SUNCREST -- Karl Crotty is in love with 135,000 “ladies” and every spring, he learns whether he will have to settle for tens of thousands fewer of them.
The objects of his affection are honeybees, most of which he keeps in nine white boxes in his front yard over the winter. Crotty checks his hives every Spring to determine how many survived the cold months.
In 25 years of beekeeping, there have been a few losses, but none of his hives have died for the past three years, thanks to a series of mild winters and pure luck, he said.
On a recent afternoon, Crotty shook his head sadly over a dead hive, coated with a thin film of eerie blue-green mold. The hive only contained about 15,000 bees, a small number compared to a population that reaches more than half a million every summer at his hives, but every loss is devastating when it involves “the most stunning of all God's creatures.”
“That really bums me out,” Crotty said. “Just really bums me out.”
As Crotty inspected the rest of the combs, the bees buzzed loudly, crawling over his heavy suit, netted helmet and gloves. Crotty assumed the hobby from his father, a longtime beekeeper, and he sells his honey at farmer's markets along with fruits and vegetables from his garden. Each hive produces one or two gallons of honey, he said.
For his day job, he is a self-employed contractor and owner of On the Level Construction and Remodel.
“Hey now ladies, calm down, calm down,” Crotty murmured to the disturbed bees.
Luckily, the rest of the hives were heavy with eggs. Each was coated with propolis, a sticky orange seal-ant that the bees produce to keep the hives warm and dry, he said.
As the new generation develops, their gender will be completely up to the queen bee, Crotty said.
“When you look at a creature this amazing, you just think, there's no way this could have evolved. God must have been involved.”
Crotty wears the pro¬tective gear less and less, as bee stings have become as painless as “mosquito bites” to him, he said. In the peak of summer, each of his hives will contain about 60,000 to 80,000 bees.
It takes a gentle hand to nurture them into producing more honey, he said. Crotty supplements their natural food, flower nectar, by feeding them a mixture of sugar water that varies in its sweetness depending on the season. Their nectar comes partly from a neighbor's flowering orchard, where Crotty put a few of his hives. The orchard benefits from the bees' pollination. As thanks, Crotty receives a portion of his neighbor's fall harvest.
An intense hobby such as beekeeping is not without the occasional awkward marital moment. To protect his bees from mites, Crotty gently thumps a powdered antibiotic over the hives by using a cut-off nylon stocking. Nylons make a great sieve, he said, though his wife may not completely agree.
“I wait until my wife isn't looking and then I steal her pantyhose,” he said, a little sheepishly.
No matter how many risks a beekeeper takes to protect his bees from life's pitfalls, the tightness of the bees' cramped quarters in the boxes will kill some of them, he said.
“That's the thing about taking care of bees,” he said, gently replacing a piece of comb crawling with the insects, “you're going to have to squish a few.”
As he said this, his eyes crinkled a bit with regret. There are too many of the insects to brush all of them aside to safety each time he puts a piece of honeycomb back in the box, he said.
“Sorry bees,” he said.