When she's not working as a surgical nurse, resident Peggy Houston is happily working around her 3-acre Wildwood property. On a recent day, there were deer in the meadow and Virginia bluebells carpeting the forest floor next to her home. Buzzing softly nearby were two big white boxes full of honey bees—a hub of activity.
"There are lots of problems with domestic bee populations, and they are highly endangered. That’s why I decided to keep hives on my property. Most people get into this because they want the honey, but my motivation is just to help save the bees. I guess I’m just a nature nut!” she said.
Houstons' lifestyle certainly shows this strong environmental bent, because she is an avid gardener, composter and conservationist. She took beginning beekeeping classes two years ago with the Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association (E.M.B.A.), and became a member of the group.
"A good way to help with this (endangered) problem is to buy local honey from area beekeepers, as opposed to honey from any store that doesn't list it comes from a local source," said Houston. "This will avoid the contaminants in the mass produced, so-called 'honey' that is imported from China. It is often mixed from several hive sources, and can contain syrup as a filler."
“Every year, there are more and more people taking classes, buying equipment and getting started in beekeeping. I’ve heard that the salvation of the bee crisis will be the backyard beekeeper and I think that’s true,” said Houston.
Some of the problems affecting bee populations are the widespread use of pesticides, herbicides and chemicals. “My bees can fly up to 2 miles away to find food,” said Houston. “Who knows what kind of chemicals have been used on the plants where they’re getting the pollen?”
Another big problem are the varroa mite and tracheal mites that carry viruses. “I inspect the hives regularly to make sure that my bees are healthy,” said Houston.
"In my classes, I’ve learned some natural remedies to get rid of these pests. I was really worried this winter, especially when I noticed a lot of dead bees outside the hive. The bees all cluster around the queen to keep her warm. I learned that when bees die inside the hive, the worker bees toss them out the front door. But even though some of the bees died, most survived the cold months.”
Houston said that in her two hives, there may be up to 60,000 bees. "I started out with a box full of 3,000 bees and a queen. Because the bees came from Louisiana, I call them my 'Cajun Bees,' and I decided to name the queen Blanche Du Bois,” said Houston.
She said she has been amazed and fascinated with the complexity of the bees and their social behavior. Research has shown that honeybees have one of the most complex pheromonal communication systems of all animals. They have more than a dozen glands that produce an array of compounds that serve as “chemical messengers” to the members of the colony.
Houston has a wooded, hilly lot with lots of sun in the open spaces. She decided to place the hive in a valley below her house, near a creek so that the bees would have a water source. “Before I placed the hives here, of course I asked my neighbors if that would bother them. No one had a problem with it and no one has gotten stung,” she said.
The gardens, fruit trees and flowering plants near her hives will benefit from the bees and their pollination of the plants.
Houston points out some basic bee etiquette to follow when you are near a hive:
- Don’t approach the hive from the front, where the entrance holes are. They will all pour out to defend the hive.
- Don’t swat.
- The best defense is to walk quickly rather than run.
- Operate vibrating equipment (lawn mowers, weed whackers, chain saws) in the early morning or evening hours around the hive since they're bedded down.
“Despite some problems and my inexperience, my bees have survived and the colony is growing. There is so much to learn, so I’m still learning and I’m still a beginner at this. Luckily there are experienced beekeepers in the EMBA who can advise newer members,” Houston said.