Beekeeper Derrick Maness peers through an illuminated magnifying lens that casts light onto a rectangle of honeycomb. He steadies the fine-tipped tool in his hand and focuses on a tiny smudge cradled in one of the hexagonal cups, then plunges the instrument in, scoops out the larva and flicks it into a row of diminutive cups attached to a strip of wood before him.
“We’re going to be pulling out an egg the size of a pencil dot and trying to put it into this without killing it,” he explains. It’s a critical step in an intricate process to make new queen bees.
The women he once worked with at Kona Queens in Hawaii grafted 5,000 eggs every hour into queen cups this way, he tells his student. But tonight the pace is relaxed as he demonstrates and allows time for practice.
This primer on grafting queens was one in a series of beekeeping classes Maness has been teaching in Silt this summer. About 10 students have been showing up off and on since April. The learning is aimed at hobbyists, sideliners, complete beginners. The class structure is casual; aspiring beekeepers attend as many or as few sessions as they want, and pay per class. The goal is to get together, swap ideas and learn from each other — and the bees.
“Everything I’ve learned is because I’ve messed up,” said Maness.
Diseases, viruses, starvation and neglect kill bees. Maness grew reluctant to sell hives to unprepared novices. “That’s why I created the class,” he said. “It’s hard to conceive how much work there is in it.”
IT’S MOUNTAIN HONEY
Maness keeps almost 600 hives of his own in 23 locations scattered from Emma to Parachute. His Colorado Mountain Honey, and his wife, Melissa, can be spotted at farmers’ markets in Glenwood Springs and Rifle this summer.
“I’ve looked at more beehives than the average person,” he said in a major understatement. At 32, he has 19 years under his belt in the beekeeping business. At age 14 he started working for second-generation beekeeper Paul Limbach of Silt, a large operator whose family has been producing honey and maintaining bee yards in western Colorado for 60 years.
Maness got the job after a family tragedy. One of Limbach’s two nephews being groomed for the family business drowned on a camping trip near Grand Junction.
““They needed help because they were short-handed. Our families knew each other.”
He’d work after school, on weekends and in the summer.
He tried his hand at other work, but he kept returning to the bees. “It was always just such an amazing summer job,” Maness said.
Then, when he was 24, he took a job at Kona Queens in Hawaii, and learned the esoteric art of rearing queen bees.
“I had no intentions of learning to do queens. It was a job, and I was going to go live in Hawaii,” he said. “I started to like it and fell in love with it. When I got back I was really adamant about raising my own queens.”
Each colony of bees has one queen. She’s a little larger and longer than the other bees and the only female in the colony that mates. If a hive is thriving and becomes overcrowded, half of the bees will leave with the queen in a swarm to find a new nest, leaving behind one or more new queens ready to hatch as the old queen departs.
MOTHER’S MILK OF THE HIVE
Royal jelly, the stuff sold in little vials at the health food store, is a bee product, and the key to debuting a queen bee.
“In a frame of brood,” he continued, “you’ll always see the circle of brood, and then you’ll have a rainbow of pollen, and then a rainbow of honey. When those babies pop out, the first thing they’ll do, in total darkness, is just go right to a cell of open honey and pollen and start gorging, because their next job is to feed the next nursery bees. The way they feed the nursery bees is through royal jelly. Royal jelly is a secretion. It’s just like mother’s milk, breast milk, except bees make it in their forehead.”
Any fertilized egg in the hive can become either a worker bee or a queen bee, depending on how much royal jelly it receives in the first few days of life. In an astonishing trick of nature, unfertilized eggs turn into male drones.
The queen bee requires less time in the larval stage than workers or drones – about 16 days – but she will long outlive all her contemporaries. A queen typically lives two to five years, even up to seven years, compared with the four-week lifespan of a worker bee in the height of summer.
Promptly upon hatching in all her queenly splendour, she flies to a mysterious drone congregation area to rendezvous with male bees and mate in full flight with a dozen or more of them. Afterward she returns to the hive “well mated” and assumes the duty of laying eggs for the rest of her life, protected by her colony. Her extravagantly promiscuous mating flight will end her sex life; she stores the males’ seed in her body to fertilize all her eggs thereafter.
Twenty-four hours after Maness grafts the young larvae into the queen cups, he’ll move them into finishing hives until a day before they hatch. Then he’ll plant them in separate hives, because if the queens hatch out next to each other, they will battle for supremacy. Unlike the workers, the queen bee can sting many times with her retractable, barbless stinger, and with it she will kill all of her sisters before they hatch, given the opportunity.
NO BOOKS NEEDED
“It’s not a textbook class,” said Maness, but a hands-on opportunity to work with bees throughout their active season, starting with the “spring checklist” in April and aided by 24 bee colonies on-site. The classes correlate with the bee season, and students crack open the hives each time to observe their diversity and learn to maintain them.
The last class in August will teach aspiring beekeepers what to do after pulling honey out of the hive. Next comes the honey harvest. “Then it’s time to get bees to California,” said Maness, where almost all the commercial bees in the U.S. now journey in the winter to pollinate almonds and strengthen the hives.
Maness loads his hives onto two semi-trucks bound for California in November, then follows them there in January. Two years ago he worked with Lyle Johnston, a multi-generation Colorado beekeeper who now brokers bees to California, to learn the ropes. Last winter he cared for about 2,500 hives from western Colorado and another 2,000 of Johnston’s, feeding them, checking for diseases and “seeing what bees face out there.” Because most brokers see their jobs as no more than moving bees on and off the trucks, Maness is dedicated to “saving the bees’ lives,” mainly through basic stewardship.
“So many things brought me here,” he mused, standing next to his 24 classroom hives bathed in shimmering evening sunshine. When Maness was a middle school student in Rifle, a favorite teacher, Mr. Quinn, assigned him a seat right next to an observation hive the science teacher kept in the classroom. Maness remembers “zoning out” and watching the queen during long days in the classroom.
More recently, he worked up his resolve to give up beekeeping and chase after a high-paying job in the gas fields. He’d made up his mind and was driving to Silt to inform Limbach he was quitting. As he exited the interstate at Rifle, Steve Miller’s “Wild Mountain Honey” started playing on the truck’s radio. He took it as a sign, kept his job and named his honey company after the song.
He’ll teach two more classes this month to cover pest management and readying the hives for winter.