Continuing their efforts to help endangered animals, Zoo Knoxville is turning their attention to honey bees and is taking steps to educate zoo visitors about their importance.
“We had always really wanted to be successful with honey bees at the zoo, and it really goes along with the Kids Cove area," said Cynthia Maples, the lead keeper in Kids Cove.
The honey bee hives are in a behind the scenes area of Kids Cove, and are not yet available for public viewing.
Maples says in the past, keepers built hives but they never survived the winter. In those cases, the hives were 'observation hives'. Those hives have clear panels so people can see in, but are more difficult to manage.
"Observation hives are pretty difficult, especially if you’re new to beekeeping which we all were,” said Maples.
Last spring, Maples and the other keepers decided to build a normal hive, which is called a Langstroth Hive. They bought a package of bees and did what they could to help this hive survive winter.
"We made it through the winter, which is a very big deal. So, we’re excited about that,” said Maples.
Due to "Alpha Hive's" success, the keepers added a second Langstroth Hive this year which they call "Beta Hive."
Maples brought bees to Zoo Knoxville to try and help save them.
“Bees are in trouble. Some bees have been added to the endangered species list. We want people to know how important bees are. They play a really big role in pollination and they actually pollinate about 10% to 15% of the food that we eat,” said Maples.
Neither hive is on public display right now. But they are in an area of Kids Cove.
"So, we really just wanted to be able to educate people - and especially kids because this is Kids Cove - and that’s kind of our thing trying to educate kids,” said Maples.
Maples says the zoo recently purchased "wee bee suits" so that they can take kids back to see the hives.
This year the keepers are focusing on how to better help both hives thrive and stay alive during the winter.
“Colony Collapse Disorder is a really big thing. People are still trying to figure out what it is and why bees just disappear. There are all kinds of parasites that can plague your hive and basically doom them so we’re trying to figure that out,” said Maples.
Maples and other keepers check on bees every couple days to make sure they're doing well. Maples says a good sign of a healthy hive is lots of honey.
This year, both hives are producing a steady amount of honey and there is plenty for the bees to eat.
"Hopefully, their honey will be nice and sweet and maybe we’ll actually have some honey for people to purchase, who knows,” said Maples.
Alpha Hive did produce honey during its first year, but it was too sweet for humans.
"In the first year, you’re usually not harvesting any (honey) at all. We had to supplement feed the hive with sugar water which makes it not as pure and it goes bad and isn’t as good to humans because it's very sweet,” said Maples.
Right now, there is no timeline for when the public will be able to suit up and see the hives.