A day in the life of a bee keeper

Jeff Harris, left, looks at a bee colony with George Rooks. Harris helps bee keepers raise healthy colonies that contribute more than just honey to the environment.
When Jeff Harris, Clermont County apiary inspector and longtime bee keeper, told me I wasn’t going to get stung by any bees if I made a bee run with, him I believed him.

Harris said he’d be making a couple runs around 10 a.m. on the next warm day, so when that day arrived I grabbed some hiking boots and headed off on my first bee adventure.

I pulled up next to what Harris called his $500 truck at the BP gas station in Bethel, jumped in, and Harris and I immediately started talking bees.

Harris, who calls himself a ‘bee guy not a honey guy’ has been involved with bees since he was a teenager.

“When I was 14 years old I worked for German guys who had an antique shop,” Harris said. “They also had bees.”

And that was all it took. Harris was fascinated by the insects. And although he worked all over Ohio, holding a variety of positions, Harris said he always had bees around. It wasn’t until 2004 that he became a bee inspector for Clermont County.

“If I don’t talk to people about bees, they’re not going to have success,” Harris said about his job. “I have got to keep the bee world going.”

We pulled into a gravel driveway that Harris introduced as George Rooks’ house. Harris told me to look around at Rooks’ garden, and it was obvious the retired park ranger turned vegetable farmer is dedicated. Rooks waved from the porch and Harris told me he had to get his smoker started.

At first I was thinking he was going to light up a pipe or something. But when I came to the back of the truck I found him shoving wood and newspaper into a tea-kettle-like contraption that he was priming to use as a tool.

Come to find out, the smoker is pretty crucial. Harris said it calms the bees and once the smoker was fully functioning, with smoke billowing out of its small opening, Harris said it was time to go.

He handed me one of those traditional bee hats, which is really more like a bee helmet, and then informed me that the soft spots on your face are the worst places to get stung. Without any more discussion I shoved the white netted thing on my head.

Harris lead the way to Rooks’ three colonies, encased in what looked like a cabinet with different sections. I made sure to stick close to the smoker as Harris began opening up the box surrounding the first colony. He peeled back the top and sure enough, honey bees started pouring out.

After digging around in the box, Harris determined the colony did not have a queen bee. He said a colony couldn’t survive without a queen. Bees are born either a drone, which is a male, a worker bee, which is a female, or a queen. The worker bees and drone bees basically work for the queen.

Harris said the bees’ primary job in the colony is to feed the queen. Then they either heat up or cool down the hive, depending on the season. Then they find honey. Harris said worker bees are the ones that sting, and drones die once they mate with the queen. Although the queen gets catered to, she is responsible for the reproduction.

“She is the hierarchy, yet she is a slave,” Harris said.

Rooks’ other colonies were much better off, with multiple queens, larva and loads of honey. Harris even told the bee keeper he could put one of the queen cells from his healthy hives into the hive that didn’t have a queen. Harris said if there are several queens in one hive the bees will swarm anyway.

The swarming concept was foreign to me, so I asked all about swarming during the runs. Not only did Harris say swarming is the way bees populate the earth, but it’s also a way in which bee keepers can catch bees to start a colony.

“You can actually catch them out of trees,” Harris said.

Harris asked me if I’d ever seen an old movie where a loud mass of bees appeared over the trees. He said swarms aren’t that large anymore, but what happens is the bees in a colony cast off a queen to re-populate nature.

Rooks has made catching swarms a hobby, and after we looked at his hives and had settled down in the house with coffee and cookies, the phone rang with a request for Rooks to come catch a swarm.

“We got one out of a bathtub once,” Rooks said. “To see a swarm in the air, to me, is exciting.”

To catch the swarm, however, isn’t an easy task. And at our next stop we visited Vaunda Ernstes, a vegetable farmer who is determined to catch a swarm from her own colony. Ernstes said she tried to catch a swarm out of one of her trees last year and climbed up on a ladder only to have the bees fall off the branch and miss her box.

Harris encouraged her to keep trying and gave her some tips for catching a swarm no matter where it lands. He was impressed by Ernstes’ colony of bees, which was one of the only colonies she had ever had last through the winter.

“Swarms are a far greater catch than anything you can buy,” Harris told Ernstes. “Because you’ve got great lineage here.”

Other than a few ants, Ernstes’ colony was healthy, which is good news for the vegetable farmer, who said she has noticed a difference in her produce since she began keeping bees. Without proper pollination Ernstes said vegetables just aren’t the same.

“They are shaped funny, they don’t develop correctly, especially cucumbers and squash,” Ernstes said.

And then of course there is the honey. Vegetable farmers like Rooks and Ernstes don’t have the bees for the honey, but both enjoy the honey when their bees produce it. Harris said honey from a bee keeper’s colony is different from what is found on a grocery store shelf.

I was able to taste the difference when we were at the Rooks’. I ate the honey right off the honey comb, surrounded by the bees that produced it. It wasn’t just the scenery that made the honey taste more authentic, Harris said pasteurized honey is often boiled and is mostly sugar water. While it may extend shelf life, he said it loses its nutrients.

“The crummier it looks, the better it is for you almost,” Harris said. “If you don’t know a bee keeper that gets it from his hive, you aren’t getting the real thing.”

And while bees are good for mostly pollination and honey, Harris also said people even use bees for their stings. It’s called apitherapy and it’s the medicinal use of honey bee products including their venom, which Harris said is used to treat joint problems and arthritis.

“There are so many facts,” Harris said about bees. “You can be into the honey, you can be into the bees, the pollinating, apitherapy.”

Whatever the reason, Harris’ job is still the same. To help keep hives healthy and help educate bee keepers in both Clermont and Clinton counties, where he said. Both Rooks and Ernstes were glad Harris came by, and it seemed Harris’ evaluations motivated the bee keepers to make their colonies even better.

As the run came to an end and Harris drove me back to my car I asked him a question I already knew the answer to after a day spent discovering the hard-working insect: What would happen if people stopped keeping bees?

“If there were no bees, and you looked out your window, two-thirds of what you see would be gone,” Harris said. “It works all the way up the food chain. Not until cantaloupe costs $25 and comes from china will people understand.”

And with that, I got back into my car with zero bee stings and a new respect for an insect I was once afraid of.