by Marie Fricker
When Anya Zola, 67, of Braintree dons her white canvas body suit with attached hat and face veil, she has one destination – her own backyard. Zola is conducting a regular inspection of her self-built beehives that became home to two swarms of uninvited, but most welcome, honey bees this spring.
The Braintree hobby beekeeper blows a few puffs of smoke from a small can into the framed sections of the first hive so the bees will go into “preservation mode” and won’t attack her. She has been stung hundreds of times, but doesn’t seem to mind it.”
“I actually feel better after the pain subsides,” said Zola, 67. “If they sting you through your clothing, the stinger doesn’t go into you but you still get some of the bee venom, which is very therapeutic.”
The next step in Zola’s monthly inspection of her hives is to check to see if the queen bee is laying. She looks for eggs, larva, and the presence of pollen being brought back to the hive. She also observes honey and honeycomb (hexagonal shaped beeswax cells) being made by the worker bees within the colony.
The efforts of Zola and other beekeepers have become even more important in recent years as the population of honey bees and bumble bees has dropped significantly throughout the world.
“The bees are dying because of the use of pesticides and other chemicals on flowers and lawns,” said Zola. “Bees don’t just make honey. They collect pollen and distribute it from one plant to another. They are responsible for 30 percent of the fruits and vegetables that we buy in our stores. In China, farmers were using chemicals on their plants that were so toxic that the bees died off. They had to hand pollinate their fruit trees to save their crops. People need to realize that bees are important to our environment and our health.”
For Zola, taking a class on beekeeping at the Norfolk Country Agricultural School in 2015 was just the beginning of her fascination with the field of apiology (the science of bees). After several more courses and extensive personal research, the former city girl from Dorchester is now a freelance beekeeper, who is called upon to speak and share ideas with fellow members of the Boston Area Beekeeper’s Association.
The hierarchy of a honey bee colony, which can expand to 60,000 or more inhabitants in a single hive, is pre-established and never altered. There is only one queen, who mates with about 15 male bees (drones) during a mating flight just six days after her birth. She then returns to the hive and lays up to 1,500 eggs a day (200,000 in her lifetime) in the cells of a honeycomb made by her worker bees. She can live seven years, but is usually replaced with a new queen at around age 3.
The “heavy lifting” of the colony is done by the female worker bees, which comprise 80 percent of the colony and have a lifespan of only 45 days. They extract pollen and sweet nectar from flowers in endless flights within a 4-mile radius of the hive and bring it back to the colony to make honey and honeycomb.
The male drones live only to mate with a virgin queen bee, which results in their immediate death. They do not forage for pollen, have no stingers, and spend their days in “drone congregation areas” waiting for an unmated queen to fly by.
Zola’s first attempts at beekeeping in 2017 fell a bit short of her expectations. “I purchased two packages of bees from Georgia and installed them in the two hives I had built,” she said. “I lost the first hive early on as the bees were sickly and couldn’t produce enough bees to build the colony. The second hive was strong but it failed over the winter because of an infestation of varroa mites, which is a menace to the bees.”
Not to be discouraged, Zola persevered, and has had up to four working hives over the last few years. She sold some of them and lost her last colony unexpectedly in February of 2022. Now left with two vacant hives, the decision not to buy any more bees this year was overturned when two swarms of honey bees voluntarily took up residence in her hives in May.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw the first swarm arrive,” said Zola. “It was so exciting to watch it move right into my hive and then a second one came 10 days later.”
Zola is not a commercial beekeeper, selling bees or honey for profit. “This is strictly a hobby for me,” she said. “I keep bees because I like to provide a place for them to survive and grow. I do collect and process the honey, but I don’t pasteurize it because you lose the beneficial aspects of the honey. I encourage people to buy from local bee keepers. If you see traces of pollen in your jar, that is a healthy thing. It can actually build up your immunity to seasonal allergies.”
For Zola, being the caretaker of bees is not an easy job, but it is a labor of love.
“If we could work with as much intensity and cooperation as these little creatures do, what would our community, our country, our world be like?” said Zola. “They have an attitude of all for one and one for all. There is nothing about honey bees that I don’t like.”
To learn more about beekeeping, visit www.bostonbeekeepers.org.