Magee's Bees

Hospitals are at their best as community partners when they invest in innovative ways to help improve the health of the people in their community.

UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital is trying to “bee” a good community partner in a novel way, supporting community health by cultivating honeybees on its campus in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.

The Magee Bees

The Magee Bees project was the brainchild of Chris Vitsas, director of hospitality and operations at UPMC Magee. He had been thinking about a sustainability initiative for the hospital over the last few years when he came upon the beekeeping idea.

“A team of three Magee staff members took a beekeeping class and then started our colonies by placing one queen and about 3,000 bees in each of two hives,” Chris explains. There are five frames within each of the hives; eventually, the bee colony within each hive will grow to 20,000 or more.

“The hive project began as a way for UPMC Magee to launch a sustainability effort that would not only help pollinate the plants and flowers in the garden and landscaping beds on the UPMC Magee property, but also help support the gardens of the surrounding community,” adds Chris. “We also wanted to do it just because it seemed so cool!”

The hives came to life in April 2018 when UPMC Magee partnered with locally owned apiarists Burgh Bees to start two bee colonies in an isolated location on the hospital’s campus. Burgh Bees helped choose the location based on the necessary amount of sunlight and protection from extreme weather, and offered advice to the beekeeping team.

Hives generally don’t produce honey in their first year because the bees must first produce enough beeswax to build up the honeycomb inside the hive. It takes up to 11 pounds of nectar for bees to produce one pound of beeswax.

UPMC Magee’s year-old hives produced their first batches of honey in early summer 2019, according to Tom Hritz, director of food and nutrition at UPMC Magee. “The team harvested 60 pounds of honey in late June and early July,” says Tom. “The beekeepers left about 20 percent of the honey inside the hive for the bees to use for food during the winter.”

Tom says that the raw honey produced from the UPMC Magee hives has been used in food prepared in the hospital’s cafeteria and for catered hospital events. “We do not use the honey in patient meals because it is unpasteurized and may not be safe for some patients, including pregnant women and those with compromised immunity,” he says.

Cultivating the hives is a simple process, requiring only minimal care throughout the seasons. In the first year, there was not enough honey in the new hives to feed the bees, so each week beekeepers fed the bees with sugar water. When the weather started to turn cold, the hives were winterized with a cover, leaving a small opening for drone bees to come in and out. In the springtime, the hives were uncovered in preparation for warm weather and the blooming seasons.

Honeybees typically pollinate plants within a three- to four-mile radius of the hive, which for the UPMC Magee hives covers nearly the entire Oakland area. The UPMC Magee hives are thought to be the only hospital-owned hives in Pennsylvania, although Chris says he has read about hives on hospital campuses in Chicago and in Summit and Ridgewood, New Jersey.

The population of wild honeybees nationwide has been declining due to unknown reasons, but pesticide use, parasites, viruses, and loss of habitat are considered the most likely culprits. Although private beekeeping efforts will not increase the number of wild bees, the bees from private hives can help pollinate plants locally while doing their part to sustain the flora within their flight path.

How Does a Beehive Work?

Honeybee colonies run on a caste system made up of a single queen bee, hundreds of male drones, and thousands of female worker bees. The hive also holds developing eggs, larvae, and pupae that eventually grow into adult bees. Larvae are fed royal jelly, a substance the bees secrete, and other nourishment so that they grow into mature bees.

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Naturally, Queen Bees Run the Show

Queens are the only members of a colony able to lay fertilized eggs. They mate early in life and store millions of sperm within their bodies to fertilize their eggs. The queen lays the eggs which become drones, worker bees, or potential queen bees.

Whether a female larva becomes a worker or a queen depends on what it is fed in the first three days of its life. New queens are chosen as larva by workers and moved into special queen condos — cells that are more spacious than worker cells. The queen larva is fed a diet of only rich royal jelly that enables her to mature sexually. She will go on her maiden flight and mate with drones so she can become fertile. If two queens are hatched, they will fight to the death. The winner will eventually replace the current queen of the hive if she dies or swarms with a posse of other bees in search of another hive.

An egg-laying queen is important in setting up a strong colony and can produce up to 2,500 eggs within a single day. A queen can live up to five years, but most queens only produce eggs for about three years.

Workers Git ‘R Done

Worker bees are also female bees, but they are unable to lay fertilized eggs. They make up the largest population within a colony. Their job is to gather nectar and pollen, which pollinates trees and flowers, feeds larvae, and is used to make the beeswax that forms the honeycomb.

Worker bees defend the colony using their barbed stingers. If you’ve ever stepped on or been stung by a bee, you’ve most likely tangled with a worker bee. After stinging, the worker bee’s barb attaches to the victim’s skin, tearing out the bee’s abdomen and resulting in the bee’s death.

Workers are indispensable members of honeybee colonies. They forage for pollen and nectar, tend to queens and drones, feed larvae, defend the nest, and perform other tasks essential to the survival of the colony. The average lifespan of worker bees is about six weeks.

Drones Are the Wanna-Bees

Drones are male honeybees, and they have only one task: to fertilize new queens. They do not have stingers. Drones mate outdoors, usually in midair, and die soon after mating. Some honeybee colonies will evict surviving drones from the hive in the fall when food for the colony becomes limited.

When a colony gets too big and the hive gets too crowded, the queen may leave the hive with a cluster of bees and swarm to find a new place to live. A younger queen will emerge to run the hive.

How Do Bees Make Honey?

Making honey is an industrious process requiring worker bees to make many trips back and forth between the neighborhood flowers and the hive. As the bee visits each blossom, it uses its proboscis—a long straw-like tongue—to suck up nectar, a solution of about 30 percent sugar and 70 percent water.

The bee stores the nectar in its honey sac, a special stomach that, when full of nectar, will be almost equal to the bee’s body weight. It carries its payload back to the hive and passes it on to other workers who chew on the nectar. The chewing removes the water in the nectar, making it a concentrated, thick liquid that the bees then deposit into the hexagonal cells of the beeswax honeycomb.

Bees flutter their wings to fan the liquid to thicken it even more and it becomes honey. The bees then seal the honey inside a cell and cap it with beeswax to protect it.

5 Cool Facts About Honeybees

  • Bees produce two to three times more honey than they need. That’s why a good portion of the honey can be harvested without harming the colony.
  • Ancient Egyptians floated rafts carrying beehives up and down the Nile to pollinate crops growing along the river.
  • A honeybee visits 50 to 100 flowers during each collection trip.
  • The average bee will make only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.
  • Honeybees must gather nectar from two million flowers to make one pound of honey.