Beekeeping in Brunswick County Grows in Importance
Local beekeepers are part of an international effort to save the bees.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Barbara Sammons
All the fresh honey in the markets this summer recently got me wondering. Where is this local honey coming from? And what does it take to raise bees and procure honey? That line of thinking led me on a bee-seeking adventure around the county and to researching the plight of the honey bee.
Brunswick County beekeeper Stanley Harper greets me from his front porch and points toward his fields. “In about two months, this will be a sea of white, and it’s all for the bees,” he says. “Let’s sit in these rocking chairs and enjoy the view.”
The view is a row of honeybee hives alongside buckwheat fields, sunflowers, blackberries, watermelons and tomatoes growing on Harper’s farm in Bolivia. “My dad always raised honeybees,” he says. “My own journey started ten years ago when I signed up for a ten-week beekeeping course at UNCW.”
The visit to Harper’s farm was my first introduction to beekeeping. What I didn’t expect was to walk away with armloads of cucumbers, summer squash, homemade pickles and fresh jarred honey.
A short drive west to Supply I meet novice beekeeper Maddi Ruff, a student at UNCW. After hearing from one of her professors that a beekeeping club was to be established on campus, Ruff was intrigued to learn more. She is now an advocate for the club and has introduced many other students to the world of bees. Ruff’s dining room table serves as a work station for assembling bee frames and hive boxes. “You can purchase them already assembled, but I like knowing I had a hand in building their homes,” Ruff says, adding that no one else in her family has ever raised bees.
Black bears are known to frequent her surroundings, so to protect the hives Ruff and her father built an enclosed area in their backyard, complete with razor-sharp barbed wire and electrical wiring across the top. Ruff is majoring in conservation and hopes to build a bee sanctuary in her backyard one day.
Over in Ash I meet beekeeper Terry Pait. “How many times have you been stung?” I ask. “Too many times to count,” he replies.
A beekeeper since 2001, Pait spends many hours tending to his 100-plus hives. When he is not working the hives, Pait visits local garden clubs and schools sharing his experiences. Like most other beekeepers, he sells his jarred honey, which sells out quickly during the season. “Folks can visit the honey stand, pick up a jar and leave their money in the box. It’s an honor system that has worked well over the years,” Pait says.
Why are bee populations declining?
More than 100 important crops are pollinated by bees. These include fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, oil crops and livestock forage. Over the years, bee population has declined for various reasons, mainly a combination of insecticides, pesticides and parasites. One such pesticide, neonicotinoid, is widely used in agricultural operations and is having an adverse effect on honeybees. When treated with neonicotinoids, all parts of the plant become potentially toxic. The pesticide is taken up through the plant’s system as it grows, and as a result, the chemical is expressed in the pollen and nectar of the plant. Neonicotinoids represent only one type of pesticide harmful to bees. Pyrethroid insecticides, often used as repellents for mosquitoes and other household pests, are known to be just as harmful. As a consumer, be sure to read the labels of plants purchased at a garden center to learn if the plants have been treated with a neonicotinoid pesticide.
How sweet it is
Queen bees, worker bees, drone bees, frames, honey supers, bottom pollen traps, bee smokers, honey extractors, the list goes on for successful beekeeping. A three-pound package of bees, which can be purchased online, will contain approximately 10,000 bees and a queen . . . and that’s just for one hive. You can also purchase an established colony, capture a wild swarm or purchase bees from a local, reputable bee supplier.
“Be thoughtful of your neighbors before setting up your hives,” says Ken Edgar, president of the Brunswick County Beekeepers Association. “Let them know your intentions in the event someone is allergic to bees. It’s just the right thing to do.”
What to plant
Eighty percent of honey from North Carolina is from the gallberry, a persistent shrub that is commonly found in acidic soil, especially sandy wetlands and swamps. Gallberry is an open, upright evergreen shrub that grows in clusters and measures 3 to 9 feet tall. The leaf surface is shiny yellowish green above and lighter green with tiny red glands below. It produces greenish white, inconspicuous flowers in spring, followed by jet black drupes the size of peas. The solitary fruits persist throughout most of winter, unless eaten by birds, and contain five to seven seeds. The plants are an important nectar source for beekeepers, making a mild-flavored, light-colored honey,
Dandelions are the first choice in the spring, followed by bay laurel, lavender, African blue basil, purple basil and all forms of sage. Bees are attracted to blue flowers; they see any red color as black.
Extracting the sweet reward
In Brunswick County March through May are the prime months for nectar and pollen flow. Honeybees will continue gathering through June and are usually done by July. At the height of the flow, bees can fill a frame in five days. Depending on the size, each frame can weigh from 40 to 70 pounds. Extracting honey from hives is labor-intensive, but the rewards are worth the time. A honey extractor, a heated knife and capping scratcher are the vital tools for proper extraction. Some beekeepers will assist others who may not have all these tools. Frames are placed in the extractor and are held in a metal mesh basket. The honey is forced out of the comb and drips down inside the extractor. Once the spinning stops, the frames are taken out and flipped so the honey is removed from the other side of the frame. The honey then flows into a bucket, is filtered and then jarred.
A year-round commitment
Bees continue gathering nectar and pollen into the fall, but at a much-diminished rate. Beekeepers evaluate each frame to determine how much honey to leave on the frames to sustain the bees over winter; anywhere from 40 to 70 pounds of honey per hive. Sometimes the beekeeper will augment their food source with high fructose corn syrup if there is not enough honey. Without food, bees will die in 24 hours. During the winter months as temperatures begin to drop, bees will draw close together to conserve heat. Colonies that are well supplied with honey and pollen in the fall will begin feeding the queen. In late December and on into January the queen begins laying eggs to replace the bees that died over the winter. As busy as the bees are, the beekeepers are just as busy as they continually monitor the hives and food source.
Managers of the hives
Commitment and a willingness to be caretakers are qualities found in beekeepers. It’s more than setting up a hive in your backyard, filling it with bees and hoping for that jar of honey. Bees become a part of your family and just like family, they need nourishment, housing and protection; a sentiment spoken by many beekeepers. Anyone interested is encouraged to sign up for a beekeeping course at a local college, to find a mentor and join local beekeeping associations.
Help is on the way
If you encounter a swarm of bees on your property or in a structure, don’t worry, help is on the way. The Brunswick County Beekeepers Association keeps a list of local beekeepers who will assess the situation and, if possible, remove the swarm or make other suggestions. Contact Ken Edgar, President, at (910) 443-2336 for more information.
A new beekeeper?
“Now that you have all this information, are you going to set up a hive?” I am asked by a beekeeper. “I don’t think so, well, at least not today,” I reply. What I do have is a fond appreciation for beekeepers, for their commitment to the environment and their dedication to the work involved in protecting the pollinators of our food source. The vegetables and honey I brought home from my day at the Harper farm were transformed into refrigerator pickles, squash casseroles and honey-thyme shortbread. Many thanks, Stanley, for giving me a sweeter outlook.
Brunswick County Beekeepers Association
President Ken Edgar, (910) 443-2336; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The association meets the first Thursday of every month except July. Meetings begin at 7 p.m. in the Agricultural Extension Office at the Brunswick County Government Complex, 25 Referendum Drive, Bolivia.
North Carolina State Beekeepers Association: ncbeekeepers.org
Brushy Mountain Bee Farm: Beekeeping Supplies, brushymountainbeefarm.com
Dadant & Sons, Inc.: Beekeeping Supplies and Equipment, dadant.com
Kelley Beekeeping: Beekeeping Supplies and Bees; kelleybees.com