, “You can actually see that they have pollen pockets on their back legs. They land on a flower and they gather that pollen with their front legs, pass it to their middle legs, and then from the middle legs, and put it in the pollen pockets on their rear legs and if you’re watching you can see them come flying home with yellow, orange, green, sometimes even lilac color pollen.”
Mueller harvests honey in the fall. In the first year, she collected 14 cups of honey making sure to save enough for the hive to survive the winter. She removes the frames and takes them to her garage. She said, “The honey extracts out the frames much better when you have it at 90 degrees. I purchased a hand crank extractor that holds two frames. My son and I just make a day of it, we take the frame and I use my kitchen knife and cut the caps off the top of the combs. Then two frames fit in my extractor and we hand crank it out. That process just gives me a wonderful feeling because I am taking product that the bees of the summer gather for the last couple of months.” The second year, Mueller harvested 80 cups of what she calls “liquid sunshine.”
At the Yellowstone BeeKeepers meeting Lonnie Larsen, President shared how he got into beekeeping, “It has always fasinated me they’ve got their own society, and I learned a little of that when I was in high school.” Being young he admitted, “You don’t realize what some of the unique things that is going on, and for me you have to be calm when you’re around them and daily life you can get all twisted up in yourself and if you go out all twisted up and get around your bees, they’re aggressive. They’ll get after you. They’re banging on your face or banging on your mask. They can sense that you are tense. You walk away, shake it off walk back out there calm, they could care less if you are there and go about their business and leave you alone. It’s kind of a Zen thing. You just kind of relax and if you’re relaxed around them, they’re relaxed.” For six years, Larsen has led the group and is one of the most knowledgeable members.
Lindsey Hoffman, Secretary, invited the group to meet at her Last Chance Cider House and Pub when they outgrew the space at the library. She said, “I became a beekeeper about 3 years. We planted 500 apple trees in our backyard, and we built the house, we had a baby, started a business, and I decided something for me was beekeeping and gardening. I‘ve always loved nature and bees fit. I started reading about them and fell in love. I started coming to meetings and I knew right away when I went to the first meeting.”
On this night, about 40 members were in attendance. The topic was preparing for the winter and how to treat for mites.
To find out how to start or maintain a buzzy community, the Yellowstone BeeKeepers meet the second Tuesday of every month at the Last Chance Cider Mill and Pub at 6:00 p.m.