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Talking about honeybees, queens and who really rules the hive

Dover’s Rein Verbeek has been a beekeeper — and astute student of honeybee society — for nearly a decade.
Rein Verbeek, 55, of Dover, has been a beekeeper since 2014.
Rein Verbeek, 55, of Dover, has been a beekeeper since 2014. [ BERBEEKS’ BEES | Verbeeks' Bees ]
Published Jul. 6

It was Rein Verbeek’s daughter who first suggested he take up beekeeping.

That was back in 2014. She was in college and working for a beekeeper. He read the books she gave him and watched videos. He joined the Tampa Bay Beekeepers Association, went to meetings and worked with them in the field.

It took a while to get used to working with bees, however.

“They made me originally nervous as all get-out, but I was really enamored by them,” he said. “A month later I had my first hive.”

He’s fascinated by honeybee society — the complicated social interactions between the queen, worker bees and drones that keep the colony going — and enjoys observing it and helping expand it. The added benefit is that he sells the honey he harvests.

Verbeek, 55, who is from Holland and has lived in the U.S. since 1987, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the nature of bees, their ability to detect anxiety in humans and the threats they face.

Related: She looks after Jody, Busch Gardens’ endangered black rhino

How does blowing smoke over the hive calm bees?

(The general belief) is it’s hiding the alarm pheromone that the bees have. What they do as a colony, they would attack and go in waves, but if the alarm pheromone cannot be raised, then they won’t respond like that.

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When was the smoke tactic first discovered?

In Egypt the hieroglyphs show that they’re smoking bees back in Egypt in the ancient times. So it has been used for a long, long time. (Egyptians) normally were building smoke in a pot and they just had smoke flowing out of that. And then somewhere in the 1800s somebody figured out how to make a portable smoker.

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How do bees detect human anxiety?

I think they read a whole mixture of things. I do feel that the bees will recognize smells, and I also believe that they will recognize faces, and that they can recognize postures or the way that somebody is acting. They also will definitely recognize the scent for anxiety, or if you’re jittery going into the hive. They can sense how calm a person is or how nervous a person is.

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Does that make them prone to attack?

Yeah, it makes them a little bit nervous themselves. If you are calm, cool and collected then you normally have nothing to fear, but if you’re nervous, especially if you start swatting them, then you’re going to get a fight response.

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Are honeybee populations threatened?

At the moment it looks like beekeepers are losing about 40% of their colonies each year… but they make up (for the loss) by making splits and creating new colonies. They’re making up about the same percentage. But it is a lot more work and a lot more cost and a lot more investment.

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Why are bees disappearing?

There’s a multitude of problems. One is not enough variety in flowers available. There are a lot of monocultures in large swatches of land and that is not good for the bees. They need variety in order to have different proteins available to them, or different chemicals, just like humans. We cannot live on one protein only.

There is a massive problem with a little bug that is called the varroa mite, and that is affecting a lot of bees. They have a very short life cycle but they harbor a lot of viruses. I think at last count it was 23 or 27 different viruses that they can carry and give to the honeybees.

You occasionally remove nuisance bees from properties. Do you ever get attacked?

The worst one that I had was in an owl box and it was about 17 or 18 feet up in a palm tree. The people had seen the bees there for a while and had not found them a nuisance, and all of a sudden when they went outside they started to get buzzed by the bees and stung. They had some chickens that got stung by the bees.

So they had requested removal and I did the removal, and those bees were just horrible. I’m climbing up the ladder and I’m about 6, 7 feet away from them and there was just a cloud of bees coming from the colony straight at me, and they were just relentless.

They got through the protective suit because when you bend your arms the suit gets really close to your skin and then they had me there. They had me around my gloves. I ended up culling the queen and took all the drones, so that we didn’t have any of those genetics go out into my apiary or back into Mother Nature.

Who really runs honeybee society?

The workers run the show. The queen bee is the one that lays the eggs and holds the community together with her pheromones. But she has really no say in what is happening. The worker bees will tell the queen bee what to do, and they will hold feed from her if they feel they don’t need as many bees. They will start feeding her more when they feel that there is a nectar flow coming on and they need to increase the bee society in the hive.

How does the queen produce males and females?

The worker bees will make and clean and what we call polish cells where the queen can lay her eggs. If the worker bees decide that there needs to be more drones or more males created, then they will make more drone cells. The drone cells are a little bit bigger than the worker cells. Now, when the queen has gone to lay her eggs, she will actually measure the cell. She will at that stage feel that it is a small cell and she will fertilize the egg. If she feels that there is a large cell, she won’t fertilize the egg and will make a drone. And the fertilized egg will turn into a worker or a queen.

If the queen isn’t getting the job done, what do the others bees do about it?

The workers evaluate the queen’s performance by how much brood she is creating, how many eggs she’s laying and the quality of the eggs. If she’s laying a lot of drones, that means she’s running out of semen, and she can no longer fertilize. She can no longer create worker bees.

If she has mated with a familiar drone — a brother of hers — then she will actually produce an offspring that is not desirable, and the bees will remove that out of the hive even before the bee is hatched. And if that happens a lot then they will decide that (the queen) needs to be replaced.

What they will do at that stage is they will take an egg and try to make that into a queen by creating what we call an emergency queen cell, normally in the middle frame. They will build a little peanut-shaped cell around the egg and make a little queen out of that. Some emergency queens are absolutely awesome, and some emergency queens are not really that good.

Once they get a new (queen) ... the old queen will still be in the hive as well. But if the old queen needs to go, they will actually just form a bundle of bees around her and vibrate their wings, and the heat will actually kill the old queen. And that’s what they’re also doing with intruders, like wasps and other insects that forage on the bees.

For more information about Rein Verbeek’s bees and honey, visit verbeeks-bees.square.site.

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