WINCHESTER, Va. – As a child, Bill Ryals had a great interest in bees. He had no fear of them and spent time playing around them. Today, his fascination with honeybees has led to a hobby that has him buzzing.
Ryals, chief of Programs and Project Management Division's Support for Others Branch, has worked for USACE for 34 years and came to the Middle East District nine years ago. During his time with the district, Ryals discovered a class taught by the Beekeepers of the Northern Shenandoah Valley at Blandy Experimental Farm, State Arboretum of Virginia. However, with his constant travel to Iraq, he was unable to attend but never gave up his interest. Three years ago, he was able to attend the six-week course and learned the basics of apiculture, or beekeeping.
He learned how to build a beehive and buy the queen and colony to fill it. A course representative helped him set up his own hive at his home. Ryals also learned about beekeeping basics, hive management, pests and diseases that threaten bees, and seasonal activities.
"The best part of having a hobby is meeting other people who also enjoy the same activity," said Ryals. "The NSV Beekeepers are helpful and knowledgeable. They have so much to share about their passion."
Ryals said that getting started in beekeeping can range in cost from $500 to $1,000, including purchasing or constructing the hives and buying the bees. Bees can be ordered in a nucleus, or nuc box, which consists of five or more frames, a queen and about 10,000 worker bees, a brood (or family), and honey and pollen to help the bees get a better start. Because of their lifecycles, bees are typically only available for purchase in mid-spring to early summer when they are more active.
Ryals learned that beekeepers are advised to wear protective clothing, usually a white suit, gloves and a veiled hat. Light colored and smooth fabric is best to wear when dealing with bees. It allows the bees to differentiate from their natural predators such as bears, which are furry and usually dark colored. Bees are also attracted to exhaled breath: the veiled hat protects against stings on the face that are more painful than if stung elsewhere.
Other instruments needed for beekeeping include a smoker to make the bees calmer and easier to handle, and a hive tool for removing frames and dislodging and uncapping the cells. Smoking sets off a feeding response as the bees anticipate the possibility they may have to abandon the hive for fear of fire and causes them to eat the honey, leaving them "punch drunk," Ryals said. The smoke also masks their ability to send out alarm pheromones that can be triggered by the guards or by squashing a bee.
A honeybee hive community consists of a queen, worker bees and drones.
Apiology, or the study of honeybees, reveals that the queen is raised by the hive from a normal worker egg by feeding her a greater amount of royal jelly within a larger cell. This causes a radical growth and transformation from the other workers. She controls the rest of the hive through the production of pheromones. The queen, which is normally the only female able to breed, can live up to three or more years and can lay upwards of 3,000 eggs in one day during breeding season. The queen can choose whether to fertilize her eggs or not and what kind to lay depending on the cell space she has provided. A fertilized egg becomes a female worker bee, while an unfertilized egg becomes a male drone.
Ryals explained the female workers are the protectors of the queen and hive as well as being the collectors of nectar and pollen. Female honeybees are the only gender with stingers. As they get older and their wings become tattered from flying, they become the guards of the hive.
Male drones are the largest bees in the hive except for the queen. Drones are bred only for mating with the queen; they do not serve a work or protection purpose. In winter months the worker bees will force the drones out of the hives to die by biting and ripping at their wings and legs.
Through his beekeeping hobby, Ryals has experienced highs and lows with his hives. The first year he purchased two colonies which both died from a fungus.
The next year he got another set of queens in nucs. During the season, he witnessed the bees in one of his hives beginning to swarm. A swarm is when a queen becomes too weak to control the hive and the worker bees begin growing a new queen. The existing queen and many of the worker bees flee the hive in search of a new one.
Ryals was able to capture the swarm when they began nesting in a tree. He placed the swarm in an extra hive and was able to create a third hive that year. But again, by the end of the season, his bees had died down to only one hive.
This year, he has two hives made up of one swarm from last year and another swarm that he and his brother-in-law collected from the yard of district coworker Brian Ball. Each hive is doing well this year and look to be strong.
Bees are most active midday during warm temperatures. When it is cool and damp, they stay in the hive more. Ryals enjoys watching as their behavior changes throughout the day. "In the evenings, they will sit on the stoop, looking like they are 'smoking and joking.' They gather, but they aren't doing anything."
Ryals has been stung a few times by his bees, but he doesn't let that deter him from his hobby. Bees are not aggressive creatures; they usually sting in self-defense or to protect the queen and hive. Bees have barbed stingers that rip out their abdomens and kill them upon stinging. Each sting releases venom that can lead to pain, swelling, or an allergic reaction in victims.
When Ryals originally decided to start this pastime, he approached his neighbors to let them know what to expect. At first, they were hesitant, but now they are tolerant of his activities. Ryals said the neighbors' concerns were for their children, but he immediately invited them over to educate them on the bees and safety.
"It is just good education," said Ryals, who feels that it will help children to understand lessons in science class better after having hands-on experience. He is also helping some children to get their merit badges in their scouting troops with this knowledge. "My motivation for this hobby is to make it available to my grandchildren, family members, and the kids in the neighborhood to understand something they generally see as a threat."
None of the children have been stung, but he always has an EpiPen nearby for emergencies, as well as having a nurse for a wife.
Ryals has not produced his own honey, but usually gives the cells of honey to friends for them to eat directly from the comb. He said it takes about five frames out of a hive to make one quart jar of honey.
Honeybee enthusiasts and some medical professionals agree that honey has many medicinal uses, making it more than just a sticky treat. Some enthusiasts believe that if a person has bad allergies to pollen, they should eat local honey, which if not completely processed will still contain traces of pollen. Some studies suggest this method may ease allergies, but these findings are often disputed among the medical community. Honey has also been used for dressing wounds and burns and as a cough suppressant. While honey is natural and fine for adult consumption, people are strongly cautioned to never feed it to an infant.
Ryals' wife wants him to give up his leisurely pursuit at the end of this season if his bees die off again, but he wants to continue. For now he likes to see the effect the bees have on his garden and trees, and he also wants to continue enjoying the entertainment that the buzzing, busy-body bees provide him.