Beekeeper turns father's hobby into thriving honey business

Before Peter Sieling opens one of his many honeybee hives, he always covers it with a blanket of thick smoke to calm its residents.
“Smoke messes up their sense of smell and they communicate by smell,” according to Sieling, a member and former president of the Steuben County Honeybee Association. “If I open a hive without smoke, a few of them will come out and start dive-bombing me.”
Smoke is a beekeeper’s secret weapon.
Sieling, 57, has been in the beekeeping business for as long as he can remember. His dad Gary was a hobby beekeeper; Sieling learned the trade and turned it into a part-time job.
Sieling’s bee yard is located in an open field surrounded by a wooded area near his home in Howard; he often takes a Gator - a small, all-terrain utility vehicle - to gain access to it, as regular vehicles are too large.
According to Sieling, there are four main rules when confronting an active bee hive: move slowly, don’t flail your arms, wear light-colored clothing, and stay away from the bees’ front doors.
On a good day - warm and sunny - Sieling can get away with not wearing a veil or gloves.
“On a nice day, most of the bees are out collecting nectar and pollen,” Sieling said. “Bees are not nearly as ‘stingy’ as most people would assume. I can usually work for hours in the bee yard and not get any stings at all on a nice day.”
Despite Sieling’s ease at working in his bee yard in fair weather, he’s already been stung four times this season, according to the tally he keeps on a white board near his honey stand. Because it’s still early in the season, Sieling expects that number to go up.
“(The number) goes way up when I take them out of somebody’s house and a thunderstorm comes through,” Sieling said. “I could be working along and they’ll be in a good mood and then suddenly it’ll start thundering ... I can get 20 stings in an afternoon on a bad day.”
For most of the year, Sieling lets the bees do their own thing, but from May-June he checks on his colonies daily.
“Mid-May through mid-June is swarm season,” Sieling said. “So every time I come up, I watch the trees and look for a cluster of bees in case one of my hives has swarmed and made a new home, but I put a lot of empty boxes around hoping that they will move into those.”
According to Sieling, just before the bees swarm, they make a new queen for the hive they intend to leave behind.
“They’ll create full-size queen cells and then the (current) queen will just come along, lay eggs in them, and then shortly after those are sealed and ready to hatch, half to two-third of the bees will fly away in a big cloud and form a new colony somewhere.”
Contrary to popular belief, the queen bee doesn’t rule the hive, Sieling said. Instead, she’s actually a slave.
“Basically, she’s an egg-laying machine,” he said. “She actually lays more than her weight every day in eggs. She lays something like 1,000-1,200 eggs a day this time of year.”
Although it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many bees Sieling has, he estimates it could be as many as 40,000 bees and as few as 10,000 per colony. A good hive can produce as much as 120 pounds of honey in a year.
Sieling makes approximately $10,000 each year from the honey produced by the colonies in his bee yard - quite a profit from a hobby. But Sieling doesn’t do it for the extra money.
“There are a lot of parts of it that are not fun at all; like getting stung, for instance, or when  you’re harvesting honey and standing outside for hours,” Sieling said. “But bees are just very interesting because they have a very complex society.”
For more information on local beekeeping visit the Steuben County Honeybee Association’s website at www.SCHBA.info.