Despite the hot, humid August morning, Camp of the Hills outdoor education Director Alicen Bessire and camp intern Kevin Ohorán put on long-sleeved shirts, forearm-length gloves, and large hats with long netting and start a fire.
They don’t have a chill; they’re just checking on the camp’s four beehives.
“We’ve had beehives a year this past April,” Bessire said.
Even though she’s the lead bee wrangler, her entry into beekeeping started around the same time the camp got the hives.
Camp Director Michael Thames thought beehives would be a great addition to the Smithwick-area youth camp.
“I had to learn quite a bit,” Bessire said. “And, I still am. There’s really no way to know everything there is about bees.”
The smoke from the small fire that Bessire and Ohorán started in a spouted can doesn’t actually calm the bees, Bessire explained. It covers pheromones produced by worker bees charged with alerting the rest of the hive to potential danger, making it easier and safer for beekeepers to work.
On this day, Bessire and Ohorán are making their monthly check of the hives, rather than collecting honey.
Bessire is also concerned about a hive that split from one of the two original hives. She intentionally split one hive by introducing a new queen. The second split caught her off guard.
“Sometimes, for whatever reason, the worker bees will decide they don’t like the queen and they’ll let another queen develop (from the larvae),” Bessire said. “It’s like they overthrow the old queen.”
In this situation, the new queen or workers forced the old queen out of the hive, but a number of other bees went with her. If these castaways don’t find a new place to build a hive, they could die.
One morning, Ohorán was checking the hives when he spotted a mass of bees on the ground nearby. Within the wriggling mass, he and Bessire recovered the old queen and re-established her in a fourth hive.
“We were out here several times during the week checking on (the new hive),” Bessire said.
A main mission of Camp of the Hills is to provide the complete summer camp experience for kids who might not otherwise get the opportunity. The facility teams up with donors and organizations to provide the camp at little or no cost to campers. Counselors donate their time.
Many of the campers come from urban areas.
The Christian camp is always looking to expand its reach and community connection, which is where the outdoor education program comes in. Camp of the Hills brings youths out during the school year to experience nature, including vegetable and native plant gardens, an orchard, aquaponics, and other outdoor programs.
The bees, Bessire said, were the perfect fit.
After all, what would the world be like without bees?
During the outdoor education programs, staff and counselors teach kids how the natural world works and why we’re dependent upon it.
On the day Bessire and Ohorán are checking the hives, they discover something is off. One of the combs resembles a wave rather than the typical rectangle. Bessire explained that bees are amazing engineers and builders. When they build a comb, they form it to the structure. In a hive, that’s a rectangle frame.
“Bees build from the top down,” Bessire said while examining the misshapen comb. “It looks like part of the comb dropped from the top. The bees just kept building on that part.”
If they leave the comb, the bees will continue to follow the pattern, which will affect the rest of the hive’s combs. Bessire and Ohorán take out the comb and frame, and, after a closer look, they find only honey, no larvae. Bessire cuts out the misshapen section and places the frame back in the hive.
“They’re more likely to build correctly now,” she said.
The hives take up very little space not far from the camp’s archery range. In the spring, the area is full of wildflowers. Bessire and Ohorán will collect excess honey in late spring or early summer. Once the bulk of the wildflowers go to seed and blooming plants in the garden fade, honey production falls off, so Bessire leaves the honey to give the bees enough food through the summer.
She and Ohorán even augment the bees’ natural nectar and pollen with a sugar-water substance during the bloom-free summer. In the fall, when some blooms return, Bessire said she might do a second honey collection.
The camp uses the honey in its cafeteria and offers some to donors.
On this day, after Bessire and Ohorán finish checking the hives, they shed their beekeeping suits, a nice thing to do just before the summer temperatures creep higher and higher. Putting up with the suits and heat is worth it, they both agree, because it gives them the chance to spend time with some of God’s amazing creatures.
“What bees do, how they do it, it’s amazing,” Bessire said.