Smith display makes bee education up close and personal

Release Date: 6/29/2010

"When I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees." -- Abraham Lincoln

If anyone on campus can preach the ways of the bees, that man is Dr. Buddy Smith. Professor of Mathematics at the U of O since 1980, Dr. Smith has been a bee keeper for “about six years” and has recently brought his hobby onto campus for the edification of students.

Dr. Buddy Smith points out a busy worker bee in his safe but accessible office hive.

Dr. Buddy Smith points out a busy worker bee in his safe but accessible office hive.

“I set this up here in my office,” he says, indicating a 3 feet-by-3 feet wooden and glass framework which resembles an oversized ant farm, “because I kept getting requests from students to come out and look at my hives. The problem is, you can’t have a bunch of kids out on the farm where the hives are. Some kid kicks a hive and you’ve got a problem. So I built this here.” He points to a two-inch PVC pipe that connects the frame to the outside world. “This how they fly in and out. I expect to have several groups of visitors in here during the summer, home-schooled kids for example.”

A colony consists of three kinds of bees – the queen bee, which is normally the only breeding female in the colony, a large number of female worker bees, often 30,000 to 50,000, and a number of male drones.

The queen is the only sexually mature female in the hive, and all of the female worker bees and male drones are her offspring. The queen may live for up to three years or more and may be capable of laying half a million eggs or more in her lifetime. At the peak of the breeding season, late spring to summer, a good queen may be capable of laying 3,000 eggs in one day, more than her own body weight. This would be exceptional however; a prolific queen might peak at 2,000 eggs a day, but a more average queen might lay just 1,500 eggs per day. The queen is raised from a normal worker egg, but is fed a larger amount of royal jelly than a normal worker bee, resulting in a radically different growth and metamorphosis. The queen influences the colony by the production and dissemination of a variety of pheromones or ‘queen substances.’ One of these chemicals suppresses the development of ovaries in all the female worker bees in the hive and prevents them laying eggs.

Dr. Smith explains he uses protective clothing, including the familiar hood and gloves, but stings are inevitable. “I robbed a hive yesterday and got a couple stings,” he said. “Smoking them helps too, though.”

Smoke is the beekeeper’s third line of defense, after knowledge of the bees and protective clothing. Most beekeepers use a ‘smoker’ — a device designed to generate smoke from the incomplete combustion of various fuels. Smoke calms bees; it initiates a feeding response in anticipation of possible hive abandonment due to fire. Smoke also masks alarm pheromones released by guard bees or when bees are squashed in an inspection. The ensuing confusion creates an opportunity for the beekeeper to open the hive and work without triggering a defensive reaction.

Dr. Smith sells honey from his hives and uses the wax for candles and lip balm, both of which are sold locally, but says the cost of production counters any real profit. “It’s much more of a hobby type project,” he says. “Maybe someday…”

Asked about reports of diminishing bee populations, Dr. Smith agrees that there are only about half the number of bee keepers now than previously, and about half the number of bees. “But there has been more interest lately in beekeeping, so we’ll see,” he adds.

Scientists studying Colony Collapse Disorder believe a combination of factors could be making bees sick, including pesticide exposure, invasive parasitic mites, an inadequate food supply, and a new virus that targets bees’ immune systems. Research is underway to determine the exact cause of the bees’ distress.

In the meantime, Dr. Smith’s project continues to educate those who want to know about apiculture – the study of bees – as well as those who simply enjoy their byproducts.