Members of Brunswick County Beekeepers Association work together to perfect their skills and bring others into the fascinating world of keeping bees.
The topic of bees comes with a lot of negativity. Close encounters are no picnic. Unless, enthusiasts say, the bee is the friendly, social, family-oriented, hard-working Apis mellifera, or honey bee.
“Honey bees are not aggressive, like wasps or hornets can be, so a lot of that fear is unfounded,” says Mark Blevins, who’s been director of the Brunswick County Center of the N.C. Cooperative Extension since 2011. He’s also an experienced keeper of backyard beehives.
“It’s fun,” he says. “It’s fun to take care of them, and you get honey and other products.”
Beekeeping is big in Brunswick County, he says. “There’s got to be between 75 and 100 beekeepers out there.” He defines beekeeper as someone who has a few hives and keeps them alive.
A lot of North Carolina residents have hives too. Statewide, honey bees are special enough to have their own agency – the North Carolina State Beekeepers Association (NCSBA), which lists 82 charter-member counties.
In 1973 the North Carolina General Assembly designated the honey bee as the state insect. In 2009 North Carolina Zoo opened a Honey Bee Habitat exhibit worth $243,507, thanks to donations from NCSBA, N.C. Farm Bureau, agribusiness company Syngenta and Zoo Society donors.
Locally, hive-owner hopefuls can study for an A in Bee School. Classes are held on Saturday mornings at the Brunswick government complex in Bolivia. The Brunswick County Beekeepers Association meets there the first Thursday each month.
“We teach about 12 to 20 people every year in the Bee School, about production methods and pollinating and making honey for you and your family and selling it at farmers markets,” Blevins says. “There are really 150 to 200 people who are trained in the county, and about half of those have bees on a regular basis.”
Written tests are required to boast journeyman, certified or master beekeeper status. Additionally, Blevins suggests beginners find someone to be a bee buddy. “Get a mentor,” he says. “Find someone you like and can work well with.”
Then you have to buy the bees. In Southern climates, there are people who will sell you a box of bees or you can get what Blevins calls a nuc box [nucleus], which contains the basic building blocks of a hive and some baby bees.
“Inside it looks like about 10 picture frames, and inside is the honeycomb, so if you pull it vertically, there are two honeycombs,” Blevins says. “You can have one queen and 60,000 workers.”
A bundle of bees in a box, a hive to house them and prep work to protect the hive from elements can run about $500, according to Kelley Bees book [kelleybees.com]. It’s suggested that beekeepers have more than one hive. Bees are sold by the pound, with one pound of bees having about 3,000 to 4,000 baby bees per box.
Back to that friendly, social part: Blevins says bees’ habits and work ethic keep them so busy that they don’t schedule visits with their keepers or their keepers’ neighbors.
“They’re going to fly 2 or 3 miles to get pollen for their babies and nectar for them to produce honey,” he says. “Even if your neighbor has bees, they aren’t interested in your yard. You don’t have enough flowers to feed them.”
Blevins says they fly upward and outward, not to the neighbor’s. “The first couple of days, when they hatch into an adult, you see them clean out the cell where they were born and help take care of other baby bees, then take some test flights to get oriented and learn how to get back home,” he says. “Then they have to figure out which hive was theirs or get … dispatched.”
Honey bees talk to each other too. Think Dances with Bees. In the dark. “They communicate with dances in the hives; there’s no light in there. Then they fly out and look for where the clover is and the flowers.”
Potential bee enthusiasts and bee wannabees are welcome at the Saturday classes. To be an association member is about $15 annually. That’s up a little from when the state beekeepers association formed in 1917, at $1 dues per year.
For those with a serious honey-do list, the NCSBA markets merchandise – hats, polos, etc. – with the state logo of a bee inside the outline of North Carolina. There’s also a company listed for supplies: It’s called Beez Needz.
NCSBA has an official theme song too – “My Gentle Honey Bees” composed by beekeeper John Rigdon, whose work was honored with a plaque at the NCSBA 1995 Spring Convention. To the tune of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” the first verse is this: “I’ve a hive of honey bees/ Nestled down among the trees/ They live in peace and at ease/ My thrifty, gentle honey bees.”
See … nothing to be afraid of.
Join the Beekeepers
To learn more about the Brunswick County Beekeepers Association, visit their Facebook page at facebook.com/brunswickcountybeekeeping. You can email them at email@example.com or call the Extension Office at (910) 253-2610.