Sounds in the key of bee

Catching the sweet buzz of western Montana’s apiaries


“The thing I like about beekeeping,” says Jerry McGahan, “Is that if you hurry, everything goes to hell. If you hurry when you’re working bees, they get upset and stop you. You have to work slowly and deliberately, and that’s a good thing for me in my life. Otherwise, I’d just sort of burn out.” As it happens, McGahan is wishing he’d brought his smoker along with us today. There wasn’t as much honey at this yard as he’d been hoping for, and the bees are somewhat uncooperatively trying to rob it back from the combs he’s been removing from their colonies and stacking in spare wooden hive bodies on the back of his truck.

After an hour or so in the yard, you barely notice the hum of tens of thousands of bees flying in and out. But when something happens to upset a hive, like someone making off with more honey than the bees are prepared to part with, the volume and pitch of the ambient buzz cranks up a notch. And then you notice the hell out of it.

We’re both wearing bee suits: white denim coveralls, elbow-length denim and leather gloves, and mesh veils draped over broad plastic helmets. Whenever the buzz turns louder and chromatically sharper, I nervously double-check the Velcro straps around my ankles and the drawstring seal of the veil around my neck and shoulders.

“Smoke calms them and makes them workable,” explains McGahan. “If you don’t use smoke, they start stinging your gloves, stinging your body all over the place, they just go crazy. And the more they sting the crazier they get, because each time they sting they leave a pheromone that excites the other bees.”

He shows me a hole in one of his gloves. The nickel-sized patch of finger showing through is prickled with little red dots.

“When one bee stings there, that tells the other bees where the hole in your armor is. And then they’ll pick on you. What I have to do is just get tired of it and then I’ll get another pair of gloves.”

McGahan and his wife Janet run Old World Honey and its sister business, Bee Balm Lotions, from their home near Arlee. McGahan has been keeping bees for 29 years, starting from scratch as a hobbyist with just one hive and growing his business into a modest spread that at one point included 500 hives in 17 different yards spread from Thompson Falls to Seeley Lake.

And that’s a pretty small professional operation, he says, considering that most family outfits need 1,000 or even 2,000 hives to stay in business. The closest they came to not making it, McGahan admits, was during three lean honey years from 1982 to 1984. That’s when he and Janet moved into selling beeswax hand lotion to supplement their income. The honey eventually returned, but the lotion remains an important part of the McGahans’ proudly low-impact business. A mail-order catalogue offers tubes and bottles of lotion and jars of clear and “creamed” honey in a variety of sizes, plus a number of limited-production items like beeswax candles and card-sized prints of Janet’s wildlife watercolors. You can even get a copy of Jerry’s novel, Condor Brings the Sun.

After selling off their “outyards” six years ago, the McGahans were left with 277 colonies in seven yards running from Ravalli to Evaro. The yard Jerry is working today has 32 colonies laid out in a long, skinny U-shape, and it will take him several hours to get through them all. The home yard in Arlee is the biggest with 60 hives; the smallest yard has 20. “I either had to upsize or downsize,” McGahan says, “And I decided to downsize. We always stayed small because we couldn’t get larger, and then when another business came up for sale, I really wasn’t interested because I had all I wanted to deal with already.”

The McGahans’ 277 colonies are among an estimated 2.51 million hives nationwide and 136,000 in Montana. Last year, Montana bee colonies produced an average of 102 pounds of honey apiece and beekeepers sold it for an average of 65 cents per pound, placing Montana in the top six nationwide for estimated number of colonies, pounds of honey produced, and total value of production.

Estimated, that is. According to Julia Pirnack of the Longmont, Colo.-based National Honey Board, which compiles such statistics, the total number of beekeepers in the United States can only be guessed at.

“Estimates range from 130,000 to over 200,000,” Pirnack says. “Of those, about 95 percent are what we call hobbyists. They have a few hives in their yards or orchards, and at that level it’s kind of like someone having a vegetable garden in their backyard. Our exemption level is 6,000 pounds a year, so typically people who make less—which is all the hobbyists—aren’t part of the assessment profile.

“The National Agricultural Statistics Service leaves out anything less than five colonies,” Pirnack adds. “So even on their survey of colony numbers you’re getting most of the smallest producers excluded. But [hobbyist apiculture] is very interesting and a very valuable thing, because a lot of the local honey is produced by people who don’t do it on any kind of professional level.”

