ROCKINGHAM COUNTY — About a decade ago, Bill Theiss had hardly any bees buzzing about his Bridgewater-area farm.
After he saw an exhibit at the Rockingham County Fair, he decided to give beekeeping a try.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to do this.’ So, I went ahead and did it,” Theiss said. “I didn’t realize how interested I would get in something like this.”
Theiss, 57, soon became president of a local club, the Shenandoah Valley Beekeepers Association, which meets monthly at Blue Ridge Community College.
“It went farther than I ever thought it would,” he said. “It was supposed to be just a hobby.”
Now, it’s more like a job.
Like many others in the club, he lost all his bee colonies this winter, he said.
Going into the winter, the bees were strong and seemed fine, he said, but they suddenly all died. A member of the club had 30 colonies going into the winter, but only two survived until spring, he said.
“That is really unusual,” he said. “I’ve been keeping bees for 10 years, and I always lose one or two [colonies] or three or four a year, but not all of them.”
The drought this past fall may have been a contributing factor to the bee bust, he said, because the insects work especially hard to gather their food in preparation for the winter months. The sudden drops and spikes in temperatures over the winter may not have helped either.
When bees die, he said, beekeepers must remove and store the abandoned frames from the hive to make sure pests don’t move in and destroy the honeycomb.
“When you lose a hive, it’s not just the anguish of losing it, it’s all the extra work that you have to do that you normally wouldn’t have to do,” he said. “The bees are there to protect the honey, and when the bees are gone, you get pests.”
After his bees died this winter, he put their frames in the freezer until he buys a new colony.
Elaine Lidholm, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said honey is merely an extra benefit bees provide. Their main contribution is pollination, adding about $15 billion to the U.S. agricultural output annually, she said. Pollination creates bigger and prettier fruits, vegetables and nuts, while also increasing the yield.
“Without pollination, a lot of plants just don’t produce much of their fruit,” she said, “whether it’s a tomato or a cucumber or a pear, as they would without pollination.”
While there are several types of pollinators, such as bumblebees, bats, birds and butterflies, she said, honeybees are the most efficient.
Without pollination, the U.S. would lose about one-third of its food supply, Lidholm said.
The nation loses between 30 to 35 percent of its hives each year, she said. In Virginia, the department is encouraging more people to plant pollinator gardens and keep bees.
There’s even a market for bee colonies. People pay to rent hives from beekeepers and take them to their fields to pollinate the area for a few months, she said, which has been especially critical for the almond industry.
Mike Hott, owner of Hott Apiary just outside of McGaheysville, who has raised bees for the last three decades, said most people don’t realize that their groceries are dependent on bees.
“In order to have that produce, those fruits,” Hott said, “I mean it’s up to the bees and other pollinators in the area that make that happen. … Don’t take for granted that you get to go into the grocery store and pick up your fruit, because there’s always work behind that.”
Though Theiss had three bee colonies last year, he only has one this spring. But it seems to be a strong bunch of bees.
After just a few weeks, the insects had already built hand-sized chunks of honeycomb on his frames and covered the plastic lined frames with even more wax. They’d also laid hundreds of eggs and began capping cells of honey to store.
The nectar the bees take from plants is about 80 percent water, Theiss said. They dehydrate it in the hive until the water content drops to about 17 percent or less and seal the cells with wax to protect the honey from moisture in the air.
“They found honey in tombs in Egypt that were 2,000 years old, and it was still good,” Theiss said, “because it was protected from the air. Not to mention, it was dry in Egypt.”
He cans and sells the honey, but also melts down the wax from the combs to make wood finish.
Beekeepers check on their colonies with varying frequency throughout the year. In the spring, he said, he may check them several times a month depending on what they’re doing.
If the bees are building new queen cells, then the beekeeper may need to check them more frequently to take queen larvae to start another hive.
“I think the more I learned about the bees, the more fascinating it was,” he said. “I didn’t expect that. Just learning about them is almost like disbelief.”