DOVER —Before opening the hive box where thousands of honeybees are at work, Rein Verbeek uses a specialized canister to puff smoke around it. The buzzing pitch rises, then drops.
“It’s like a knock on the door, saying I’m here,’’ said Verbeek.
The smoke calms the bees; he doesn’t know why. But he’s glad for anything that keeps them from swarming at him in force, as they will do if they’re mad enough. One has to be calm around bees so as to not agitate them. "They have a really good sense of what your attitude is.''
For the occasional sting — when a bee gets inside his protective beekeeper suit or is pressed against it — he daubs the spot with an antihistamine, which not only soothes the pain and reduces swelling but also erases the pheromone that the first bee leaves there, signaling other bees to attack.
The infrequent risk of getting stung is about the only down side to a hobby that has intrigued him since 2014, when he attended his first monthly meeting of the Tampa Bay Beekeepers Association, whose members come mostly from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. Verbeek, who spent most of his career growing ornamental plants and flowers, joins nearly 5,000 registered beekeepers in Florida. That’s up from just 631 in 2006, said Amy Vu, extension coordinator at the University of Florida Honey Bee Research and Extension Lab. A lot of hobbyists are drawn to it because of the local food movement; they want to make their own honey, said Vu.
Verbeek said his daughter, who had worked with a beekeeper while in college, suggested it might be something he’d like. She bought him his first bees.
“Honestly, I thought that was not going to be something for me, a box with 10,000 stinging critters in it,’’ he said with a laugh. “An ant looks crooked at me and I swell up.’’
But Verbeek, 52, a native of Holland who has lived in this country since 1987, has now become such an old hand at beekeeping that he takes calls to remove nuisance hives, colonies that have expanded inside the walls of people’s homes or other inconvenient places. At those times, it’s more likely that an angry swarm will zero in on him, as has happened. Rarely does one penetrate his protective suit.
At his home in the country on Sydney Washer Road, where bees flit throughout his yard and roosters crow regularly, Verbeek oversees 16 hives, dominated by worker bees, all females. He often refers to the inhabitants as “my girls.’’ They are, in truth, the power above the throne.
“They say the queen bee rules the colony, but that’s not really the case.''
The worker bees determine what the hive needs and make it happen. If they decide the hive needs more worker bees, they create smaller wax cells in the comb. If the hive needs more drones — bigger males whose only purpose is mating with a queen — they build larger cells. The queen knows to fertilize the eggs in smaller cells and not fertilize the eggs in the larger cells.
Drones are the hive’s second-class citizens. As soon as they inseminate a virgin queen on a mating flight, they die. If it isn’t mating season and conditions are such that not enough food is available, workers kick drones out of the hive, and they die.
The workers replace dysfunctional queens by placing a 1- to 3-day old egg in a specially-constructed cell and feeding it only protein-enriched royal jelly, which is secreted from glands on their heads. Each hive has only one queen, so the first queen to emerge kills the larvae of other queens. If two queens reach maturity at the same time, they fight to the death. The survivor becomes queen of the colony.
The eggs of worker bees lie in royal jelly for three days before hatching into larvae. For the next six days, the larvae are fed bee bread, made from nectar, pollen and bee saliva. They are sealed in the cells and spin cocoons. Worker bees emerge in 21 days as young bees, which feed on honey that is stored in other cells.
Though bee colonies have been in serious decline for more than a decade, Florida colonies are showing net increases of about 1 percent a year, said Vu.
The varroa mite, an external parasite that attaches to the bee and feeds on it, is causing the most destruction, Vu said. The honey bee lab’s main research is focused on how to control it. Another big problem is loss of nutrition, meaning the decline in bee-friendly plants due to urbanization and other factors, she said. The lab encourages Florida residents to grow more plants that supply the nectar bees need. And a third factor is declining quality of the queens, which normally lay 1,000 to 2,000 eggs a day. That’s another problem the lab is researching.
Verbeek has found that a full colony can produce between 45 and 90 pounds of honey per year. His wife, Ani Verbeek, who works for the City of Tampa, helps monitor hive activity, extract the honey and package it in jars. They mostly give it away to family and friends, though hobbyists are allowed to sell their honey at farmers’ markets and similar outlets.
Verbeek uses two kinds of hive boxes, the traditional being a Langstroth box, invented in 1851 by a clergyman, Rev. L.L. Langstroth, called the father of American beekeeping. In Langstroth hive boxes, bees build their combs on vertically-placed frames. Verbeek also uses top bar boxes, where combs are built on the underside of straight lengths of wood lined up across the top of the box.
Most Florida beekeeper hobbyists get their start with what’s called a nucleus box, he said. It has five frames of bees, brood, nectar, honey and pollen and a mated queen. "They know each other already; they’re ready to explode into the bigger hive.'' Many of Verbeek’s boxes have 40,000 or more bees, all working together like a single, thinking organism.
"The whole hive together decides on what they need to do and how they need to do it.’’
Asked how long it took him to know what he was doing, he joked, "I still don’t know what I’m doing.'' He loves to learn new things, he said, and beekeeping is a constant education.
“It’s a fun hobby,'' he said. "There’s always something else that pops up and something else to do.''
For information about the Tampa Bay Beekeepers Association, go to tampabaybeekeepers.com