Maya Althouse, recently-retired Bee Queen, remains active promoting beekeeping in the Rebersburg area. Photo by Jill Gómez
by Jill Gómez
Bees need a spokesperson these days, and Maya Althouse is up to the task. Well before she became the 2009 Honey Queen of the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association (PSBA), she studied the plight of diminishing honey bees and their critical importance to life on this planet.
Althouse moved with her family to the Rebersburg area from Florida in the summer of 2007, before her sophomore year at Penns Valley Area High School.
“Growing up in Miami, honey was something you found in the store on a shelf,” said Althouse. She met beekeeper Mike Byers at the Millheim farmers’ market that summer, and their conversation led to her interest in bees. Students in the Penns Valley school system are required to select a major project and have until their senior year to complete it. Althouse chose bees, and in the fall of 2007 she acquired her first set of honey bees, an “observation hive,” smaller than a standard hive.
“I wanted to be hands-on, to connect with bees, so to speak,” she said. Just a year later she ran for and received the title of Honey Queen, and around that time set up a larger hive in her backyard. As part of her yearlong, reign Althouse gave over 40 presentations at a myriad of events and organizations all around Pennsylvania. Locally, she appeared at the Grange Fair, the Ag Progress Days at Penn State and the Centre County Ag Forum. She also talked to civic groups, the Rotary Club and a wide age range of students in several school districts.
“Kids are very interested in learning about bees,” said Althouse. “They were curious and wanted to know more.”
Althouse wows audiences with her bee knowledge. Adults get just as much out of her presentations as kids.
“I’d be in a room full of educated professionals, and they’d have a very limited knowledge of hives and crops in general,” she said. Though her reign as queen ended in January, PSBA invited Althouse to continue giving presentations. She’s held six since the beginning of 2010.
All of her experience in front of groups has given Althouse a poise and calm rare in someone so young. For each presentation, she props up a professional-looking three-paneled display she crafted and hands around 8 ½ x 11 photos: bright yellow pollen on the legs of worker bees; a queen receiving royal jelly from her “bees in waiting” and workers doing dances to inform their colleagues of flower locations. Her participants get to manipulate the smoking apparatus—used to quiet bees and enable a keeper to take off the cover of the hive without freaking out the bees—and handle the hooded bee jacket she wears when she opens her hive. She talks of wintering bees, who gather in a cluster to keep warm, “much like emperor penguins in the movie ‘March of the Penguins,’” she said. In the spring, when Althouse pulls the trays from her hive, she can see the path this clustered bee unit took as it moved through its snowed-in dwelling, feasting honey from the previous season.
Althouse speaks to every group about the problems honey bees have faced in recent years, with inexplicable deaths of whole hives believed to be caused by pesticide use in crops. Another of the photos shows two side-by-side breakfast plates: one with all the usual trimmings for a typical big American breakfast, and the other showing what foods would be left if there were no more bees to pollinate the foods we’re used to eating. Not many.
She has a passion for informing the public about bees and encourages everyone to consider setting up a hive on their property if they can. Farmers certainly benefit, since bees are critical in ensuring pollination and therefore successful crops. Ordinary house owners can also make a big difference.
“People are more aware of what’s going on [with hive loss], and seem to have a greater respect for bees now,” she said. “Plants definitely appreciate having bees around, to have more pollinators.”
Althouse helps folks get started with their own hives: ordering the bees, purchasing materials and setting up the hive. She checks back a couple of weeks later after the bees have had a chance to establish themselves in their new environment, and walks the new beekeeper through the first cover-removal process.
In January, Althouse ran for American Honey Queen of the American Beekeeping Federation and was first runner up. The five other state honey queen contestants voted her Miss Congeniality, and anyone who knows her would