Oklahomans ‘Swarming’ to This Fascinating Hobby
Along with the national rise of urban gardens and backyard chickens, another fast-growing pastime has been generating significant buzz across Oklahoma for the past decade.
Beekeeping has exploded in popularity, especially over the past five to 10 years. The roots of the spike began in 2006, when the general public first heard about a phenomenon known as “Colony Collapse Disorder.” Caused primarily by the varroa mite, which specifically attacks honeybees, it resulted in a massive die-off that wiped out many commercial and private hives and led to major concerns about potential impact on the national food supply, said local beekeeper Andy Wooliver. As president of the Noble Beekeepers Association and owner of Canadian Valley Farms in Lexington, Wooliver is one of the state’s most knowledgeable professionals.
The good news is that the bee population has rebounded over the past decade, with people from all walks of life dedicating their time and talents to raising these vital insects. As most people know, honey bees survive by gathering pollen and nectar, and in the collecting of these two nutrients they pollinate a wide variety of crops.
Bees may seem like a low-maintenance hobby, but it’s actually much more complex and labor-intensive than it used to be. This is due to research that’s revealed ways owners can improve the hives’ overall health, boost honey production and introduce hardier, less aggressive strains of bees, said Brian Royal, owner of Royal Bee Supply in Norman, who works with beekeepers around the state and beyond.
“People used to pretty much set up a hive and leave the bees out there,” he said. “Now we know a lot more about the bees in general, and there are a lot more health issues stemming from transcontinental bee shipments that we have to worry about.”
For Oklahoma enthusiasts, a primary source of advice and camaraderie is the Oklahoma Beekeeper’s Association, which dates back to 1939. Current president Maribeth Stapp said she has seen membership grow from roughly 120 statewide in 2006 to an average of 100 in each individual chapter today. Each one–pardon the pun–is buzzing with activity.
Another contributor to beekeeping’s popularity in the state, Stapp said, was the passage of two pieces of legislation. The Oklahoma Apiary Act of 2005 requires municipalities to allow keeping bees within their borders, including urban areas. The 2013 Honey Sales Act allows beekeepers to sell raw honey without going through processing by a certified kitchen.
“Honey is inherently safe, since it doesn’t grow bacteria,” Stapp said. “You don’t have to worry about botulism, so processing isn’t something that’s necessary. Before this act, though, beekeepers were legally prevented from giving away unprocessed honey, even to family and friends.”
Capturing a swarm of wild bees is often a starting point for novice beekeepers; in fact, it’s how Wooliver got involved in the business. “You’re not always guaranteed to get good bees, but it’s a way to get started and learn, and if you want to continue you can introduce different types of bees, which will improve the strain over time,” he said.
New”bees” to the hobby also will have to be patient. “Honey production ebbs and flows throughout the year. Most people who get into this don’t realize that, but they learn pretty quickly,” Wooliver said. “You also don’t usually harvest the honey until the second year of farming.”
Bee-lieve It or Not
Most people have an innate fear of bees, yet they’re fascinating creatures when studied closely. Some surprising facts:
- Queen bees lay up to 3,000 eggs every day.
- Except for the queen, bees have a short life span of about 45 days. Ten generations of bees may be born and die within one season.
- Worker bees produce honey by fanning their wings across pollen and nectar until it’s reduced to only 16 percent water.
- Bees are at their most docile when swarming. That’s because they’re gorged on honey and focused on finding a new home rather than defending an existing hive.
- Africanized bees, which are much more aggressive than other honeybees, are found in relatively low numbers in Oklahoma, and most are concentrated along the Oklahoma-Texas border.
- Hives can be kept outdoors year-round, without artificial heating. Even in the coldest winter, the interior of the hive will stay at around 90 degrees.
- Forget groundhogs–bees are the best predictors when spring is around the corner. They become active about two to three weeks before the season changes permanently.
While there are basic guidelines, each individual beekeeper usually has his or her own preferred variety of bees and develops his or her own tips and tricks. Wooliver, for instance, keeps Russian bees, while Royal raises and sells Italian bees. Both are quick to praise the particular strengths of their choice.
“If you ask 10 different beekeepers the same question, you’ll likely get 10 different answers,” Stapp noted. “We all do things a little bit differently, because bees don’t read the manuals. Plus, the weather in Oklahoma changes constantly, which is very confusing for them. Everyone has to find their own best methods.”