If your name happens to be Melissa, I’m sorry but a lot of people are apparently afraid of you or, more accurately, your namesake the honey bee. Melissophobia (also called apiphobia) or the fear of bees is quite common due to the fact that almost everyone has experienced the painful sting of some sort of black and yellow insect (though likely not from a honey bee) at some point in their life.
For local entrepreneur, Kyle Brown, of Brown’s Bee Service, bees aren’t something to be feared though; they are a valuable resource to be cared for and harnessed. The Beacon caught up with Brown at his home south of Portland where he keeps a number of hives. He spoke enthusiastically at length about his business all the while standing within a few feet of bees buzzing in and out of an active hive. While Brown seemed at ease, it should be noted that this interview was a comfort zone stretching experience for the interviewer. The following interview excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.
SMITH: So how did you become a beekeeper?
BROWN: I pretty much just dove into it. You can job shadow other beekeepers. MSU has a training program. I read a lot of books.
SMITH: I understand that you often remove bees alive that are causing people problems. What is the most unusual place you ever found a beehive?
BROWN: It was actually my first removal. It was a ten-foot hive removal out of a wall in a bedroom. Besides that, a lot of barns and sheds. I did a removal at the courthouse in Charlotte recently.
SMITH: This time of year how has the weather we’ve been having recently affected the bees?
BROWN: We’ve had so much rain, it makes all the pollen wet so they can’t go out and forage for a few days. They like it when it’s drier. I have a protein pollen patty and three to one sugar water on them to supplement.
SMITH: So do you get most of your bees from removals?
BROWN: Right now. I do have one that I bought. [indicating a few hives] Those three all came out of the same tree. I split them into three. It was early enough in the spring. If I do a split I like to have about two pounds of bees per hive. That’s about a softball size.
SMITH: What are your bees pollinating around here?
BROWN: They will go anywhere around three miles tops because anything beyond that they won’t have enough energy to get back. They won’t touch this feeder corn though.
SMITH: Your bees sometimes are rented out to farmers to help fertilize their crops. How does that work?
BROWN: Yeah, actually the Ionia Horrocks-- I have to take some bees up there for their pumpkins next week. I’ll probably leave them about three weeks up there during the time when the plants are in flower.
SMITH: I’ve heard that honey from different types of flowers tastes differently. Does pumpkin honey taste “pumpkin-ey?”
BROWN: I’ve never specifically had pumpkin honey because it gets mixed. If you have a big enough crop yield like in California where they have huge almond farms...
SMITH: ...where there’s nothing but almonds for miles around?
BROWN: Yeah, then you’d have primarily almond honey. Or clover honey where you have just huge fields of clover. A lot of people label their honey Michigan wildflower honey because they pollinate just about anything.
SMITH: How do you avoid getting stung?
BROWN: Very carefully! I wouldn’t recommend it but I usually work them with just a veil especially if I’m just putting sugar water out for them.
SMITH: Would you have to provoke them then?
BROWN: When I take the top off, if there are some feisty guards that's enough to get them going. That’s why we use smoke when we take the top off. I use pine needles. It thickens the air so if one sends out an alert pheromone it blocks it so they can’t warn the hive. Also, the smoke makes them think that a fire is happening so they go down into the hive to eat just in case they need to evacuate the hive and get out of there.
SMITH: You obviously are passionate about bees and want other people to like bees too. What are some common misconceptions you have heard about bees.
BROWN: One of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard is this girl thought you had to kill bees to make honey. She thought that honey was somehow bee blood of something! They do have lay their brood in the comb but you can tell the difference. When we harvest honey we just leave that part alone. The bees also make the comb. They have wax scales under their abdomen at a certain age.
SMITH: So they rotate jobs as they age?
BROWN: Pretty much. For a worker bee, they live about 23 to 41 days. For the queen, they may live 3 to 5 years. If the queen dies or gets kicked out they hive will make a new queen by feeding the larvae a certain food called “royal jelly” that is made by the old queen.”
SMITH: What can our readers do to make their property more bee-friendly in terms of plants to plant.
BROWN: Lavender, and marigold. Butterfly weed is pretty good. In the early spring especially if you have a lot of dandelions in your yard to just leave them. A lot of times if you let them go through their full life cycle their seeds blow away.
SMITH: If I happened upon a bunch of bees what could I do to avoid getting stung?
BROWN: If you see a swarm they aren’t usually super aggressive because they are just protecting the queen. It’s not actually as bad as if they are in a hive where they have food and brood and young to protect. If you see them on a branch they are just worried about protecting the queen, who is in the center of the swarm, and sending out scouts to find a new home.
Brown’s Bee Service can been reached at (517) 743-2577, firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Facebook at @brownbeeservice.