Honey’s sweet origins

Beekeeping goes back a long way, at least to the time of the ancient Egyptians, who didn’t just like to eat honey; they also noted its healing effect when used in topical treatments for wounds. A sweet tooth for wild honey almost certainly goes back even further, perhaps with painful lessons for the first hunter-gatherer groups in how to filch the goopy delicacy from wild combs in tree trunks and hollow logs. Early foragers might have learned by happy accident that smoke can be used to calm bees down, perhaps even long enough for a hive to be scooped up and moved to a more conveniently located tree trunk or hollow log.

Bees themselves, of course, have been around a lot longer. Fossil evidence is scarce, but bees probably appeared around the same time as flowering plants in the Cretaceous period, 74 to 146 million years ago. The ancestors of today’s honeybees first evolved in tropical climates and colonized or re-colonized Europe as ice sheets retreated and temperatures warmed after the Ice Age, some 14,000 years ago.

There are now about 25,000 different kinds of bees worldwide, their numbers divided taxonomically into 11 families, myriad subfamilies and genera, and still more species and subspecies. The bees in Jerry McGahan’s apiaries are subspecies of one of the only two species of bee suitable for apiculture in moveable hive combs: Apis mellifera ligustica, better known as the Italian honeybee, and its closest relative, Apis mellifera carnica, the Carniolan bee.

Although their behavioral habits differ somewhat, both subspecies possess traits that make them well-adapted to Montana’s capricious climate. Cold, hard winters, McGahan says, are great for the hardier, gray-bodied Carniolans, which don’t require as much honey to overwinter and breed less explosively during slow, smooth, gradual transitions from winter to spring. Springs that seem to arrive overnight, on the other hand, are great for the yellow-ringed Italians, who venture out of the hive earlier and build up honey stocks several times faster. Unfortunately, says McGahan, they also run out of honey 10 times faster, and when cold snaps drive them back into the hive, he often has to feed them with honey borrowed from the Carniolans. Both subspecies have a reputation for being quiet and “gentle on the comb.” On days like today, McGahan putters in his apiaries with only a radio for company. Extracting the honey back at the honey house is more of a family activity, but when McGahan is out pulling frames, he prefers to work alone. Working his way from hive to hive, he knocks a big rock off the lid of each one, drives the bees into the lower hive bodies with a sheet of felt doused in a noxious-smelling volatile chemical, and has a look inside the top two hive bodies, or “supers.”

Each super contains eight wooden frames; each frame can hold eight pounds of honey in the hundreds of hexagonal cells of the honeycomb. Construction of the cells is undertaken by the female worker bees, who build them out of a sheet of thick plastic using wax secreted in little flakes from a gland on their abdomens. The workers also tend the bee larvae, or brood, in each frame, clean the cells, gather the honey, and cap each cell when it’s full. In fact, about the only thing in the hive the workers don’t do is mate with the queen. This work is done by drones, stingless male bees hatched from unfertilized eggs, whose only job is to deposit enough sperm into the queen for her to lay anywhere from 80,000 to 200,000 eggs in the course of her five-year lifetime.

Drones have it pretty good—for awhile. They’re also the only members of the colony that don’t spend the winter circulating in a dense, oblong mass of bodies to keep the queen warm. As the rest of the hive settles down for winter, the drones get the bum’s rush.

“They just mate with the queen,” McGahan says. “That’s all they do. And in the fall they just kick them out of the hive. Just stumbling around out there, it’s pretty sad. They’ve had it.”

If the frames are heavy with honey and most of the worker brood in them has hatched, McGahan loads the whole super onto the back of his truck to bring to the honey house. He also marks strong hives to make his next generation of queens from, as well as weaker hives, hives that haven’t wintered well, or hives that are just plain mean.

“Whatever ends up making a colony that produces more honey than another one, that’s what I want,” he says. “Instead of looking for certain characteristics and focusing on them, I just look for what I want, which is honey. That and gentleness. So if I get a mean hive—off with their heads, and a new queen goes in.

“That one right over there,” he says, pointing to one super, “I’d smoke the bejeezus out of them and they’d still nail me. They were just terrible. But I put a new queen in the middle of the summer, and after the last of that queen’s brood hatched and eventually died, there was all new behavior.”

