Peek into the honeycomb: A day in the life of a beekeeper

Everybody wants to save the bees, but few people want to interact with them. 

“I was a little nervous at first until I got stung the first time,” says Will Sears, owner of Midland Bee Company, laughing. “After that, I was fine.”

As we drive to the hives nestled near Sanford Lake, he reassures, “If you get something in your hood, what I tell people is to just get away from the hive. If you have to close your eyes and hum, that will take a lot of the stimulation that you get out.”
Will Sears is the owner of the Midland Bee Company.
Sears has been raising bees for over a decade. He started shortly before his retirement from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), where he consulted Midland County farmers on planting, tillage, herbicides, and more. Even in retirement, Sears wanted to keep active outdoors. 

“I like being outside,” he says. “It’s what I’ve done all my life.” Sears points out the window of his Dodge Ram to a pheasant flying over the wildflowers. He smiles, slowing down to watch it disappear on the horizon. “... When I started this, it just wasn’t the right time for farming. It was too expensive to buy all the equipment and all that stuff. I wanted to stay doing something in ag[riculture], and there’s not a lot of people doing it or wanting to get into it.”

He stops before reaching the hives to don his beekeeper suit, a pair of thick, nitrile gloves, and honey-stained leather gloves. In the backseat, tucked safely in a U.S. Postal Service box, are two queen bees – just in case.

“We may run into a hive that’s queenless,” Sears explains. “... If they don’t have a queen of their own, they’ll adopt her.” Every hive needs a queen bee. She has two vital jobs: lay eggs and oversee the unity of the colony by releasing pheromones.
The hives are in several different locations in Midland County.
Sears has about 376 hives now, each of which contains about 84,000 bees. If you’re about to do the math, that’s over 31.5 million bees under his care. The hives are spread amongst 16 farms across Midland County. From his work with the USDA, Sears got to know many farmers in the county – many of which have offered space on their land for his hives.

“I’m not short on places to put bees myself, and I don’t have enough bees for everybody,” says Sears. Farmers like having bees around because they pollinate crops and increase yield. Bees are so lucrative, that farmers across the country are willing to pay to rent hives. The farmland we’re visiting has been converted into wildflowers and native grasses, perfect for supporting bees. 

Each hive is comprised of a few boxes stacked on top of each other. Each box is called a super, containing several removable wooden frames for the bees to build honeycomb onto. When the supers are saturated with honey and beeswax, they can weigh up to around 45 pounds. Most of the honey is concentrated in the upper boxes. The lower boxes are used primarily for broods (aka, baby bees). Since the supers can be difficult to move, Sears has started hiring high school workers seasonally to help. 

“For Delta College, they have to job shadow somebody,” he says. “I write up things for the school, what we did. We’re doing a bunch of stuff around the farm.”

The smoke interferes with the bees’ ability to detect alarm pheromones when someone is intruding their hive.
To ensure the bees are calm when he’s working, Sears uses a handheld smoker. The smoke interferes with the bees’ ability to detect alarm pheromones when someone is intruding their hive. That way, Sears is able to remove the honey-rich frames and replace them with empty ones so the bees keep filling the honeycomb. 

“They’re pretty docile,” says Sears. “I’d go up to one of those and move it without hesitation.”

Later, he’ll take the frames and run them through a centrifuge – a large, stainless steel barrel that spins quickly enough to push the honey out. Then he filters the honey directly into a bottle and sells it. He usually starts this process in August.

“Everybody likes Michigan honey,” says Sears. “I’m not just saying that; there’s a guy down in Georgia who’ll buy everything I have.” Every fall, Sears rents a semi-truck and drives his bees down to Georgia. Bees work hard to stay warm during the winter, so Sears moves them to keep them, and himself, comfortable.
The supers are saturated with honey and beeswax.
Eating local honey may be helpful for reducing allergy symptoms, too. By ingesting small amounts of pollen from the honey, you may build up some immunity to the plants the bees interacted with.

“Everybody’s looking for local honey. Not a lot of people are doing this anymore,” says Sears. 

You can buy Midland Bee Company on Saturdays at the Midland Area Farmers Market or at the following stores: 
 
A bee’s life

Ever wonder how bee society works? Given the pervasiveness of bees in everyday language (i.e., queen bee, worker bee, busy as a bee, buzzing, beeline), humankind seems to relate to bees. In fact, our relationship with domesticating bees for honey may date back as far as 9,000 years. After working with bees for over a decade, Sears has come to appreciate how well they work together.

“They all have certain jobs that they do, and it changes during the course of their life,” he says. 

Bees start out as eggs laid by the queen. She inspects the honeycomb cells and chooses to deposit either a fertilized or unfertilized egg. If it’s fertilized, it’ll go into a smaller cell and grow into a worker bee (female). If it’s unfertilized, it’ll become a drone (male). Once the egg hatches into larvae, worker bees nurse them with royal jelly. After a few days, they’re weaned off it, eating a mix of pollen and honey. 

Sears points to a white, waxy part of a frame in the super. “Those happen to be grown ones. … When they get so old, they’ll (worker bees) cap that off, and they’ll incubate into a bee.”

Sears has over 31.5 million bees under his care.
Depending on the sex of the bee, they’ll become a different caste. Males are drones, and their one job is to mate with a queen outside of their hive. All females are worker bees, with the exception of the queen. Worker bees tend to all the queen’s needs: feeding her, grooming her, and cleaning up her waste.

“They start out as a worker bee, then they take care of the brood,” says Sears. “The last part of their life, they’re foragers. They’re out of the hive grabbing nectar.”

The average honey bee lives from 1-2 months. The queen will live for about 1-2 years.