Hundreds of honeybees were buzzing around a hive in Bill Mattatall’s backyard when he zeroed in on one.
“See that bee?” he asked, pointing with a metal tape measure. “He’s dragging another bee out of the hive. That’s a foreign bee that doesn’t belong there.”
How did the first bee know the second bee was a stranger?
“The queen has an odor to her, called a ‘pheromone,’” said Bill, 69, of Caseyville. “It’s a very distinct odor, and the other bees know it. If anything else gets into the colony, even a mouse or a wasp, there are guard bees that will attack it.”
Ask Bill any question about bees, and he’ll turn it into a science lesson. He sees education as one of his main jobs as president of St. Clair Beekeepers Association.
In March, the group offered its annual beginner beekeeping course, which rotates between Edwardsville and Belleville. All 100 seats sold out.
“With all the attention on colony collapse disorder, there are so many people getting interested in beekeeping,” Bill said.
Colony collapse disorder refers to a recent decline in the number of European and North American honeybees, which are important to agriculture.
“There would be a lot of food items that we would no longer have if we didn’t have these bees to cross-pollinate the plants,” said Susan Bailey, an association board member. “We need honeybees.”
Susan and her husband, Wayne, started beekeeping 25 years ago. They had two hives on their Caseyville property until last month, when “robber bees” began stealing honey and destroyed their colony. Now the Baileys are hunting for a wild swarm of bees to bring home.
“It’s a hobby for us,” Susan said. “We’re not into honey production. We just like looking at our little bees, kinda like some people look at their aquariums.”
A passion for bees
Bill has 10 hives in his bee yard. Each consists of two or three white boxes stacked and filled with faux honeycombs in frames.
The hives surround a small “honey house,” where Bill spins and bottles honey under the name Stone Forest Apiary. Shelves are lined with stuffed bees and figurines.
“People are always giving me bees,” Bill said.
His wife, Barbara, 68, isn’t a beekeeper, but she supports his passion.
“I wash his bottles and stick the labels on,” she said. “And I go with him to sell honey at (craft) shows.”
Each of Bill’s hives houses 50,000 to 100,000 bees. He wears long gloves and a protective jacket with a hood and see-through veil, but only when opening hives for inspection or pulling out frames to collect honey.
Beekeepers insist that honeybees are gentle by nature.
“A honeybee won’t just come up and sting you,” Susan said. “You have to do something. You have to go up and threaten their hives.”
Working the hives
On a recent afternoon, Bill prepared to work his hives by firing up a bee smoker, using pine needles, leaves and paper as fuel.
“Smoke represents a forest fire for bees,” he explained. “It causes them to gorge themselves on honey because they think they are going to have to leave, and they become kind of lethargic.”
Lethargic bees aren’t as likely to sting people.
After putting on his jacket and gloves, Bill expanded two of his new hives and pulled out a few frames to make sure everything was OK.
“See that brood pattern (eggs and larva)?” he asked. “See how solid it is? It’s in kind of a football shape. That’s a good brood pattern.”
People who want to see honeybees in action can go to O’Fallon Community Garden at State and Smiley streets, where Boy Scout David Erickson and friends built a cedar enclosure for an apiary (bee yard) last year.
“It has screened viewing on three sides,” said Chief Beekeeper Jim Harper, 61, of O’Fallon. “On the south side and east side, David put in stone pavers, so people can stand there and watch the bees.”
O’Fallon Garden Club bought bee colonies for two of its hives. A third recently became home to a wild swarm.
“I saw about 20,000 bees swarming at the base of a plum tree and in the first couple of branches next to the apiary,” Jim said. “We put a hive box under the tree and we caught them.”
Bill became a beekeeper in 2000, after hearing about a shortage of wild bees in Missouri. He gradually built up to 14 hives.
“In 2013 and 2014, we had the worst winter in 30 years,” he said. “I lost 10 of my hives. We were not prepared for the severity of the cold weather.”
St. Clair Beekeepers Association members lost 50 percent of their hives.
Bees cluster around broods in the winter, eating honey for energy and fanning wings to create heat. But they can’t survive if the hive’s interior temperature drops below 42 degrees.
“If it gets too cold, they won’t break the cluster, even to go 2 inches to eat the honey,” Bill said. “They’ll die first.”
Today, Bill and the Baileys insulate their hives in the winter. They also grow bee-friendly plants, such as lavender and bee balm, wisteria and catmint, which provide nectar and pollen.
“Bees have nectar bellies, and they use them to transport the nectar to the hive,” Bill said. “They store it, feed it to their young or use it to produce honey. Pollen is the same, except (bees carry it on their legs).”
The Mattatalls tout the healing power of bees. Bill, a carpenter and owner of a construction company, believes local honey and bee stings help with his arthritis.
Barbara, 68, a retired teacher’s aide, puts a teaspoon of honey in her hot tea every morning for allergies.
“I used to get headaches so bad that I’d have to go to bed,” she said. “The mold, the pollen, the leaves, whatever. ... And once I started taking a teaspoon of honey every day, the headaches have disappeared.”
Become a beekeeper
What: St. Clair Beekeepers Association
Covers: 10 counties in Southeastern Illinois
Membership: About 100 people
Dues: $10 a month (plus a $10 a year to be part of the Illinois State Beekeepers Association)
Meetings: Meetings usually held the last Friday of each month in the fall and winter at indoor locations, and the last Sunday of each month in the spring and summer at outdoor locations
Free seeds: Visit www.feedabee.com to get seeds for flowers that attract bees from Bayer CropScience