Tom Eames told listeners and watchers “it started as a casual hobby some 30 years ago and now I’m tending about 85 hives,” during an impressive presentation on beekeeping at the January meeting of the Safari Club International in Michael’s Banquet Facility in Hamburg.

Eames, an energetic and savvy bee specialist, took his backyard hobby from casual involvement to major production program over the years. Now, he does little advertising and self-promotion; his regular customers at farmers markets take up most of his bottled stock.

Bee origins

During his talk, Eames shared his excitement with and basic facts about the cycle of honey production, bee-keeping tips and tricks, and some pure facts about this sweet stuff we eat, drink and merrily enjoy.

Honey bees are rare worldwide. “Of the 6,000 to 7,000 different species of bees around the world, only seven of those species produce honey. And none of those bee species were native to North America,” Eames noted. All strains of honey bees now cultured to make honey were brought to the United States from other countries, mainly in Europe.

Handling honey

He explained why seeing “pure” on a honey label does not necessarily mean “good,” “worthwhile,” “healthy” or any other plus feature.

“Pure” honey is simply a bottled product without any additives,” he noted. But when honey is heated to above 118 degrees, the product loses its pollen content and most other beneficial properties health-conscious folk opt for in honey rather than pure sugar as a sweetener.

For storage, Eames suggests storing honey at room temperature or freezing; honey should not be kept in a refrigerator.

Shocking bear facts

While not putting the lie to honey bear lore, Eames pointed out that bears can do major damage to hive structures – but their destruction is not mainly in search of honey. “Bears present the main predator damage to hives; they smash though the hive’s layers to get at the bee larvae, which are found mainly at the bottom of the hive,” he said.

Drastic measures often must be used to protect hives. Not only does Eames encircle hives with electric fencing, which shocks but does not injure the animals, but he also has to coat the fence wires with fat to ensure the bear will imprint to the shock and then stay away from the hive area.

Best grade

Honey coloration, as with maple syrup, can be confusing. Eames brought samples of light and darker honey, clear and creamed honey. Clover honey has developed a big name for the end product, but bees cannot be confined to a small area containing just one pollination source. Bees can travel a diameter of two miles in search of pollination sources.

“Clover can be found everywhere and bees can draw a variety of pollen. Among all possibilities goldenrod honey is the premier grade; goldenrod comes off in late summer,” he explained.

Bee moves

Despite their amazing ability to return to a specific site, moving a hive just a few feet from its set location when bees are away during the day can disorient them. This move causes bees to cluster at the abandoned site, rather than seek their nearby hive. They often form a swarm at the original site without a queen bee to restart the honey-making process.

“We move and set up hives at night while the bees are inside; we make major location moves during the winter,” he said of good hive maintenance.

Bee liners

Panels used as liners in hives for bees to nest have changed. Years ago, honey was routinely sold in box frames or removed from frames and bottled as wax-free honey.

Today, those liners are a sturdy plastic that can withstand the weight and jarring movement.

The base boxes in a hive start out weighing about 20 pounds. Each hive houses 50,000 to 70,000 bees. A healthy queen is capable of laying up to 20,000 eggs a day. By the time the bees have fully deposited their honey development, each stage box will weight 60 pounds or more. “Most big hive-keeping operations call for heavy equipment, such as a Bobcat, to move [full] hives,” he said. Yet his entire operation is still done by hand.

Bee moods

Eames admits to being bitten on occasion; he attributes much of the danger to the handler’s moves affecting the temperament of the bees. “If you move slowly and don’t slam and bang things, the bees pick up on that calm behavior,” he said. When stressed, the bees react negatively. That calm leads to a quicker, smoother operation around hives which results in efficient honey harvesting.

Collapsed colonies

In recent years, bee keepers have seen poor colony development and poor honey production. The condition, called colony collapse disorder (CCD) has been attributed to many sources. “Radio waves and pesticide [presence] are two possible causes, but we really don’t know fully why it occurs,” Eames said. CCD has not been as disastrous in Western New York as it has been in warmer climates.

Getting started

Bee keeping requires considerable work done at specific times of the year, but Eames showed the SCI audience that the endeavor is well worth this effort. His half-hour talk went beyond an hour; after his presentation, several people surrounded him with questions and comments about bees, keeping, processing, handling and other concerns.

For anyone seriously interested in getting into the endeavor, he suggested attending a Western New York Honey Producers Association “Beginner Beekeeping Workshop” that will be held at First Presbyterian Church, 9 Paine St., East Aurora from 9 a.m. to about noon on Saturday. If that session goes as well as Eames’ SCI presentation, this workshop might be a bit longer.

Topics include supplies needed, gear sources, how and where to buy bees, hive construction and placement, handling hives and bees, and other aspects of bee keeping.

The workshop focuses on basics rather than advanced handling procedures. The association recommends this program for persons wanting to start beekeeping this year or for those just interested in learning more about keeping bees.

For more details on this workshop, check with Eames at 713-0693.