British royalty might agree with Ken Witt.
“If you don’t have a queen, you don’t have anything,” said Witt, who lives in Fremont.
And he should know.
Witt is a beekeeper, who understands the loss of a queen.
He tells how a West Coast company sent him a shipment of bees — with the queen in a separate box. A piece of candy was supposed to be situated behind a plug that he’d pull to transfer the queen to her new home.
But the candy wasn’t there.
And the queen got out.
“She flew away,” he said. “I lost $125.”
It was a sad bee story, but most of what Witt knows about these little pollinators is pretty sweet — and the longtime beekeeper looks forward to a honey collection this fall.
For Witt, who is director of engineering at Fremont Health, beekeeping is a hobby and part of his family’s history.
“It’s actually a family tradition,” he said. “When I was kid back in New York, the Finger Lakes region near Rochester, my father (Donald) had hives,” he said.
Witt begins by buying a 3-pound package of 20,000 of bees from California or Texas in late March. The package contains 20,000 mostly (infertile female) worker bees and some drones (males) and a queen bee. He puts the bees into the hives.
He has three hives now, but has had as many as 10.
“During the course of a year, a good hive will get up to 80,000 to 100,000 worker bees and in the fall they drop back down to the 20,000 to 25,000 number to overwinter,” he said.
Wearing protective gear — a pullover jacket with a veil — Witt goes to the hive with a bee smoker.
“When the bees smell smoke they react and gorge themselves on honey and then they’re just like you and me after Thanksgiving - they say, ‘let’s sit around for a while and take a nap.’ They’re a lot more docile,” he said.
Witt transfers the bees into hives he keeps about 5 miles from Fremont.
There, the bees get nectar from flowers.
If no flowers are out, Witt feeds the bees with a sugar-water mixture from a bucket near the hive.
The bees bring back the nectar or sugar-water mixture and enzymes from one of their stomachs convert it into a watery honey.
Witt builds frames with artificial honeycombs and puts them into the hive box. Worker bees produce wax to build the hexagon-shaped cells in the honeycomb. A bee puts honey into one cell. It fans it to evaporate the water, a process that also cools the hive.
The bee caps one cell with wax and moves onto the next.
In another frame — the brood area — bees build cells where the queen lays her eggs.
Worker bees produce a royal jelly which they put into the cell with the egg and after a couple days seals the cell.
Eventually, from that cell, comes another bee. These house bees clean the hive and evaporate nectar.
“They do their chores,” Witt said. “Then they gradually become foraging bees. They fly around and get nectar, bring it back and literally give it to the house bees to put into the cells.”
And these bees really are busy.
“In the peak of summer, an average worker bee only lasts about eight weeks, because she literally flies her wings off,” he said.
Witt checks the bees each week or two in the spring.
“During the summer you only go once a month, because every time you get in there, you disturb them," he said.
He looks for infestations of pests.
Witt takes honey in the spring and fall. He removes the frames from the top boxes, leaving the two brood boxes on the bottom of the hive with enough honey for the bees to get through the winter.
He cuts the wax caps off both sides of the frames and places then in a centrifuge, which spins. The spinning causes the honey to come out.
Witt strains out the honey, which he bottles.
“Last year, I had 102 pints of honey after I spun it out,” he said.
He sells the honey.
“It’s nice to have a hobby that almost sometimes pays for itself,” he said, smiling. “Hobbies are usually money pits.”
He plans to sell some at the craft fair at Christensen Field this Christmas if he has enough.
Witt sells the wax, too, which can be used to make candles. He also makes Mead, a Nordic alcohol, like wine.
“You use honey and water and yeast and it ferments,” he said. “You ferment it and age it just like wine.”
Witt enjoys meeting people through selling the honey and by being involved in the Omaha Bee Club. The club has about 200 members, who range from a person with a single hive to one man who has about 75 hives.
They meet monthly and bring in different speakers.
“We educate folks on techniques and flowers and all kinds of things,” he said.
Anyone interested in beekeeping can contact www.omahabeeclub.com Witt said, noting that there are laws involving bee hives.
“Don’t just go buy hives,” he said, noting that would-be beekeepers need to do some research.
He also noted that beekeeping is an investment and it’s not easy when a hive doesn’t make it.
“I went into last winter with seven and only came out with one, but it’s like all kinds of agriculture and horticulture stuff — some years are diamonds and some years are rust,” he said.
He compares it to raising a pig to show at a fair, but then the animal doesn’t make it.
“When you’re investing in animals, crops and stuff like that, sometimes they thrive and sometimes they don’t,” he said.
Despite that, Witt enjoys beekeeping.
“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s more than just a hobby, because you get involved in so many aspects of it. I get everything from working by myself in the shop, building the boxes, to taking care of the bees to selling the honey. It provides a whole range of opportunities to keep me busy.”
And he has good memories of collecting honey with his dad.
“It was one of his hobbies,” Witt said. “Back in the ’60s — come Christmastime — you gave your neighbors a quart of honey and she gave you molasses cookies she made. That’s the way it was done back then.”