TOKELAND — Paul Young has just committed a very great sin — and the bees know it.
Their gentle “hummmm” suddenly changes pitch. The sound of their buzzing wings had faded into background noise, but now it can’t be ignored. They’re angry, roaring, rising in a dizzy black and yellow cloud — for Paul Young has indeed sinned. Paul Young has accidentally squeezed a bee.
It’s a phrase all Young’s own and he repeats it now as he continues to calmly search the hive for a queen bee.
“I squeezed a bee so they react, of course, as you would, so now I smell like a squeezed bee,” he says. “Don’t squeeze the bees. That’s definitely an issue.”
“You need a new pair of gloves?” asks his wife, Gail Friedlander, her face covered with a veil, her socks pulled up over the hem of her pants and her long shirt sleeves stretch over the openings of her own clear, plastic gloves to make sure that none of the bees hovering near her or landing on her find a way under her clothes.
“No, I’m good.”
Young, Friedlander and other members of the Willapa River Beekeeping Club are at Nancy Fischer and Steve Young’s small farm north of Tokeland. The couple is one year into beekeeping and wanted Paul Young to inspect several of their six hives, including two newer ones they started from swarms — populations of bees that have left their parent hives and set out on their own.
The beekeeping club has approximately 20 active members and provides these members with everything from practical information to a community of like-minded people. It also offers regular hive inspections where more experienced members can walk newer beekeepers through the ins and outs of hive maintenance, as well as help them determine if a hive is succeeding or struggling.
Paul Young stands behind hive No. 3 at Fischer and Steve Young’s farm. These are Langstroth hives, a particular style of man-made hive that looks like compact dresser drawers stacked on top of each other. Filed vertically in each drawer are the combs, frames containing plastic latticework that the bees use to spread out honey and rear larvae, baby bees.
Young removes the hive’s lid first and now it’s possible to peer down into the “honey super,” the top drawer. Below that comes the brood drawer.
Several other club members hover nearby, helping him move the pieces and operate the smoker, which spews a regular cloud of smoke in and around the hive. Young wants minimal smoke since smoke makes the bees believe their hive is threatened. He doesn’t want to distress them too much, but he also doesn’t want them flying by the dozens around his head. When they sense the smoke, the bees rush inside, and some start gorging on stored honey in case they need to make a quick escape. Bee logic says take what you can carry.
The majority of club members keep bees, while the others are a mix: some plan on having bees down the road, others are merely curious and want to tag along. The members represent only about 10 to 15 percent of the total number of beekeepers in the area, Young says, and most of them are not in it for the honey — though it is definitely a perk if the hives are extra productive.
Fischer and Steve Young, as well as club member Brent Naylor, echo this, saying their primary concerns are plant pollination and helping honey bees thrive.
Right now, they say, the tiny black and yellow insects are struggling. Colony collapse disorder, a mysterious phenomenon where worker bees abandon their hive and their queen, has decimated bee populations across the country in recent years. According to some estimates, the total U.S. honey bee population is less than half of what it was at the beginning of the 1950s. In the early 2000s, commercial beekeepers found more and more of their hives completely abandoned.
But, in Pacific County, the outlook for bees this year is bright.
Another service the club provides, both to club members and the general public, is swarm removal. When a honey bee hive’s population swells and it becomes too crowded inside, the colony will split and a number of bees, along with a queen, will search for a home elsewhere. This is called swarming and it can look a little horrifying: The bees mass together, forming often huge, swaying clumps that hang from tree branches.
Then club member Dutch Holland might get a call and out he comes with a box and unceremoniously dumps the bees inside. If the queen goes in first, sometimes the workers will fall in line and follow her scent into their new home.
This year alone, Holland has collected 18 swarms. Another member collected 23, most originating from his own assortment of hives. All together so far, the club has gathered approximately 70 swarms and will likely end the year with close to 100, Holland predicts. Of these, he says, about 80 percent will become successful hives with larvae-bearing queens and a healthy worker bee population.
“That’s impressive for one little club,” he said in a phone interview June 25. “This is going to be a good year. We had an early spring and it’s probably going to be a late summer so bees are going to be active all the way through.”
He says it feels like the bees are coming back.
Meanwhile, back at the farm, the inspection of hive No. 3 has become a more complicated operation.
Paul Young lifts one box. Instead of a neat patchwork of honey and pollen in the cells there is a drooping mass of comb built by the bees themselves along the bottom of the frame. Bees are everywhere, the “bzzzzzzz” rising loud and mad once again.
Young calls for another box and a bucket. He and other club members carefully scrape away the excess. The excitement dies down. Young moves through the boxes. He has not found a queen, though there are several “queen cups,” indicating that the bees are trying to pave the way for a new queen. A hive without a queen is a hive that won’t last long. The queen is the only bee that lays eggs; she is the engine at the heart of any hive.
Looking at the hive from the outside, it would be impossible to tell that its inhabitants are facing such a perilous future. From the outside, it looks busy — literally buzzing with bees, collecting and storing honey.
Steve Young and Fischer have options, though. The most obvious option is to bring in a new queen themselves, a purchase they could make online or through some local beekeepers and bee breeders. The important thing is they found out before the hive really started to suffer, they say.
This unpredictability and the bees’ own sometimes finicky nature are what attract people to beekeeping. Inside any hive, there’s a whole other world unfolding.
Old queens die and newly hatched queens stalk the combs, killing rivals.
Drones — the male bees that mate with the queen — hang around for as long as they’re useful, then they’re shown the door.
Workers and nurse bees attend to honey collection and the rearing of young.
Together, the bees rise to face attack and flee together when the hive is lost. And beekeepers are the delighted spectators and concerned stewards of all of this.
Or, as Friedlander says, “Managing bees is like herding cats. They’re going to do what they’re going to do, but you can kind of guide them in the right direction.”
For swarm rescue, call Dutch Holland at 942-7830. For more information about the beekeeping club, visit its Facebook page: Willapa River Beekeeping Club.