Rotary meeting

Rotarians check out some of the 6,000 or so honey bees that were part of their weekly meeting on Tuesday. (Photo by Rachael Van Horn)

On Tuesday at noon, there were about 6,000 honey bees in the community meeting room at the Northwest Inn in Woodward.

But in this case, there was no reason to panic since their handler Steve Leger was with them and they were safely contained in a special container called an observation box.

Leger came to Woodward two years ago by way of Houston to take over as the head engineering manager for CF Industries.

On Tuesday, Leger offered a special  presentation on his real passion to the Woodward Rotary about his bees and the current state of bee keeping here and in the United States. He also brought eight samples of honey from all over the United States for a honey tasting event. The tasting pitted eight unmarked samples against each other for scent, visual appeal and taste quality. One of those samples was produced by Leger's bees.

Other than the faint hum of the drumming wings of worker bees, you could hear a pin drop in the room as Leger discussed - as the famous title by Sue Monk Kidd exclaimed - The Secret Life of Bees.

"I have five or eight engineers working for me at CF Industries and they have all learned if they come in my office and I am beating them up about the budget or something or other, they ask me something about the bees," he said. "I can talk for hours about the bees. So two hours later they all leave my office and everyone is happy."

Leger officially got into the beekeeping hobby about six years ago. But he had long been interested in the state of bees, researching and gathering data on the importance of the survival of bees to the world food supply.

Honey bees are the only insect that produces food for humans, Leger said with obvious respect tinging his voice.

Along with their pollinating activities, their work produces several products at the same time, including honey, bee's wax and a substance known as Propol, the glue bees use to build their hives with made from the sap they get from trees.

To understand the importance of bees, one has to start with numbers and since Leger is an engineer, he likes raw data.

Only 30 percent of the honey consumed in the United States is produced here. It takes about 8 to 10 pounds of nectar to make one pound of honey. And it takes about 8 to 10 pounds of honey to make one pound of bee's wax, Leger said.

"So you are looking at 100 pounds of nectar to make one pound of bee's wax," he said.

And this is where it gets personal for Leger.  Always on the lookout to protect his "girls" as he calls them, Leger is keenly interested in what is causing the continued low numbers of the honey bee population. He sees the lack of understanding about what has caused the decline in bee numbers as a continued threat.

"You probably have all heard of Colony Collapse Disorder," Leger said. "It actually started in 1990. We didn't really realize it but the bee population was dropping off. I think it was around 2005 or 2006 the world lost like 60 percent of all bees. And they are very important to our agricultural communities because they pollinate. I think 60 percent of all the fruit that we eat is pollinated by bees."

When he learned that nearly 95 percent of bees kept in the world are kept by small bee hobbyists, he decided he wanted to be part of the bee recovery.

"The hobbyists, I think, have really helped the industry," he said.

And he has been able to celebrate at least one positive benchmark after his decision to join the beekeeper life when he learned that 2015 marked the highest colony count for bees in the last 15 years.

But that doesn't mean the coast is clear, he said.

"So, it looks like the bees are recovering and on their own because we aren't doing anything to help them," he said.

But the numbers are still too low, he warned.

"Really the scientists don't know for sure what is causing it. There is a big asperary where they have hundreds of hives. They check their bees and everything is great. They come back a week later and all the workers are gone - 95 percent of the workers are gone. The queen is there the food is there, the pollen is there, the brood is there but there are no workers. They just disappeared and no one knows why."

Experts think it could be herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or parasites spread between bees.

Just in the last month, South Carolina officials made news when they sprayed for possible Zika carrying mosquitoes but wound up killing millions of local honey bees. Leger said if they had merely waited until after sundown or before sunup, they could have avoided a good portion of those bee deaths.

But experts also believe the demise of so many of the world's bees can also be due to agricultural practices, such as mono-agriculture where only one crop is grown for hundreds of miles, Leger said.

"An example of that is California where they have hundreds of square miles of almond trees. They only bloom for a few weeks during the year and so a wild bee cannot live there because they'd only have food for a couple of weeks," he said. "So they bring in bee hives just for that pollination."

Since the U.S. doesn't have enough bees to pollinate all those almond trees, bees from other countries are shipped in.

"They bring them in from all over the world and South America, and some of the scientists think they are trading parasites like the Verilla Mites and there are some other parasites," he said. "I think, and a lot of other scientists believe, that it is a kind of combination of all of that which is causing the Colony Collapse Disorder."

In the meantime, Leger just looks after his many thousands of bees. You may have met some of his bees since they forage all around in Woodward - specifically around the Southern Plain Range Research Station. At night, they fly back to his home in West Woodward.

There are three types of bees in any colony, Leger said. There are queens, workers (always female) and drones.

"The drones are the male bees and they are a little bit bigger than the workers and they do not have a stinger. All they do is breed," Leger said. "They don't even know how to eat. The workers will have to feed the drones to keep them alive."

Leger said about this time of year the breeding season is over and the workers get tired of feeding the drones and so they stop feeding them and when the drones get weak, they kick them out of the hive.

"If they are lucky enough to breed with the queen, which is very rare, the queen will breed with between five and 10 drones during one flight in her life," he said. "And it's instantly fatal for the drones. All of their appendages fall off and they drop to the ground."

The life of a queen bee depends on how often a keeper re-queens, as it is called, Leger said.

"But the world record, and they named her Queen Elizabeth and she lived seven years," Leger said. "A normal working bee that is born in the spring only has about four to six weeks of life. They literally work themselves to death and they die. The drones can live between four and six months and then they usually get kicked out of the hive or breed."

The queen can lay between 1,500 and 1,800 eggs every single day, he said. "She literally can lay her weight in eggs every day," he said. "It’s a short lifespan but a productive one."

Leger wanted to offer his thanks to his boss CF Industries General Manager David Borzik for allowing him the time to offer the presentation. "Well, they are the only reason I am able to come out and do this kind of thing," he said.

"There are a lot of ways to support the community and this was just one more of them - a more personal way of supporting the community," Borzik said. "We are in the agriculture business and this is such an important part of agriculture."

And finally, after all the taste-testers turned in their grading sheets from the blind taste testing, his own locally produced honey tied for second place among eight samples tested.

Taste-testers gave the sample high marks for the fresh, spicy and citrusy taste of his sample.

"My girls can make some sweet honey," he said proudly.

Leger doesn't sell his honey, he gives it away.

"Years ago honey was never sold. It was a gift from the sun to the flowers to the bees and then to man," he said. "It is a gift."

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