Edmonds College Bee Club shares the buzz on keeping hives healthy

Hundreds of bees gather at the entrance to the hive.

Edmonds College’s Bee Club faculty adviser Mary Whitfield gently sprays smoke around the apiary on the campus’s community farm as three club members put on their white bee suits. Whitfield carefully removed one of the hive’s rooftops to show two jars of sugar water that is used to feed the bees. This setup is used to kickstart a new bee colony, she said.

After removing the “top floor” of the hive, Whitfield took off one of the panels with hundreds of honeybees crawling over thousands of honeycombs. She is looking for the elusive queen. Although she and other club members did not find her, the eggs and larvae inside the honeycombs indicated that the queen was alive and well.

Whitfield started the Bee Club in 2011 with five active members. She was already a beekeeping hobbyist and thought it would be fun and unique to have hives on campus. Currently, the club has about 100 members, with about 20 members showing up at its events.

Edmonds College Bee Club members suit up to handle bees in the apiary.

“I believe we were the first two-year college in Washington to have a beekeeping program,” she said. “It is such an interesting topic and people are naturally curious about bees and how they impact our food and our lives. I am personally fascinated with bees and I guess I just wanted to share that with the campus. 

Whitfield runs the Bee Club as a volunteer, not as part of her academic job teaching chemistry at Edmonds College. “But it really does bring people together from all over campus,” she said. “I always hear from the staff how excited they are about our annual honey sale.”

Club members also learn how to take care of colonies, extract beeswax and honey, and make soaps, candles and lotions from beeswax. 

“I have some students presenting some posters at the University of Washington in a couple of weeks on some research they did on analyzing the protein content of pollen,” Whitfield said. “We’re tracking that over time, we’re looking at climate change-related effects, and trying to do some academic work as well.”

Edmonds College Bee Club members search for the elusive queen bee.

While Whitfield said that beekeepers need to register their hives with Washington state, they do not need to be certified or licensed. “But you can take training and [Samantha Pedersen], our farm manager, has been interested enough to take the training that is offered by SnoKing Beekeepers Association [SKBA],” she said.

SKBA offers beginning, apprentice and journeyman classes – certified by the Washington State Beekeeping Association (WASBA) – throughout the year, and the number of classes depends on the demand. While some states, such as California and Montana, have a state apiarist, or beekeeper, SKBA Executive Director Eli Ocheltree said that Washington state does not have an official position. It is up to local and state governments to determine beekeeping best practices. 

“The director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture technically is the person who – if there was a crisis – makes decisions and declares quarantines, for example,” Ocheltree said. “A new pest comes in and we want to stop everything. Nobody moves any beehives for a while.”

Edmonds College Bee Club members: Back row (L-R) Exle Aridj, Nixie Waldher, Kenaz Calawa, Kemper Lee. Front row (L-R) Hannah Woods, Camille Grego, Mary Whitfield.

One such pest that Whitfield and Ocheltree mentioned is the Varroa mite, a parasite that feeds only on bees. One species of Varroa mites (Varroa destructor) feeds on bee fat – not hemolymph (insect fluid similar to blood) – and this leaves an open wound that can increase the risk of viral infections and other diseases.

While the earliest record of Varroa mites came from Java in 1904, some Japanese researchers recently hypothesized that Varroa destructor first evolved parasitically to honey bees as early as 1898 in Japan after California honey bees were introduced to a royal garden in Tokyo in 1877. By the mid-20th century, various species of mites had spread across Europe and North America

“And if you want to see mites, come back in August,” Whitfield said, who held a photo of a dark red mite attached to a worker bee.

The SnoKing Beekeepers Association holds classes year-round to teach novice beekeepers the basics of beekeeping. Here, participants learn how to take care of the queen bee. (Photo courtesy of Eli Ocheltree)

Ocheltree said that most bee colonies do not last more than a year, especially those handled by new beekeepers. “The biggest challenge is [the beekeepers] are in Western Washington, and they think they can go on the Internet and watch the videos from Georgia and Alabama and the Plain States, and they think they can do what they do there,” she said. 

She compared this with trying to grow certain crops that normally do not grow well in Western Washington, such as corn and sweet potatoes. “Bees are the same way. You can raise bees here, but you adjust how you’re going to do it based on your climate,” Ocheltree said. “Then you decide what microclimate you exist in. Are you having [an average of] 19 inches of rain or are you at the Hoh Rainforest with 300 inches?”

Ocheltree also highly recommends that potential beekeepers talk to local beekeepers, not the ones from outside of Washington state. “I might make an exception for Western Oregon, British Columbia and the Great Lake states,” she said. “You’ll get better information from this area. We are in a cold, maritime climate, and that’s what’s distinctive about this area.”

Even with the right information and tools, Ocheltree said that about 80% of new beekeepers fail to produce a thriving colony. 

Sugar water is used to help start a new bee colony in each hive.

“We’re talking about a living thing, and we’re trying to get it to grow in a climate that it did not evolve in,” Ocheltree continued. “Honeybees are tropical; we are in the northern temperate latitudes.”

To keep themselves and the hive warm during the winter, bees huddle up into a ball inside the hive and vibrate their wings to generate heat. Researchers from Pennsylvania State University have reported that colonies can maintain hive temperatures between 24 to 34 degrees Celsius (or 75 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit).

“The queen has to be kept at room temperature – 68 to 70 degrees – in the center of that ball, assuming the royal position,” Ocheltree said. “As soon as they have eggs and larvae, the center has to be 92 to 94 degrees – almost [human] body temperature. When there are thousands of bees shivering their wing muscles, they consume a lot of energy and their food supplies. To do that, they must have that supply of honey built up.”

“For anybody who is part of our organization that wants to take the class, we pay for them [the classes],” Whitfield said. “For students who want to go deeper, there are opportunities to do research on bees and to attend and present at scientific conferences. Look for us at the UW Undergraduate Research Symposium on May 17!.”

For more information about beekeeping, local laws and best practices, visit: 

Washington State Department of Agriculture 

SnoKing Beekeepers Association

Puget Sound Beekeepers Association

Washington state apiary code: Chapter 15.60 RCW

— Story and photos by Nick Ng

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