Beekeeper Roy Otterholt didn’t bother to gear up while giving a tour of one of his urban hives.
No gloves, no veil, no hazmat-like suit.
But other than that, he was dressed the part. If Indiana Jones had wrangled bees instead of bad guys, I imagine he’d look a lot like Otterholt did that Sunday.
A relatively new beekeeper, Otterholt sold his first batch of raw honey recently, just in time for Mother’s Day. I picked up a few jars from his wife, appropriately named Amber.
This is not the clear, runny stuff that comes from the supermarket. This is the Louis C.K. of honey — raw and unfiltered.
At this hive in North Tucson, perched in the corner of a huge yard, were the “nice” honeybees from a gentle hive, where we would not likely be stung.
The more aggressive colonies are kept on the outskirts of Tucson, farther away from people.
Otterholt regularly checks on his hives, and on this day we were on a hunt to find the queen — no easy task in a colony of thousands. See if you can spot her in the photos. (Hint: she's marked for easier identification.)
Plenty of farmers and gardeners dream of keeping bees someday, and I was curious to know what it’s really like.
What got him into beekeeping:
It all started about 15 years ago with a visit to a pumpkin patch. Otterholt was there with his family and someone had left a bit of honey on a plate.
A lone bee settled on the honey.
“I found it fascinating watching the bee gather it back up.”
When someone suggested killing it, Otterholt took offense. Why kill her? She was just retrieving something that was hers to begin with, he says.
That piqued his interest and he looked into beekeeping, but the costs of getting started scared him off.
His interest never waned, though, and last year he became an apprentice, learning the ropes from a local beekeeper in exchange for his labor.
The first time he opened up a hive and heard that hum, he was hooked — and a lifelong passion was born.
Why are some bees nicer than others?
Aggressive colonies are usually Africanized. But if you have a queen with a gentle disposition, you’ll have gentle bees, he says.
As Otterholt explains, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Africanized bees starting showing up here in the U.S. from South America.
A parasitic mite — the varroa mite — appeared at about the same time and started killing off honeybees. That forced many beekeepers out of business. Today’s beekeepers still do battle against the varroa mite.
With the Africanized bees, the aggressive genes are dominant. Africanized bees have a bad temperament and tend to "abscond" from the hive — only about half of them will stick around, he says.
The queen bee rules the hive, but the beekeeper must manage it properly for good results.
“When a queen starts to fail or dies, they will make their own queen,” he says. “What happens then is she will go out and mate — and that’s where the Africanization starts.”
So periodically he will requeen the hive with a gentle Italian queen. Or he will divide the colony to weaken it and keep it from becoming too aggressive.
So exactly how many bees does he have?
Just kidding — an estimate would be fine.
When we spoke, he was up to 24 colonies. How many bees is that? There are roughly 50,000 bees per colony, times 24. So although math isn’t my strong suit, I’m going to say that’s about 1.2 million bees. Give or take.
How many times has he been stung?
(Chuckles.) “A lot.”
He guesses a hundred times, probably more.
As you’d expect, he used to get stung more often when he was just starting out.
His body doesn’t react much to bee stings — except for one day when he was stung a dozen times and became nauseous as a result.
“I don’t mind it. Stings happen,” he says. “I feel bad for the bee.”
As you may remember from grade school biology, a bee dies after it releases its stinger.
How long does it take to process the honey?
Besides all the work to manage the hives, repair equipment and keep the honeybees healthy, it can take many hours once the honey is pulled to process: It’s heated, strained and then jarred. His first batch was about 100 pounds and took about eight hours to process.
How does he keep his bees from being exposed to harmful pesticides?
Otterholt’s bees forage all over among different plants and in some remote areas, so they’re not exposed to monoculture farming, where pesticide use is heavy.
Plus, he uses food-grade products to control the mites, so the honey is chemical-free.
What else should people know about beekeeping?
“It’s hot, heavy, dirty work,” he says. But worth it.
Watching him pull the hive apart with his bare hands and an air of happy concentration, I could tell he loves every minute of it.
10 fun facts about bees:
- The entire colony is the offspring of the queen.
- Most hives have just one queen, and she's the Cersei Lannister of bees. The first queen to hatch wins — she’ll drill holes where the other potential queens are developing, thus killing them. If two potential queens hatch at the same time, they will fight it out.
- A good queen is worth $25 to $30.
- Hives that “requeen” themselves get more aggressive as they breed with Africanized bees.
- When a bee colony is relocated, it must be moved more than 2 miles away or the bees will try to return to the old spot.
- Drones, the male bees, are kicked out of the hive before winter because they’re no longer useful to the colony. Ejected from the hive, they will either starve or freeze to death.
- A worker bee gets to sting once in its lifetime, then dies when the stinger and venom sac leave its body. Ah, but to be a queen: She can sting as many times as she likes.
- Drones, however, can’t sting at all.
- Sorry, fellas: There is no king bee. And only a small percentage of the colony is male.
- Bees are able to work together to keep the hive climate-controlled. In the summer, some of the bees will fan the hive to keep air moving.
Source: Roy Otterholt