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Queen Bees Create Big Buzz At Dallas Zoo

The Dallas Zoo has thousands of new residents.  Two hives of honeybees moved in last week.  The Zoo is partnering with Texas Honeybee Guild to shore up dwindling bee numbers after a big loss last year.

Susan Pollard stands at the door of a 27-year-old Ford pickup while royalty sits in the passenger seat: five queen bees that arrived by mail earlier in the day in little wood-and-mesh crates slightly larger than a matchbox.

“You can see they’re surrounded by their entourage,” Pollard says, pointing out the half-dozen bee attendants for each queen.

“And we keep them watered," Susan Pollard emphasizes as afternoon temperatures exceed 100. " They ride well in the car.  And they’re really noisy.”

The high pitch sound they make is called piping.

Pollard founded the Texas Honeybee Guild with her husband Brandon. They manage dozens of hives all over Dallas. While the queens wait in the front seat, their subjects are in the back of the pickup. As transfer to the hives begins, several bees visit me: landing on my hands, crawling around exploring. Susan Pollard lightly brushes a bee from her eyelashes, then stops midsentence.  

“And I’ve got one going up my leg right now, so I think I’d better …," Pollard says as she gently reaches below her right knee. With the finesse of an explosives expert defusing a bomb, she gently moves and maneuvers her khaki capris to guide the bee to freedom.

No one was stung.

“You know bees die when they sting," says Brandon Pollard. "They don’t want to sting. And they do it as a last resort.  

He keeps busy during the bee drama at the zoo, transferring 18-inch frames, or panels covered in honey, and eggs, called brood, and lots of bees. 

“These bees have been cooped up in this box because you have to leave them queen-less for a couple of hours,” Pollard says as he delicately lifts the bee-covered frames from their travel box to their new hive.

Once the queen’s installed, and things settle down, each hive becomes a 60,000-bee condo. Pollard wears a wide-brimmed hat with netting attached that falls to his shoulders.  But his hands and arms are bare as bees buzz in the frames and fly in the air.

“We just take bees the make it through the wintertime, you know we lost so many bees last year," Pollard says with an obvious twinge in his voice. "And the ones that are real strong that made it through the wintertime, we can take bees and brood and honey and pollen from those stronger colonies and it’s called a split.”

Brandon and Susan Pollard had a rough summer last year with the West Nile virus outbreak and aerial spraying for mosquitoes.  The spray is highly toxic to honey bees.

"We lost 60 percent of our colonies,” he says. The Pollards generally lose just 30 percent of their bee population each year.

In addition to aerial spraying, Susan Pollard also points to backyard mosquito-spray misters some people used, as well as landscape pesticide runoff along gutters and in other bee water supplies. She says there was extra toxicity because of the drought -- no rain to dilute or wash the pesticides away.

But this year, the West Nile season has been mild so far, and the spraying hasn't reached widely yet. Which is good news for the queens and their subjects.

Inside the Zoo’s Animal Nutrition Center, supervisor Aaron Bussell is excited about hosting the hives out back. He says they’re next to the zoo’s new garden and the bees will have plenty of pollinating to do.

“Part of the zoo’s mission and goal is to be an advocate for conservation and education," he says. "And we believe the Texas honeybees fit right into that.”

The zoo is the newest site for the Pollard’s hives.  They have dozens in backyards and on rooftops – including the Fairmont Hotel downtown, and soon the Omni.  Susan Pollard says 2013 is shaping up to be a much better year for bees, with the queens taking the  throne to rule their new bee kingdoms. 

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.