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BEEhind the Scenes: Meet the Bees and Beekeepers of Crystal Bridges

By Samantha Best, Landscape and Outdoor Experience Manager

Bees crawling over the wooden slats of an open hive.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art will be closed Monday, May 13, to prepare for the visit of Antiques Roadshow. We will return to normal hours of operation Wednesday, May 15.

In honor of World Bee Day on May 20, come meet the bees and beekeepers that keep things buzzing at the museum.

 

Trails and Grounds Beekeepers Joanna Mentzer, Manager of Horticultural Operations, and Libby Storie, Horticulturist, prepare to split a hive.
Trails and Grounds Beekeepers Joanna Mentzer, Manager of Horticultural Operations, and Libby Storie, Horticulturist, prepare to split a hive.

Did you know that Crystal Bridges has been the home to beehives for the past six years?

What started as a way to provide honey to our culinary team has blossomed into a focal point for our guests and a rewarding hobby for our Trails and Grounds beekeepers, Joanna Mentzer and Libby Storie.

Beehives first appeared on the grounds of Crystal Bridges in 2017. Hives ideally need a sunny area in close proximity to pollinator- friendly plants and pesticide-free landscapes,  as well as some distance from potential human disturbances.

With these parameters in mind, our first beehives were placed in proximity to our Art Trail, behind James Turrell’s The Way of Color. As the hives grew and became more successful, the Trails and Grounds team knew that our guests needed to see and learn about honeybees. In 2022, we added two more hives to our green roof at the museum’s main entrance.

Keeping up with the bees

Starting in spring and on through the fall, on any given day, you can see our happy bees buzzing back and forth between their green roof home and our gardens and landscape. A strong honeybee hive can have up to 60,000 bees in it. Keeping that many bees happy and healthy mostly falls to Nature, but our beekeepers are instrumental to ensuring their overall success.

After just having caught a swarm and splitting a hive, we caught up with our intrepid beekeepers Joanna and Libby to learn more about beekeeping.

The first thing we learned is that beekeeping is completely unpredictable. Libby noted that in a recent hive check-up, she fully expected to see signs of a new queen bee. When that didn’t happen, she was stumped on what to do next.

Honeybee hives on our green roof.
Honeybee hives on our green roof.

Queen Bees and the birth of a hive 

Libby examines a frame for a queen bee.
Libby examines a frame for a queen bee.

So what exactly is happening in those hives?

Like any welcoming household, there’s food preparation, caretaking of children (or brood in bee terms), removal of refuse (like dead bees), and lots of cleaning. Joanna mentioned that upon opening a hive for the first time she was “…instantly amazed by the smell of the inside of a hive. It’s a healthy good smell. There’s nothing else like it on Earth.”

Perhaps the biggest job is keeping the queen bee fed and happy. Only one queen bee can live in a hive, and it’s the worker bees who determine when a new queen needs to be throned and which egg will become the next lucky royal. This usually happens when an existing queen is no longer producing large quantities of eggs, or the eggs are placed sporadically throughout the frames of the hive.

Queens are created when they are in the larval stage by being fed royal jelly by the workers. Although more than one egg might get this special treatment, ultimately only one will wear the crown.

Once hatched, that lucky lady will leave the hive and find a drone congregation (a group of male bees), which is rarely seen by humans. She’ll mate with many males in that group to ensure that her brood will be genetically diverse and will then come back to the hive to spend the remainder of her life laying eggs.

A fertile queen means that a hive can expand greatly, and one of the jobs of a beekeeper is to ensure that the hive has the room it needs to grow.

If a population of bees senses that they are outgrowing their space, they’ll want to leave their hive to find a larger, more suitable living situation. This is when a swarm can occur. Splitting a hive creates a “controlled” swarm, facilitated by the beekeeper but ensuring that the bee population stays in one place.

Bees crawling over the wooden slats of an open hive.
Up to sixty thousand bees can exist in a hive, each with a unique job to keep the hive thriving.

When asked about the biggest surprise about beekeeping, Libby noted her realization that “the bees don’t actually need us, they can take care of themselves.”

Joanna had a different take, noting that beekeeping can be “….a frustrating and peaceful hobby all at once. These are really complicated creatures and the biggest surprise is just how healthy it is for the hobbyist. It just makes you feel so dang good!”

Ready to start your own hives, or just learn more about our honey-making friends? Join the Benton County Beekeepers Association for classes and resources, listen to Libby’s favorite beekeeping podcast Two Bees and a Podcast, or check out our Mind Your Beeswax blog to learn how honeybees are architects of the natural world.

 

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