Backyard beekeeper shares the story of her hive.

Elsa Lichman
 |  Wicked Local

I have the good fortune to interview a local beekeeper, Anna Zeusler, who first saw a beehive in the mid ’80s at a Hancock Shaker Village tour with her fiance. There was an observation hive with glass on both sides, and she became fascinated. Their wedding cake was  in the shape of a beehive, with marzipan bees and fruits! 

Twenty years later, she took a class at the Newton Center for Adult Education, got her first hive in the spring, and joined the Middlesex County Beekeepers Association. She picked up a nucleus hive in Billerica, at a family-run business which raises and sells bees. At home she had a box ready for the frames the bees occupy, as well as additional frames for them to build out as the hive expanded.   

Her hive is in her garden and remains outside; it now has three boxes with eight frames on a stand, with a small opening. She can open the top to view them, but wears a bee jacket for safety. She personally has never had an aggressive hive. 

The one queen lays eggs March through September or October. When it becomes cold she remains in the center of a cluster, which creates its own temperature control. The outer bees move to the inner circle, and the inner bees move to the outer edge, so all stay warm. In warm weather they move their wings to cool off. When it is very hot in summer they can “beard” on the outside of the hive, i.e.,  a cluster just hangs there. 

Anna says the personality of the hive is dependent on the personality of the queen, which she describes as “dumb luck” when purchasing a hive. They can become aggressive when bothered by skunks or other predators seeking protein-rich larvae. The bees attack, and as these are honeybees, after stinging they do die. Only the queen can sting multiple times, and the drones have no stinger. 

In high season, in summer, there are 20 to 30,000; the number declines to 10,000 in winter. In the fall the male drones, whose only function is to fertilize the queen, get killed by their sisters or thrown out. It is too expensive for the hive to feed them once their function is completed. 

The female nurse bees make wax and create the complex six-sided cells where eggs are laid by the queen. The eggs become larvae and the cells are capped by the sisters. The male drones’ gestation period is 23 days, as they are larger, and the females emerge at 21 days. This behavior is constant, described as a “well oiled process,” as the queen moves from cell to cell laying hundreds of eggs. 

The females have wax glands on the abdomen which they secrete to build out the frames, an instinctive process. They work all the time. They have a mouth with a tongue which collects liquid nectar from flowers, from which they make the sustaining honey. They collect pollen on their legs as they move, which they and the larvae eat for protein. 

Queens can live for up to five years, laying thousands of eggs, but each queen still has a finite quantity of eggs and may outlive her capacity. Drones form groups and fly by, as she mates with three to seven at a time, returns to the hive, and never leaves. 

A new queen is created by nurse bees, as they take several eggs and immerse them in royal jelly, which they produce, and the eggs absorb it, and in larva form consume it. There are three or four, and the first to emerge kills the others. A virgin queen, she makes her mating flight, and becomes a mated queen. She is larger than all the others. All the bees in the hive are a golden color. 

 Due to parasites and diseases, 40 to 60 per cent of hives die off. One parasite, varroa, has been around for 15 years, and attaches to the abdomen, feeds on the bees, and spreads diseases. There is a pesticide which can kill varroa, but it has to be used judiciously, and resistant strains of the parasite can emerge. 

A hive can become too large, so half of the bees split off, swarm, and go to a new location, such as a mailbox, tree or a house. Some go out to search for a good location, return to communicate with their sisters via dancing, collect the queen, and fly off. The other half will start queen cells to hatch out a new queen. So there are feral hives out there as well as tended ones. 

 Anna’s hive died recently, due to all the changeable highs and low of our winter season. The bees require constancy of cold weather. Bees are endangered. Global warming has created unpredictable weather patterns, such as our rainy summer, as well as habitat loss. Pesticide use is a contributing factor. City hives tend to do better, as trees are not sprayed. Suburban areas utilize pesticides and herbicides to eradicate insects, as well as dandelions and other harmless weeds. 

The Mass. Department of Agriculture has a state bee inspector, and although hives do not have to be registered here, they have to be a certain size and must be constructed so that they are accessible for inspection. There is no record of how many hives exist in our state. Each Mass. County has a beekeeping club.     

Actually honeybees are not native here; our native bees are solitary, and there are hundreds of varieties. 

Anna does not collect honey, but chooses to leave it for the bees in the event of a hard winter. She is fascinated by the complex, amazing, and sometimes violent world of honeybees. Beekeeping meshes with her passion for gardening, and provides her an opportunity to alleviate some of the effects of negative environmental changes.