Backyard Beekeepers Abuzz Over Social Life of Hive

John Roach
for National Geographic News
October 18, 2004

To appreciate the pleasures of beekeeping, just listen to Vivian Clayton, a hobbyist beekeeper in Walnut Creek, California, buzz about the insects in her hive.

"It's just the most incredible, delightful thing to watch," she said. "They know where the hive is, and as they get close, they slowly drop down on a landing board. It's such a gracious thing [to watch]. Do that for 15 minutes, and you are totally blissed out."

In the U.S. about hundred thousand hobbyists keep bees, according to Kim Flottum. Flottum is editor of Bee Culture magazine and chairman of the Eastern Apiculture Society, a noncommercial beekeeping club.

Hobbyist beekeepers tend their small backyard colonies for a variety of reasons, but mostly to help pollinate their gardens, to harvest honey and wax, or to study the insects' natural history.

By contrast, there are only about a thousand commercial beekeepers in the U.S., people who make a living harvesting and selling honey and wax and renting bees to farmers to pollinate their crops.

"Consider gardening and farming," Flottum said. "There are way more gardeners than farmers. It's easy to have two or three colonies in the backyard, very hard to have several thousand and make a living from it."

Organized Society

For Clayton, the attraction to beekeeping is mostly a scientific curiosity. She is fascinated by their highly organized, cooperative societies.

According to scientific descriptions, a honeybee colony consists of one queen, several thousand worker bees, and at certain times of the year, a few to several thousand drones, or male bees.

All of the hive-cleaning, maintenance, and foraging is done by the worker bees. The drones' only role is to impregnate a queen. Clayton said the behavior of the drones she has observed is as predictable as clockwork.

"If I get [to the hive] at one o'clock in the afternoon, that's when the drones fly out of the hives. They all fly out and literally hang out in a specific spot with all the drones of the neighborhood looking for queens to impregnate. Then at four o'clock they all come back," she said.

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