Beekeepers know the buzz

Jun. 29, 2014 @ 06:26 AM

There's a reason beekeeper suits are white, as a photographer in a black shirt learned when he approached Gary Jones’s beehives last week to snap a photo.

As the photographer inched closer, one of the bees got caught in the fine white wisps of hair on his head. The photographer quickly brushed him off, and the bee charged -- right at the photographer’s nose. Eyes watering, the photographer did a half-crazed dance in the grass and hightailed it from the beehives.

After administering some bee sting first aid, Jones looked at the photographer’s black T-shirt. “You know, they hate the color black more than any other color,” Jones said. “You know why? What do you think you look like?”

The photographer threw his hands in the air and growled. “A black bear!” he cried.

When Jones went over to see his bees, he donned a stark white beekeeping suit that covered him from head to foot with thick material and a wire mask. He puffed smoke into the hives -- smoke calms the bees -- and delicately lifted apart the boxes to check the honey inside.

“You know, bees don’t make honey for us,” Jones said, explaining the insect’s fiery temper toward the photographer. “They make it for them. That’s their food.”

Jones, a retired veteran, is one of approximately 30 members of the Caldwell County Beekeeper’s Association, which offers beekeeper classes every March to help community members start their own backyard colonies.

There's a lot more to learn about it than there used to be, said George Milton Foster, who has been keeping bees for 25 years. His first experience took place when he was a boy. His father was a beekeeper, too, and Foster remembered how vastly different it was then.

“When I was a boy, my dad, we just set them out in the pasture in the spring, you didn’t bother them until the fall you went back and collected your honey,” Foster said.

Many problems have arisen for bees, including a pesky mite from Italy that started infecting colonies in the 1980s, which Jones said is one of the worst problems. “They get on the bee, and then they come in to the hive, and they get into that little cell. When the queen lays an egg, that mite’s in there. When (the egg) becomes a larva, the mite sucks the blood from the larva. They’re actually little vampires,” he said. 

The number of bees has declined sharply in recent years, and not all the reasons are known. Some blame pesticides. Foster believes that all the new technology like cellphone towers could be to blame. With more beekeepers, however, he believes that the problems can be solved and fought against.

Foster, who is a former president of the Caldwell County Beekeeper’s Association, said that it is no easy task caring for the little pollinators, which is the focus at the start of the association's beekeeping class.

“At the end of the class, we teach them how to process your honey, but the first Saturday that’s all we do is teach them all the many different diseases there are and how to control them,” Foster said. “Then, the last Saturday we take a hive of bees there, and we actually let them go in it themselves. We make them go into the bees without gloves. Then, they take a test and become a certified beekeeper.”

Foster said that beekeeping should be introduced to students at a young age so that hopefully they will come back to it in their adult years. He worried that as the older beekeepers pass away, younger generations will not take their places.

“Beekeeping is very important," Foster said. "Every third bite of food you take from your table or a restaurant you can attribute to a honeybee pollinating about 80 percent of your stuff on your plate there."