Bees bed down for the winter

Monday, November 5, 2001

AURORA, Ill. -- "To tell you the truth," Scott Robillard says, "we could come out here stark naked right now and we'd probably be fine."

Robillard doesn't bother with the jumpsuit over his work clothes, but he does don a hat and mesh veil to protect his face. Bees are attracted to dark places and he chooses not to tempt them with his ears.

It's time to put his bees to bed for winter.

Robillard fills his smoker, a hand-sized pouch equipped with bellows and a spout, with smoldering pine needles. Then he heads for his hives. Each is a white box a few feet high; they're taller in the summer, when they include extra sections for the honey he will harvest. But the harvest is long over now.

Robillard puffs a little smoke into the hive and lifts the lid off. Inside are 30,000 bees and the 200 pounds of honey they will live off of all winter.

"Bees are such a perfect society," he says.

RoBee Apiaries is just 4 years old. Robillard took a beekeeping class and "got a little bit addicted." The next year he started his own business. By day he's an engineer. On afternoons and weekends, he tends his bees and sells the product to wholesalers, to retailers and at farmers' markets.

In the winter, bees are on their own. But first Robillard medicates his hives against American foulbrood disease. He has already mixed the medicine with powdered sugar; he sprinkles spoonfuls on top of the hive before he closes it again.

Don't whack the hive

The first year he kept bees as a business, Robillard bought 10 hives. He stacked the white brood boxes in his truck. He had tied binding straps around each hive to keep them solid, but two of the boxes shifted off of center, leaving exposed cracks in the middles of the hives. He didn't feel like cutting off the binding straps. Instead, he figured, he'd just give each hive a good whack with his hand to knock it back on center.

Bees don't like it when the hive vibrates.

Robillard couldn't think "ouch" fast enough to keep up with the stings, so he did the smart thing. He ran.

He came back 15 minutes later and the bees were calm. He fixed the hives the right way and he went about his business. But his hands were swollen and his fingers were puffed up like sausages.

Now Robillard has learned a thing or two about bee stings. Discovering he has one on his arm, he takes the metal scraper he's been using in the hive and scoops the insect off. He knows that swatting it would only force more venom in. Something mild like this will hardly leave a mark.

Not that it happens very often. Cooling weather makes the bees less active, and the smoke he puffs into their hives is calming. They retreat into the hive to gorge themselves on honey, so that they can flee in case the smell means fire.

Today, as most days, it does not. It's just the beekeeper bedding down his bees for winter. Robillard makes his way down the aisle with medication; when the final hive is done, it's time to go. And then his bees will cluster in a basketball shape, huddling for warmth toward the bottom of each hive.

They'll wait for spring.

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