You’ve probably read or heard about it before – millions of honeybees are dying off, leaving our environment and food supply at risk. Honeybees are responsible for pollinating crops such as almonds, strawberries (oh no Patterson Farms!), blackberries, alfalfa (which is used to feed dairy cows), apples, melons, broccoli… You’re catching my drift, right? Simply put, honeybees are important. Almond crops are solely pollinated by honeybees at bloom time. According to the American Beekeeping Federation, honeybees contribute nearly $20 billion to the value of United States crop production. Let me reiterate, honeybees are extremely important.
So, if you haven’t heard, let me be the first to tell you about the plight of the honeybee. Honeybees are at risk of decline through many factors. Global warming (See a 40-year historical breakdown of Rowan County’s weather), habitat loss, parasites, and bee-killing insecticides know as neonicotinoids (or neonics) are all contributing to the decreasing honeybee population. In an article from Environment North Carolina, the writer states, “When seeds are treated with neonics, the chemicals work their way into the pollen and nectar of the plants — which, of course, is bad news for bees and other pollinators. Worse, for the bees and for us, neonics are about 6,000 times more toxic to bees than DDT.” Let me put this as simply as possible, no bees = no food. That may be an oversimplification, but not enough pollinators will have a drastic impact on some of the foods you may love to eat.
The Basics of Beekeeping: A Hot Hobbyist Trend
Bryan Fisher is a fourth-generation beekeeper, a North Carolina Master Beekeeper, and the Vice President of the Rowan County Beekeepers Association (RCBA). Bryan graciously met with me one Saturday morning to give me the rundown on beekeeping in Rowan County. Bryan is full of information on bees, and provided me with a great overview of how bees work. He should know – he has over seven locations with hives. He recently counted 80 hives just at one of his locations. It’s apparently an addicting hobby!
There’s a huge hobby movement for beekeepers right now. People are realizing that honeybees are in trouble and they want to do something to help. Bryan tells me there are different types of beekeepers. Some just want bees to have bees, some want to make honey, and some larger scale operations want to help with crop pollination. Beekeeper hobbyists typically only have 25 colonies or less, sideliners may have up to 1,000, and larger commercial operations will have over 1,000 colonies.
Bryan tells me that bees are what’s known as a superorganism. A superorganism is an organism consisting of many organisms. Bee colonies have one queen, up to 60,000 female worker bees, and a handful of male drones that are solely used for reproduction. During peak season, the queen can lay approximately 2,000 eggs per day. Bees have a complete metamorphosis in just 21 days. Because bees are a superorganism, they have a highly organized division of labor. Every morning, bees are assigned duties based on their age. Scout bees, for example, will go out and look for blooming flowers, gather nectar, then come back to the hive to share this nectar with the other bees. This informs the colony that there is good nectar nearby and they should get their share. The bees then go out, gather their nectar, bring it back to the hive, and flap their wings to evaporate the moisture, thus creating honey.
You may have seen stacked beehive boxes when driving along the countryside, or even more urban roads of Rowan County. Some are located in yards, some in fields, some on the side of a back road. If you are familiar with Pottery 101 in downtown Salisbury, you may know that the owners, Cheryl and Ted Goins, have a beehive on the roof of their building. These boxes are where the bees live. A traditional colony starts at two boxes. The bottom box is used by the bees as a nursery. Here they raise their brood, or baby bees. The other box is where they store the honey that’s used as their food source. As the nectar flow begins to increase, usually around mid-March or early April, more boxes – or “supers” – are added to the stack to store additional honey that the bees produce. This is the honey that the beekeeper uses at his/her discretion. Each hive can contain anywhere from 10,000 to 60,000 bees, with the max population occurring during the peak nectar flow.
Once the bees sense the honey is ready, they will “cap it over.” This wax capping is secreted by the bees onto the honeycomb, creating what is known as ripe honey. Those beekeepers with production equipment will then extract the honey from the comb using a centrifuge. They cut the wax capping off and spin the honey off the comb. About eight pounds of honey will create one pound of beeswax. In the North Carolina Piedmont, a typical hive may produce forty to sixty pounds of honey.
Aside from honey production, some beekeepers will use their bees in small scale pollination efforts. Bryan recently did this with some of his bees. A blackberry farmer nearby needed his crops pollinated. When the farmer had about ten percent of his blooms ready, Bryan brought his bees out and sat them in the middle of the blooms. When the bees realized these blooms are high yielding nectar, they began their jobs of pollinating. This type of work helps local agriculture efforts by local farmers, which keeps locals buying local. You get what I’m saying.
What’s the Deal with Swarms?
In 2018, you may have seen in the Salisbury Post or on social media that a swarm of bees had taken over a car in downtown Salisbury. More recently, this happened underneath an outside table at Hap’s Grill. We hear it created a lot of “buzz” about their burgers and hotdogs. Luckily, both times a local beekeeper was called out to remove the bees safely for both humans and the bees.
Why do bees swarm? A swarm happens when bees realize they are getting too crowded in their colony. Fifty to seventy percent of the bees will leave with the old queen and gather together. This could happen just about anywhere, a tree branch, in a wall in your house, on a pole, anywhere they believe would make a suitable home. If you find a swarm, the best thing to do is to call our local Cooperative Extension office to get some names of beekeepers that are willing to handle swarms. The Rowan County NC Cooperative Extension office is located at 2727 Old Concord Road, Salisbury NC 28146 and can be reached at (704) 216-8970.
Interested in Beekeeping in Rowan?
The Rowan County Beekeepers Association and the Rowan County Cooperative Extension offer a beginner beekeeping course every other year. Bryan tells me he’s noticed the interest in beekeeping growing locally. He’s been involved with the RCBA for about 15 years, and he’s seen meeting attendance grow from 20-30 people to around 100 people. He credits this to growing awareness of what’s happening to honeybees. He tells me that the start-up costs for beekeeping is around $700. This would include investing in the bees themselves, safety equipment, and other tools needed. He says it’s best to start with two colonies so you have something to compare to, as one colony may thrive and the other may not. I asked Bryan what he would tell someone who is interested in beekeeping, “Don’t give up. It’s expensive, but rewarding.” He says watching his bees gives him peace and there’s something we as humans can learn from them. “Each worker bee cannot live for more than a few days without it’s queen, but the queen can do nothing without her workers. That is a true community.” He says mankind can really learn something from working together to accomplish tremendous things.
Special thanks to Bryan Fisher for giving me the scoop about beekeeping in Rowan County!