Collective wisdom

Like most people who spend a lot of time working by themselves, McGahan has developed some peculiar habits. He talks to himself—or maybe the bees—a lot. “Other beekeepers around here tease me that I know all my queens by name,” he chuckles. “I’m also a little bit different from other beekeepers in that I manage the hell out of my hives and keep excellent records about everything. I guess that’s just my science upbringing.”

McGahan, who holds a Masters degree in zoology from the University of Montana and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, developed an interest in bees while working as a teacher’s aide on the Madison campus. Part of his research included setting up von Frisch experiments, copies of the famous experiment which demonstrated how bees use body language to communicate the direction and distance of food sources.

“That was during all the Kent State stuff,” McGahan recalls. “I had cops buzzing all over me because I had these bottles of sugar water set up on campus. They thought it was nitroglycerin or something.”

“But I fell head over heels in love with those bees,” he adds, recalling the time when the waggles of a worker bee returning to the hive in October, its legs inexplicably covered with pollen, gave his research team precise directions to a single potted geranium on the other side of campus. McGahan is clearly taken with his bees. He knows their moods.

“Overcast weather makes them grumpy,” he says. “They don’t like wind, especially if it’s cold out. The other thing you notice is called hive morale. When you’ve got a weak hive, the bees aren’t very aggressive. When a hive gets up to full strength, they’re more aggressive. They get demoralized as hell when they’re weak, and you can provoke the heck out of them and not get near the response that you’d get from a strong hive.”

McGahan, who built most of his equipment himself and once held down three jobs to get his business started, clearly admires the bees’ capacity for hard work, their efficient specialization and, in contrast to his solitary habits, their instinctual collectivism.

“With honeybees, the whole hive is sort of like one individual,” he says. “They’re very complicated, but they’re not flexible. There’s no figuring anything out for them. It’s all hard-wired. But what’s hard-wired it’s absolutely amazing.”

Just consider, he says, the arrangement of slightly upturned cells in the honeycomb.

“Look at one of those boxes,” he says “And think about the system you’d devise for keeping 60 pounds of honey in there and having it stay while it’s getting bounced around on the back of a truck. It’s pretty remarkable.” The average worker bee makes about a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its six-week lifetime. A honeybee visits between 50 and 100 flowers on each nectar-gathering trip, and it takes the nectar of about 2 million flowers to make just one pound of honey.

Most Montana honeys, Old World Honey included, are mixed-flower honeys. Jerry McGahan’s bees sip a little nectar from a wide assortment of seasonal flowers—dandelions, chokecherry, raspberry, linden, asters and goldenrod—but most of it comes from just two species: sweetclover, also known as melilot, and good old spotted knapweed. In fact, many believe it was actually beekeepers who introduced spotted knapweed to the United States, where it runs riot without the biological controls it evolved with, from its native Eurasia. Despised by practically everybody, the plug-ugly invader is still a big part of what gives Montana honey its sought-after lightness and mild flavor.

Even McGahan can’t tell clover honey from knap honey—not by tasting it, anyway. He can tell by their different tendencies to sugar, or form into the granules associated with old honey, after extraction.

“The only way I can tell is by looking,” he admits. “Knap can go for a year without sugaring, but clover honey starts to granulate if you look at it cross-eyed.”

Predators large and small

Earlier in the day at the McGahans’ home yard, Jerry and I hear his two dogs barking furiously off in the distance.

“That’s probably a bear,” he says. “In fact, I’m sure it’s a bear. He’s been here for the last couple of weeks, and every three or four days the dogs go after him.”

Bears love honey. Everybody knows that. McGahan has bear problems in all seven of his yards, where a failing battery for the electrified fence protecting the hives can make the difference between pulling several hundred pounds and getting completely wiped out by a resourceful ursid.

But the bigger problems for bees and beekeepers these days are smaller than the bees themselves. McGahan has to regularly treat his hives for afflictions like tracheal mites, foulbrood and chalkbrood, any of which can devastate a bee colony. Food shortening gets rid of the tracheal mites; McGahan applies it twice a year in the form of a patty that also includes the antibiotic Terramycin to control the larvae-killing foulbrood.

Less tractable is the Varroa mite, a Southeast Asian invader that leapfrogged its way to Europe on wandering honeybees before arriving in the United States in the late ’80s. Like spotted knapweed, Varroa infestations have exploded across the United States in the absence of the biological checks and balances the mite evolved with in Indonesia.

