It wasn’t the love of honey, but the need of pollinating his two-acre garden that led Bill Hillerman, 80, into the business of beekeeping.
“Six years ago, I didn’t have any bees, so I talked to a beekeeper from Santa Cruz, who taught me a lot,” Hillerman said. “When I was ready, I ordered five little packages of bees. Each three-pound package came with a queen, drones, and worker bees ... about 10,000-15,000 in a package.”
The bees came by mail, and postal workers knew what they had on their hands from the non-stop commotion. One morning before dawn, Hillerman got the call to pick up his special “buzzing” packages at the Coarsegold Post Office.
“I had the hives already set up, and put the queen bee in. Once I did that, the others followed her inside and that’s where they lived until the swarm in the spring,” Hillerman continued. (Swarming is the bee’s natural method of propagation).
That first year, the bees worked tirelessly to build up a honey supply for themselves. The worker bees hunted outside the hive, gathering nectar and pollen, which was spread throughout the honeycombs. Once the moisture evaporated, and the honey began to thicken, the bees sped up the process by fanning their wings. And when the honey was gooey enough, and the moisture had dropped to about 18%, the bees capped it off with wax for storage.
Because honey is produced mainly during the spring and summer months, the stored honey is what the bees survive on during the winter, when they stay inside for warmth. They cluster around the queen to protect and warm her, because “if she doesn’t make it, the hive doesn’t make it.”
In the second and succeeding years, Hillerman, carefully removed the surplus honey from his hives, and like all knowledgeable beekeepers, always left enough for the bees.
In 2012, he extracted 40-45 pounds of honey per hive. Today, due to the drought, he is only able to extract about 30 pounds.
He spins the surplus honey out of the frames using an extractor, and then uses a double-jacketed, water-rounded bottler to warm the honey without scorching or burning it, before filling the jars, and applying a “Hillerman Family Honey” label.
A complex system
Hillerman calls the bee system intricate, one that works well. The queen, which is the largest bee in the colony (a group of bees numbering 40,000-60,000), mates with seven -10 different drones in the air away from the hive.
In the spring, she forms a new colony by laying eggs within each honeycomb cell. In about 17 days, a few of the fertilized eggs hatch into queens, the others become workers, and the unfertilized eggs become male drones. The difference between a queen and worker bee is that the queen larvae is fed royal jelly exclusively.
The drone’s sole purpose is mating with the queen, (“they party, party, party”), while the worker bees protect the colony.
Spring is also the time of year for swarming - when the old queen splits off from the colony, taking half the hive with her to a new location, leaving one of the new queen bees to take over.
To prevent the bees from moving on, Hillerman prepares a new hive, complete with new queen, just before the swarm occurs. He splits the old hive, using a smoker, which calms the bees. That way, he is able to relocate half the colony to a new hive on his ranch.
“When they smell smoke, they begin gorging on the honey, in case they need to leave quickly,” Hillerman explained, “and while they’re busy doing that, they are so preoccupied that they don’t become so upset when I move them.”
Using this practice, Hillerman has increased from five to 36 hives over the years.
When the weather begins to cool in the fall, the “partying” drones meet a grim end. The worker bees kill them off because they don’t want to share the stored food supply.
It’s inevitable, given his years of working with bees, that Hillerman has had more than his share of stings.
“One time, I was stung about seven or eight times on one side of my face, and the next morning, it was all swollen,” he recalled. “My wife, Connie, told me that I looked better that way, and asked why I didn’t get stung every day or two, on both sides of my face.”
He chuckles at the memory. Stings are no big deal to Hillerman, who claims that bee stings really don’t hurt much, and are more bothersome than anything else.
He should know - he’s stung on the hand every week or two. Even so, sometimes he wears gloves, sometimes he doesn’t.
“The worker bees sting just once. Their stingers have barbs on them, and once they sting, the stinger pulls out of the abdomen ... and the bee dies a couple hours later. The drones can’t sting, and the queen bee ... well, she can sting like a machine gun all day long.”
Hillerman Family Honey
A Coarsegold resident for 51 years, prior to beekeeping, Hillerman worked in construction. He is also in the cattle business with his son, Cecil, and grandsons, Riley and Reed.
Hillerman Family Honey can be purchased at the three area farmer’s markets - Coarsegold, Bass Lake, and Oakhurst. Customers can come to his ranch to pick the honey up, as well.
Given that honey has an indefinite shelf life, Hillerman added, “My honey is guaranteed for a lifetime ... either yours or the honeys.”
Details: Hillerman Family Honey, (559) 683-5879.
Sierra Foothill Beekeeping Association
With the increasing popularity of starting smaller hives (three or four) for personal use, information is readily available on the successful caring of bees. One area organization, Sierra Foothill Beekeeping Association, focuses on saving honeybee swarms.
The association was formed to educate and raise community awareness on honeybees, beekeeping and native pollinators, while actively encouraging responsible, sustainable beekeeping practices.
Meetings are held at 7 p.m., every third Monday of the month, February to October, at the Mariposa County Library. The public is welcome, as are beekeepers of all levels.
Details: Tim Bryant, (209) 742-6191.