Bees bring buzz to our world

by Jan Spann

For centuries, our world has looked to the honeybee for its sweet reward. In the old world where sugar cane and fruits weren’t available, a sweet stash of honey would seem like the nectar of the gods. Ancient rock paintings from South Africa to Spain depict tribesmen climbing trees in the hunt for liquid gold from the bees’ hive.

Ancient Egypt and Rome considered honey medicinal and even prophetic, and swarms of bees were seen as omens or blessings. These days, one out of every three bites of our food comes from the work done thousands of times each day by the honeybee.

These furry insects live in a colony where every bee works for the good of the whole. At the heart of the colony of thousands there is just one queen while worker bees maintain the hive, taking on different roles during their lifespan. Nurse bees care for the queen and babies.

Guard bees protect the hive from invaders, and forage bees fly outside the hive to gather food and water to share with the colony. Honeybees from various hives can visit a hundred thousand flowers in a single day.

The bee’s body and the static electricity generated during its flight attract pollen as the bee sips nectar. Special notches on its front legs clean its antenna, which can smell, detect temperature and measure oxygen levels. When it travels to another plant, some of the pollen rubs off there, fertilizing the plant. Each bee will make 1/12 teaspoon of honey in her lifetime as she carries out one of the most important tasks in nature: pollination.

Honey is one food that will never spoil; when it begins to crystallize, simply place the container in warm water and it will return to its oozy goodness. Ancient armies carried honey because it helps boost performance and provides easily digestible energy. Honey also speeds up the healing process and is a natural antiseptic.

Bees store the nectar in their “honey stomach,” which is separate from the real stomach. On the way back to the hive, bees secrete enzymes that start the conversion into honey, which is produced when they regurgitate. Back in the hive, more bees move the process along as they beat those tiny little wings and fan the air to remove excess water.

Apiculture isn’t just for big business. Central Arkansas has several beekeeping associations, with individuals attracted to this business or hobby as a way to sell honey and/or to care for the environment. You might be surprised to know that some of your neighbors could be apiarians.

Jill Imboden and her husband, Cory, live on acreage above Cadron Settlement Park near Conway, and she currently has nine hives, three of which were Conway swarms. A swarm happens when bees divide and move from one location to another, usually in spring. The old queen sends out scouts when the weather warms in spring, followed by part of the colony, with the rest remaining with a new queen.  

Jill relocated one swarm from Acxiom, where her husband works, and another colony that had swarmed to a crape myrtle near La Hacienda restaurant in Conway. Once the bees settle into their new home, they start organizing the hive as they build honeycombs, breed more bees and store food.

Jill’s bees don’t need a flower garden, which is a good thing, because the rocky soil on their property makes gardening a challenge. Tree pollen and native plants in this wooded area provide for bees, and they love holly, which they work with other spring plants. Bees can travel up to three miles when foraging, but it is hard on them.

“Dandelions are the first source of spring pollen, and native plants and shrubs will give the pollinators options through summer,” said Jill, who also harvests dandelions for tea and salad.

Because they use their bodies in pollen collection, bees are especially sensitive to chemicals, and Jill has convinced her husband to stop spraying Roundup. Instead, she uses a mixture of Dawn dish soap, vinegar and Epsom salts. While she uses all natural products, she is not certified organic. She shares honey with friends and family.

The bees are inactive below mid-70 degrees, and during the cold months, they feed on stored honey in the hive. The queen lays fewer eggs and kills the male drones because young bees will soon hatch. The worker bees use cedar and pine to make propolis, a gooey, icky substance used to seal holes around the hive. Its healthy properties serve as an antiseptic for the hive.

When the bees emerge with the first warm days, the bees are especially fierce in seeking food and will make a beeline to the sugar in soda pop and trash cans, so Jill puts out pollen patties, a 1:1 mix of sugar to water.

“Bees recognize humans by their smell, and they don’t bother Cory at all, but I have to use smoke or wear my coveralls or they pester me,” Jill notes with irony.

Jill began studying about bees and their keepers in 2012. She bought her equipment from Sonny Chidester, a man in his 70s who lives in the Ozark Mountains near Fox. Two years later, she bought her first bees and joined the Beekeepers Association. There are five Central Arkansas associations that you can find at, including the Lady Beekeepers.

Small hive beetles are one of the biggest hive threats, and Jill has learned that diatomaceous earth kills the beetles. This powdery nonpoisonous deposit formed from fossil remains can be used safely to remove fleas, cockroaches and ticks. Do as Jill does and sprinkle it around the area you want to protect, and take care to wear face protection, as the dust can be an irritant.

“I am constantly learning more about bees, and the key is knowing what to do in various situations,” she said. “New pests and issues surface, so I read up on new remedies. For example, feral bees are more aggressive, and I recognize that cautious awareness is most important.”

Jill’s goal to buy one hive each year started with the “Golden Girls,” a northern breed sensitive to our summers who produce a lovely honey.

Her feral bees captured from the restaurant and Acxiom produce a darker honey.

Jill and Cory have an active life and enjoy family time at their Greers Ferry home. They have two sons — Caleb, who serves in the U.S. Army, and Casey, who works at Douglas Company and plans to study wind technology next fall. The couple is active in One Church where they teach, and Jill is an eighth grade English teacher at Conway Junior High School.

The bee is an extraordinary insect that adds $15 billion in value yearly to American agricultural crops through pollination, but for years honeybees have been dying at mysteriously high levels. Last year’s national commercial honey production was down 12 percent from 2014, and apiarists have lost one-third of their hives annually for the past several years. Scientists consider pesticides as well as the loss of crop diversity to be the reason for the losses.

Beekeepers like Jill help balance the losses, and just as important is education so that each of our gardens offers a haven where bees can gather nectar in a chemical and swat-free area. Just as in ancient Egypt, the bees again signal to us that something in nature is amiss, and it’s time we listen to their buzz.


A Conway resident, Jan Spann has been gardening for 20-plus years and has been involved with the Faulkner County Master Gardeners for 11 years. She and her husband, Randy, have five children and eight grandchildren.