Sweet Success

Posted: May 1, 2020 at 11:36 am

Young apiary owner marvels at the mysteries of honeybees at work

Before checking on hives, Zane gets into protective clothing with help from his dad, Chad.
Before checking on hives, Zane gets into protective clothing with help from his dad, Chad. Photo by Dianna Troyer

By Dianna Troyer

When 2018 Raft River High School graduate Zane Black was required to do a senior project and also needed an FFA project,
he came up with a sweet solution for both tasks.

“I decided to raise honeybees because it was interesting, but I didn’t have a clue about how to do it,” Zane says. “I’m glad I learned. It’ll probably be a lifelong hobby for me. It’s amazing how bees make honey and wax.”

He named his apiary Z-Bees Honey— playing off his initials.

“My grandpa thought of it,” Zane says.

Zane’s family and friends are grateful he became a beekeeper. He sells and gives away honey. Local artisans make lip balm and candles from the wax honeycomb.

Zane’s six hive boxes in his family’s backyard near Almo are home to about 240,000 bees. They pollinate alfalfa fields, flowers and fruit trees within about a 3-mile radius of home.

A round extruder spins the honey out of the comb so it can drain into a bucket.
A round extruder spins the honey out of the comb so it can drain into a bucket. Photo Courtesy of the Blacks

His healthy hives are also bolstering Idaho’s dwindling bee population. Last fall, beekeepers in central Idaho suspected mites and farmers spraying fungicides on crops were killing their colonies.

Zane’s hives are among an estimated 143,000 statewide that produce 3.3 million pounds of honey annually, according to the Idaho Honey Industry Association.

In 2018, Zane’s first harvest yielded 15 gallons of honey. Last year, production declined to 10 gallons. He suspects the drop was due to a drought that reduced the number of flowering plants.

To learn about beekeeping, Zane and his dad, Chad, enrolled in classes at Tubbs Berry Farm in Twin Falls, learning about the insects’ fascinating lives.

“Bees are phenomenal with what they do to make honey and wax during their short 40-day life span,” Chad says, noting it’s impressive a honeybee can flap its wings about 11,400 times a minute. “If it starts to get too hot in the hive, they’ll get water and fan their wings to keep the temperature at an ideal 95 degrees. During winter, they vibrate their wing muscles to keep the hive warm.”

During their classes, the Blacks learned the intricacies of honey and wax production. To make honey, bees swallow nectar, mix it with enzymes in a honey stomach and regurgitate it. To supplement their natural diet, Zane gives the bees jars of sugar water at the entrance to the hives.

Bees fill honeycomb cells with honey and pollen.
Bees fill honeycomb cells with honey and pollen. Photo courtesy of Zane Black

Worker bees’ glands convert sugar in honey and excrete wax through their pores. They build a honeycomb of wax cells to contain their larvae, and to store honey and pollen to feed the colony.

“It’s fascinating to see how symmetrical they make each wax cell in the honeycomb,” Chad says.

Unsolved mysteries about bees abound. Why do bees instinctively make the wax cells hexagonal? Biologists speculate the six-sided shape is the most efficient use of space.

How are the eggs pre-programmed to become female workers or male drones?

How do workers know their jobs of guarding the hive, or gathering pollen and nectar, or caring for the egg-laying queen or the eggs, larvae and pupae?

Zane’s tools: a hive, long gloves and a smoker
Zane’s tools: a hive, long gloves and a smoker. Photo by Dianna Troyer

How do bees know to fan honey until it has the ideal moisture content of 17% to 20% before it is stored in the honeycomb and capped with wax?

For Zane, the ultimate, slightly painful mystery is how bees seem to find a tiny hole in his protective clothing—a thick white jacket, veiled hat and elbow-length gloves—and sting him when he harvests honey in September.

“I think I’m fully protected, but somehow a few find their way in,” Zane says. “I usually get stung about four or five times.”

To harvest the honey, Zane calms the bees by blowing smoke around the hive. He pulls out wooden frames of honeycomb and uses a hot knife to scrape off the protective wax cap from the comb. He then places three frames into an extractor that spins and releases the honey into a bucket.

“You have to leave enough frames in the boxes so the bees have honey to eat during winter,” Zane says. “I wonder how much honey they’ll make this fall. Whatever the amount, it will be fine. It’s great to raise them.”