The buzz around the St. Helena Public Library last Thursday were two bee observation hives — featured attractions of “Uncle Jer’s Traveling Bee Show.” The show, given by beekeepers Jerry and Ellen Johnson, was a humorous educational talk aimed at both children and adults that included jokes, photo slides, puppets and “bee dancing.” About 30 people came to listen.
Jerry Johnson, “Uncle Jer,” has been keeping bees since he was a kid when he lived on his mother and step-father’s farm in Fiddletown. His parents were bee keepers with approximately 10,000 colonies. During the summer and weekends the family traveled up and down the central valley transporting their hives from one orchard to another. In 2009, he started his traveling show.
Johnson told the audience at the library that honey bees pollinate about 40 percent of the crops that we eat. He said that each healthy colony of bees will hold between 50,000 and 80,000 bees. He talked about how raw honey is a natural antibiotic substance that’s good for cuts and infections, and how raw honey can help people overcome common pollen allergies.
So beneficial is honey as an antibiotic that, according to Johnson, every burn unit in every hospital keeps a solution of honey available to treat people who have been seriously burned.
The two observation hives that the Johnsons brought into the library only contained a few thousand bees, safely contained behind glass walls of two cases. They kept the bees cases covered until the end of the show when youngsters and grownups crowded around to look for the queen bees in each case. They also brought some of the common equipment that beekeepers use to manage the bees. This included an empty hive body with frames, a “smoker,” a veil, a special pair of bee gloves and a hive tool (used for prying apart hive frames). And, of course, they also brought samples of honey for people to taste.
Of particular interest to the audience was the frame of honey that Johnson pulled from the empty hive. Each frame, according to Johnson, contains about 2,000 cells on each side. The bees create these cells from the wax that they extrude from their abdomens. The wax is formed into hexagonal cells to house the eggs that the queen bee lays, to raise the “brood” through its metamorphosis from egg to grub to honey bee, and to store pollen and honey, which the bees use for food.
According to Johnson, the bees make the honey by concentrating nectar from flowers. As the bees fill the frame cells with nectar they will fan the cells to evaporate the extra moisture. This evaporation, according to Johnson, acts as a natural air conditioner, and though the temperature outside the colony may be higher than 100 degrees, the inside is kept at a steady 98 degrees. When the honey in the cells reaches the right consistency, the bees cap each cell with a layer of wax.
Johnson walked a frame of capped honey around the room for the children and adults to inspect. The frame was a dimpled white expanse of wax that looked a bit like sugar candy with honey hiding beneath the caps. The kids leaned in close to see the capped honey, and one child licked her lips and said “Yum!” as the frame passed her seat.
Ellen Johnson, who assisted her husband with the demonstration, described the different “casts” and “roles” that exist in a healthy colony. In each colony there is one sexually mature female bee, called a “queen” who lays the eggs of the colony, thousands of sexually immature female bees called “workers” who do the work of the colony, and male bees called “drones” whose sole purpose in life is to mate with a queen.
To demonstrate how these different casts interact, the Johnsons donned bee puppets, and performed an imagined conversation in the colony. They demonstrated how bees communicate by wiggling their abdomens in circles, called a bee dance. At the end of the bee show, kids and adults alike did a “bee dance” to the music of “Shake Your Booty” by KC and the Sunshine Band.
For more information about the show, performed at libraries and churches, visit the website, bee-show.com, or call the Johnsons, (916) 387-5377.