By Erika Webb
If you ask advanced beekeeper and lecturer Ed Williams what he did before he retired, he'll say, "Nothing, according to my boss."
The dry-witted apiarist does plenty these days to educate locals about bees.
Through a series of lectures at DeBary Hall, which began Sept. 12, Mr. Williams will teach anyone who wants to listen about pollination, bee biology, behaviors and habitats, Africanized bees and more.
He's given more than 50 talks throughout Volusia and Seminole counties since becoming a beekeeper four years ago.
Educating the public is a requirement of the University of Florida Master Beekeeper program in which Mr. Williams is a participant. But he talks more than he's required to about bees.
"Part of the requirement is to do these talks as a public service to the non-beekeeping public, but I enjoy giving talks," Mr. Williams said. "I like to teach people about my bees."
It's hard to fathom feeling affection toward a fuzzy flying bug with the capacity to sting, but Mr. Williams talks about his bees the way some talk about their cats.
"All my life I've been an armchair scientist. I always was interested in the outdoors and nature," said Mr. Williams, who also is a master gardener.
About four or five years ago he attended an open house at a nursery and heard a beekeeper there mention representatives from the University of Florida were coming to the area to do some training.
"I forgot about it and one day I Googled it and found out for 15 bucks I could get lunch and learn all about bees," Mr. Williams said.
He learned about bee behavior, pollination, pests and diseases. Representatives from the Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory brought hives.
"They opened the hives and we got to see what that was like," Mr. Williams said. "It was so infinitely cool; it was unbelievable."
Mr. Williams spends a lot of time dispelling myths, like the one about smoke.
"Smoke doesn't really calm them down," he said. "Some people think when bees smell smoke, they think it's a fire so they gorge on honey and leave the hive."
Rather, he said, bees communicate with many pheromones. One is the alarm pheromone. If a bee gets upset and secretes the chemical signaling alarm, the entire colony will react in concert. Mr. Williams said the smoke masks the smell of that pheromone so the other bees don't react.
"It's kind of like your grandma's perfume," he joked.
With two hives, Mr. Williams is not in it for the money. He does sell some honey, but his goal is to learn and to be a steward of the environment.
"The best way to minimize the effects of Africanized bees in an area is to have good strong normal hives," he said.
The European honeybee is not native to the Americas. It is indigenous to Europe, the Middle East and Africa. In the late 1500s Spanish explorers venturing to the new world brought the bees with them, he explained.
"They are exotic but not invasive," Mr. Williams said. "I raise European honeybees."
"Bees are generally gentle," he added. "If you appear aggressive to them around the hive, they will be defensive. They're protecting their babies, their food and their home."
Even though he has around 50,000 in one hive, Mr. Williams works in his shirtsleeves wearing a veil to protect his eyes. He said he's not heroic and many beekeepers don't find it necessary to completely suit up to work with their beehives.
"You just stay calm and use a little smoke," he explained. "It's natural to be afraid, but generally they're just a bunch of nice ladies."
"Most of the bees in a hive are female. Females do all the work," he added.
Even though the males, or drones, "sit around, drink beer and chase women," Mr. Williams said being a drone may not be the best thing in the world.
Their purpose is to provide genetic variation.
During winters in the north, food is nonexistent so the females drive the drones out of the colony where they die.
"They're a drain on the resources," he said. "They don't contribute ... don't work and don't even defend the hive because they can't sting."
And their story gets worse.
"The instant they mate with the queen, if they're so lucky, they die," he said.
The disconcerting decline of the European honeybee, which started more than five years ago, the result of Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD, is causing up to a 50 percent loss of commercial hives, Mr. Williams said.
"You don't lose half the hive, you lose the entire colony with CCD," he explained.
Many theories abound as to the cause of the disorder. Mr. Williams subscribes to the idea that it's probably a combination of factors, including pesticides, specifically neonicotinoid insecticides and genetic issues.
"It's possible there's not enough genetic diversity anymore," he said.
Diseases and pests, like the Asian varroa mite, also have contributed to the bees' declining numbers.
Mr. Williams said the varroa was first discovered in the U.S. 15 years ago.
"It sucks blood like a tick," he said. "In relation to the bee this mite -- one of the largest ectoparasites -- on an animal is comparable to a tick the size of a basketball on a human."
"As bad as that is, these mites vector some really bad viruses," he added. "The bees in Asia have evolved with it and can deal with it. It's not a big deal, but the European honeybee has no evolutionary defense."
The good news for humans and other animals is the destructive pests and diseases, which afflict the bees, are not transmittable to other species.
Extensive research efforts are ongoing and Mr. Williams said the government is providing a lot of support.
The synthetic nicotine neurotoxin used in pesticides is thought to affect the way bees think or behave.
Mr. Williams cited a study done by the University of California-San Diego in which scientists exposed bees to non-lethal doses of neonicotinoid in a field.
"When the bee comes back to the hive it does what is called the waggle dance," Mr. Williams explained. "That tells the rest of the colony which direction to fly, how far to fly and the quality of the food source. The colony reacts and sends other foragers out to that place."
In this study, he said, the foragers would go out and return to dance, but they were ignored by the other bees, which wouldn't go forage.
Researchers summarized that foragers that had ingested the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor agonist, imidacloprid, produced fewer waggle dance circuits, and those in the hive were less receptive to those dances due to memory impairment and higher sucrose thresholds, according to a report on ucsd.edu.
Basically, communication broke down, Mr. Williams explained.
Africanized bees are a hybrid of the European honeybee and a sub-species of honeybees from Africa.
In his October talks on these bees with the bad rap, Mr. Williams will look at what they are, where they are, how they got here and what a person should do in the event of an attack.
"The purpose is not to scare," he said. "We're better off learning the facts than (dealing in) mythology. I hate the term killer bee. They are defensive of their colony and need to be respected."
For more information about the honeybees (and other Central Florida pollinators) lecture series, call DeBary Hall at (386) 668-3840.