The King of Queens
At noon on the hottest day of the year, Bill Ferguson does the unthinkable: with his bare hand he reaches into a hive of 60,000 bees and kidnaps their leader. Sensing the anxiety of his onlookers, he smiles and reassures us. “My bees are gentle.”
If anyone’s qualified to know, it’s Bill. He and his wife Rosemary have been beekeepers along Ontario’s West Coast for over 50 years. On days when most people would rather be lounging at the beach or under a patio umbrella with a cocktail, he’s hard at work on his rural property surrounded by literally millions of flying insects.
Honey and wax are by far the most recognizable commodities that come from a bee yard. But what Ferguson’s Apiary specializes in is producing queens for other bee keepers.
“The entire hive is controlled by one queen producing pheromones that affect the behaviour of all the other bees,” explains Bill, adding, “in a normally functioning hive, she’s also the only female that lays eggs.”
Fertilized eggs produce female worker bees, which make up 99% of a healthy colony. Unfertilized eggs produce males called drones. The only purpose the drones have is to mate with a virgin queen, otherwise, they’re a complete drain on the colony’s resources, which is why they get kicked out of the hive by workers ahead of winter.
As workers age they graduate to different roles within the hive, from rearing young to cleaning duties and, eventually, to collecting nectar and pollen to feed the colony. Foraging bees will fly
.upwards of seven kilometres away from the hive in search of a good food source. There’s a lot of wear and tear on a bee’s body over the course of a day and many don’t return from their foraging flights. During the summer, a worker bee’s lifespan is about five to six weeks. Without a queen laying eggs to replace lost workers, the productivity of the hive quickly drops, which is when Bill gets a call.
Managing a commercial operation means keeping a brisk pace in the yard. The bees set the pace, and as the saying goes, they’re busy, so staying ahead of them is challenging.
The best time to work with bees is midday when foragers are out flying and the hive is bustling with activity. There’s a distinct sweet honey smell wafting up from the open hive.
“They’re productive and very gentle,” he reminds us as he inspects a young queen in his hand.
A little smoke helps calm the bees further. When bees smell smoke their natural instinct is to start engorging on food in case they have to take flight to avoid a wildfire. The smoke also helps block alarm pheromones they use to communicate to each other. Beekeepers take advantage of these behavioural responses to keep the hive’s stress level down while at work.
Using a special pen, Bill gently marks the new queen with a yellow dot so she’s easier to find next time before releasing her back into the hive. Over the course of his 50+ year career, he’s done this over one hundred thousand times.
“I laugh when people call me a beekeeper because the reality is the bees keep me – the bees and Rosemary, that is.”
He’s already in motion to the next hive before he finishes his thought.
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Interesting FactFertilized eggs produce female worker bees, which make up 99% of a healthy colony.