Gary Glaenzer usually doesn’t worry too much about getting stung while handling a swarm of honey bees.
“Bees in a swarm are usually pretty calm, unless it has rained on them or someone messed with them,” said Glaenzer. “They’re full of honey so they can’t plant all six legs and bend their stomach down enough to sting you.”
The 71-year-old beekeeper from Jacksonville has 35 beehives and “if someone calls me and a swarm is hanging from a tree or bush, I’ll flash in a flash to try to get it,” said Glaenzer. “You can generally take a beehive to settle near the swarm and literally just take your bare hand and pick up a handful of bees and flop them at the entrance of the beehive.”
What usually follows is what Glaenzer calls “one of nature’s most fascinating sights”.
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“One to two dozen bees will be at the entrance to the beehive, with their tails in the air and their wings flying 100 miles an hour,” said Glaenzer. “They give off a scent that basically tells the rest of the bees, ‘Hey, this is our new home. ‘Then you will see them marching into the beehive like an army. “
Glaenzer was bitten (maybe stung?) By beekeeping as a child in Columbia, Illinois when introduced to the activity by his 4-H guide, and in 1962 he and his father bought their own beehive for $ 12. The 4-H Leader’s farmhouse and beehives were later swept away on live television during the great 1993 flood by a dike break on the Mississippi River.
Glaenzer graduated from beekeeping in high school and brought a beehive to Jacksonville in 1970 when he started working at WJIL Radio. After three years in Minnesota, he returned to Jacksonville in 1976 and resumed beekeeping in 1980 for nearly 10 years. Glaenzer had up to 45 beehives in the 1980s.
“I would take them to the melon and cucumber farms in Mason County in the spring, put them in the fields, and the bees would pollinate their crops,” said Glaenzer.
When Glaenzer moved into his current home, he didn’t have enough space for that many beehives, so he only had one in his back yard, which was later destroyed by a falling branch. Glaenzer resumed beekeeping when his wife died in 2011 and has been strong ever since.
“I went last winter with 45 beehives and came out with 35 beehives, which I think is pretty good,” said Glaenzer. “I’ve heard stories everywhere about losses of 60 to 80 percent last winter.”
The main culprits of beehive failure are two pests that Glaenzer says require vigilance to stay under control. Small beetle beetle larvae can burrow into the honeycombs and “slime” them, where “honey leaks everywhere and this slimy stuff lies on top of everything. The only thing you can do is throw it away, ”said Glaenzer. Varroa mites are an even bigger problem.
“Varroa mites feed on the fat of the bees and they will explode in large numbers and weaken the beehive,” said Glaenzer. “The bees feel that they are attacked by them and that they are flying away from the beehive and not coming back. Then you have a beehive with honey and no bees come in the spring. “
Glaenzer said he had treated for varroa mites four times in the past year, and that regime appears to have kept the pests in check.
Glaenzer mainly uses his bees to make honey, which he sells at regional farmers’ markets. He said the honey’s taste and texture are influenced by the type of nectar the bees collect. Most commercial honey is made by letting beehives collect nectar from large fields of clover.
Glaenzer prefers fruit blossom honey, with the ultimate in locust honey being almost as clear as water. During its lifetime, every single bee will collect enough nectar to produce one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey, Glaenzer said.
Bees turn the nectar, which contains between 60% and 80% water, into honey by circulating air through the beehive.
“After a busy day collecting nectar, there are 30 to 40 bees on either side of the beehive, with one side facing the entrance and the other facing away, with their wings running at full blast,” said Glaenzer. “This creates a flow of air through the beehive, which evaporates the excess moisture in the nectar and thickens it into honey.”
Glaenzer is a trivia treasure trove of bee facts. He noted that about 1% of the bees in the hive are drones or males and that their only purpose in life is to mate with the queen.
“In autumn the other bees throw them out of the beehive because they are not producers, but rather useless in winter,” said Glaenzer.
Glaenzer has great respect for queen bees, “egg-laying machines” that produce around 3,000 eggs a day for two to three years in the summer. In winter, queens lay few, if any, eggs. Queens develop when certain bee larvae are fed richer food and the first of three to four queen cells to open becomes the new beehive handler.
“The first goes to all the other queen cells, tears them open and stabs the others to death so that they have no competition,” said Glaenzer. “It takes a few days for her wings to harden, then she makes a mating flight, mates with one or more drones, returns to the beehive, and never leaves unless she leaves with a swarm.”
These swarms are nature’s way of increasing the number of bee colonies, Glaenzer said, and they affect roughly half of the “mother hive” bees who join the old queen on a journey to find a new home. The swarms that most people see and fear in their yards are simply the bees that occupy a “parking lot” until they are signaled that a new beehive has been found nearby.
Glaenzer admitted that it had been stung hundreds of times over the years, and when it was stung: “You scratch out the stinger, you never want to tear it out because there is a poison bag attached to that stinger,” said Glaenzer. “If you tear it out, you will push all the poison in.”
“The worst sting I’ve ever gotten was when I dropped a beehive while moving it and went to work that night that looked like the Michelin man,” said Glaenzer. “I think I have 44 stitches in my arms.”
Glaenzer has seven grandchildren and five are interested in beekeeping, which helps him move beehives and sell honey. He seems like a child himself when he talks about his persistent amazement about bees.
“Having a swarm and having small children so they can see the bees march into the beehive is the high point of beekeeping for me,” said Glaenzer. “Actually, show young people that they don’t have to be afraid of bees.”