This story was originally published in volume 8, issue 1 of Argonne Now, the laboratory’s semiannual science magazine.
Meet researchers from Argonne with unusual hobbies and interests in this series from the lab magazine, The Secret Lives of Scientists & Engineers. Today we’re interviewing Bill Gasper, Argonne environmental safety & health coordinator—and beekeeper.
AN: What do you do at Argonne?
GASPER: For the last 14 years I’ve been an Environmental Safety & Heath Coordinator for my division, Environmental Sciences. We do a lot of fieldwork, often in places where we are studying contaminated areas, so it’s important to make sure we provide a safe environment for the researchers.
How did you get started with your hobby?
My dad used to keep bees when I was a kid. We always had bees on the property. So I’ve been interested in bees for probably close to fifty years.
So you keep them in your backyard?
Right now I have six hives.
How many bees is that?
It fluctuates. Probably up to 60,000 bees per hive during the summer. Then in the winter it dwindles down and they get through with maybe 15,000 bees.
What’s involved in taking care of them?
The biggest task is to make sure the hive has enough room as it grows. Otherwise as it gets bigger, the hive will split in two, and half the bees will leave and start a new colony someplace else. That’s called swarming. There are viruses, parasites, bacteria, which can all contribute to illness in the hives, and pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides weaken them. So occasionally you check on them: partially disassemble the hive, see if the queen is healthy and laying eggs, see what their stores of pollen and honey look like. If a hive is diseased, there are medications and treatments.
So you can just open up the hive?
Whenever you work the bees, you use a smoker. It’s a can with a bellows on it and you get a fire going in there with some fuel that will smolder, and you use smoke to calm the bees. They get sort of dazed. It makes it easier to manipulate them.
What do you wear?
I always wear a veil that covers the head and face, because they will go for your face. That’s their primary instinct. They go for your eyes. That’s programmed into them. I also usually wear light-colored clothing. One of their biggest natural enemies are bears, so they go for dark objects. And I generally wear leather beekeeping gloves.
I have to ask. Do you ever get stung?
Yeah, once in a while, but not very often. Because honeybees are really pretty docile. They’re not aggressive. They’re not meat-eaters like wasps and hornets. Also if you get stung enough, you do work up a resistance to the bee venom. You feel the prick, but it doesn’t burn and sting.
How do you get the honey out?
I set up a “honey house” in my garage. It’s a messy business because there’s wax and honey everywhere. To get you a picture: a hive is a series of boxes that stack on top of each other and within those boxes are wooden frames, each with a sheet of wax. The bees build on that with their own wax, and that’s where they put their young and their reserves of honey and pollen. On each cell, when the honey is ripe, they put a little wax cap that seals it off. When it’s harvest time, you take those boxes off the hive, bring them into the honey house, take a hot knife and cut the wax caps off. Then you basically put the frames in a giant centrifuge and spin the honey out. I strain it to get rid of any stray bits—wax, little pieces of legs or wings or whatever might be in there—and then it goes right into jars, no other processing.
How much honey do you get?
Last year I got about 175 pounds of honey. I had four hives back then, and it was dry that summer so it was a down year. You can probably average 60 pounds of honey per hive, but it’s not unheard of to get 120 pounds or more from one hive in a banner year.
What do you do with it all?
Mostly eat it—put it on a piece of toast—or give it away. People love to get honey.
What does your honey taste like?
Depending on where the bees forage, you can get very unique flavors. I’m in an urban setting, so they’re going to flower gardens, vegetable gardens, trees. Some beekeepers will target certain “honey flows” to get honey from a particular flower. So when, say, the clover is in flower they’ll watch really closely and take that honey off. Mine, I just let it all come together. It always tastes great.
So how do your neighbors feel about all this?
The neighbors on both sides are really excited about the bees, actually. They understand their contributions to wildlife and flowers. I have one neighbor who moved in and had never lived near bees, but his new plantings are all doing great, and he says it’s because of my bees. And, you know, a jar of honey or two goes a long way to improve the bee’s image. Especially when it’s from someone’s backyard.
What’s the reward you get from beekeeping?
It’s a fascinating hobby. It’s really interesting to see how they work together for this common good of sustaining the hive—they sacrifice their lives. It’s nice to provide pollination for everything around. And it doesn’t hurt that you get a little sweet reward at the end.