“The mite doesn’t have the same kind of relationship with European honeybees that it did with bees in Indonesia,” McGahan says. “It kills them, completely wipes them out. That’s why there aren’t any wild hives around anymore. They’ve all been destroyed by the Varroa.”

McGahan is strongly opposed to chemical insecticides, but feels that the mite’s propensity for developing resistances to organic pesticides has left him with little choice in the matter. Some of his hobbyist friends, he says, have had modest success treating the Varroa with essential oils, but McGahan is understandably reluctant to stake his livelihood on experimentation. In any event, he only adds the CheckMite-impregnated strips to the hives when the last of the year’s honey has been pulled off, and removes them religiously on the recommended fall date.

“You don’t want to kill all the mites that are not resistant,” he explains, noting that many beekeepers are actually making the problem worse by leaving the strips in too long. “If you leave the stuff in all winter, all you’ve got left are two or three mites that can deal with it, and overnight they evolve. You’ve got a mutation that works, it’s been strongly selected for, and it’s immediately in the population and it’s immediately in the largest population in the gene pool.”

Bert Wustner, a Missoula beekeeper who supplies a number of local bakeries with honey from 1,025 colonies in 41 locations around western Montana, agrees. He does everything he can to keep his apiaries as chemical-free as possible, but at the end of the day he’s also got a business to run. “We’ve used essential oils,” says Wustner, adding that he also tries to keep up with organic developments in his bee journals. “But every other year or so you have to bite the bullet and use a commercial mitacide to kill them off, otherwise you’re out of business. It’s great to know they’re trying to work on more organic products, but for the time being we can’t just get rid of all our bees.”

Into the honey house

The McGahans’ honey house is a plank-sided longhouse with hops growing up the side and a chimney knotted with animal skulls and antlers poking out of a multicolored aluminum roof. In the upstairs loft, where the honey gets extracted from the comb, it’s hot and humid and redolent with sweet-smelling fumes.

Jerry feeds the frames into a machine with two square-toothed, water-irrigated blades that slice away the honeycomb on either side of the frame and drop it into a 10-foot steel trough, slightly elevated at one end. Hot water pipes keep the honey fluid as it moves by gravity under a series of heating elements that melt the waxy comb and float it to the surface. There are two runoff pipes at the other end of the trough. One pours the honey into a tank in the floor equipped with a series of baffles to trap anything that might be floating in it—errant wax, pollen, bees or propolis, the sticky linden sap that honeybees gather to fix cracks and holes in the comb. The other draws the melted wax into a tray where it cools to the color of wet buckskin, ready to be melted down again for candles and lotion.

Two large centrifuges extract more honey from the comb, spinning the frames for 15 or 20 minutes and feeding the runoff into the floor tank. The extracted frames will now rotate back into the hives, where worker bees will build them out again.

The still-warm honey gets pumped through one last series of baffles and finally comes to rest in a huge steel tank with a spigot at the bottom. Janet McGahan and two of the couple’s grandchildren are filling one-pound jars and pressing Old World Honey labels on them.

There wasn’t much to extract today, so Jerry is decanting a few massive barrels of granulated honey earmarked for a Bitterroot meadery that should have picked them up weeks ago. Covered to the elbows in honey, he’s scooping it back into the melting trough with an army-surplus entrenching tool and talking about his plans for retirement.

“It’s been a good life,” he muses. “Our six kids worked for us in the honey house. We paid them a wage, but we’d only give them 10 percent of it and put the other 90 percent in the bank, so even though we don’t have too much money around here they still had a fund for college. Two of them used it to go traveling. The only stipulation we put on it is was that they couldn’t use it to buy a car. Go to college. Go see the world. Just don’t buy a stupid car.”

“I love it,” he sighs. “I love being with the bees and being physically active and being outside, but I’m just going to keep a few hives when I retire. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of lifting. A lot of just moving something from here to there, lifting stuff and trudging around with it. I’m ready for a change.”

Bert Wustner plans to continue, although he expresses concerns that the farmland he keeps his bees on is getting harder and harder for the farmers themselves to hang on to. Wustner got into beekeeping as a summer job and, like Jerry McGahan, ended up falling in love.

“It’s a kind of living where you’re producing something good for people and not damaging the environment,” Wustner says. “If anything, you’re helping it. It’s a clean type of life and you feel good about what you’re doing.

“Even if,” he chuckles, “it is kind of a sticky business.”

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