What once was thought of only as a skill for professionals who don protective suits and nets is now literally abuzz with interest for attorneys, stay-at-home-moms, and businessmen and women. For many reasons, namely love of the trade, health benefits of making one’s own honey, and the pure meditative experience of watching bees at work, the art of beekeeping is spreading.
As the hobby takes off and people begin to educate themselves, the once misunderstood honeybee is becoming the insect many are rallying around. With reports of bees dying off due to pesticides, coated seeds, and imported pests, along with a better understanding of the overall benefits of honey, the desire to protect the bee — and its honey — has continued to grow.
“Just as we should take care of the environment by picking up litter and not dumping waste, so, too, should we protect the bee. Bees are an integral part of our environment, just like trees and streams,” says Scott Derrick, owner of Blythewood Bee Company, a beekeeping supply and removal company and an expert on all things honeybee. “If we aren’t careful with our resources, including the honeybee, we will lose them.”
Not only is the bee a precious resource, it also lives a fascinating life. Many individuals consider bees a nuisance, and their stings are often feared. In reality, a bee only stings because a human has swatted at it or impeded its path on its way to do its work. And who wants to be interrupted when on a mission! The honeybee can only sting once; when it does, it dies. Unfortunately, many confuse the honeybee with the more aggressive yellow jacket and wasp, both of which can sting repeatedly.
The honeybee is a hard worker, and the hive is the epitome of a team. Worker bees, which are only female, manage most tasks within the hive. Drones are only male and are strictly focused on mating with an unfertilized queen. Once the drone mates and passes on his genetic material, he dies. Worker bees can sting; drones cannot.
The queen, as most know, is the head of the household. To many, this could be a humorous interpretation of human life. And just like humans, every bee has a purpose. “I truly see order in the beehive, just like the solar system is ordered,” says Leanne Raines, a beekeeping hobbyist. “God is a God of order, and every type of bee has a job focused on keeping order in the beehive.”
The mortuary bee plays an important and remarkable role. Its sole focus is on removing bees that have died inside the hive. Hives must stay clean, and the mortuary bee has the job of ensuring they remain that way. “If you look at my hives, you may see 30 dead bees outside of the entry,” says Leanne. “They didn’t die there. The mortuary bee will pick up the dead bee inside the hive, drag it to the entrance, and drop it outside. I could watch this process for hours. It’s amazing to see the bees at work. If a mouse or other pest too large for the bees to move outside of the hive happens to get inside, the bees will entomb the pest in bee glue to mummify it and keep the hive clean. There is a divine plan in something so small and orderly.”
While indeed small, honeybees have a large impact on agriculture, pollinating crops from almonds to apples and the small backyard garden. Importantly, honeybees produce, yes, honey. It is a pure, natural substance that does so much more than sweeten oatmeal. Honey is also antimicrobial, antibacterial, and is even used in treating wounds. Skeptics may doubt honey’s impact on helping cure allergies, but Ed Royall is not one of them. Ed, a beekeeping hobbyist for more than 20 years, has found honey to truly help with his asthma. And Leanne has known people to be skeptics of honey’s role in reducing spring and fall allergies but who are now convinced of honey’s curative results. Leanne has convinced friends and family to give honey a try. Often in as little as three days, allergies are gone or symptoms greatly diminished.
“You ingest a pollen content when you eat local honey,” says Scott. “That pollen content can help build up immunities. Honey produced in South Carolina will have our flora and pollen in it, and many people swear by its healing effects.”
Honey’s healing qualities had a life changing impact on Leanne more than eight years ago. After being diagnosed with Crohn’s syndrome, Leanne was having a hard time eating. Her sister, a beekeeper in California, sent Leanne honey to try. It was the one thing she didn’t have a problem eating and was a major factor in her desire to become a beekeeper herself. She later met Scott at Blythewood Beekeeping and became certified in the practice.
Ed’s bees have been instrumental to the success of his more than 50 fruit trees, and they have also supplied him with ample honey to enjoy. Annually, he removes the frames from the hive and then extracts the honey from the frames. From there, Ed jars the pure, sweet honey and shares it with family and friends. One year alone he gave away more than 120 jars.
“We harvest our honey at the end of May, first of June,” says Ed. “People love to get a good jar of real spring honey. And I add it to my coffee every morning. I really appreciate the impact bees have on plants and flowers. To me, honeybees are very smart. If they see something good, they will go for it in a hurry. And if they see something bad … I slapped one away one time and the whole hive came after me. They can read you. They are very intelligent creatures. I just like to go and watch them work.”
For Scott, beekeeping is his life’s work and a practice that he finds good for the soul. “Beekeeping becomes therapeutic in many different ways,” he says. “I enjoy showing people how beautiful it is and how much fun it is. I can teach people about it all day long, but when they go to the hive, look inside, and see the bees in action, they are astounded.”
Surprisingly, South Carolina is not a honey-producing state, and natural honey can often be hard to come by. The spring in South Carolina is short, and often the first warm weather is followed by a spurt of very cold weather. The cold weather kills nectar and blooms. For these reasons, protecting the hives that are currently in place is critical.
Leanne registered her hive with the county. “We are very fortunate that Richland County cares about honeybees,” she says. “When it’s time for vector control and the aerial spraying for mosquitos, the county will let me know so that I can tent my hives and keep the bees safe from the chemicals.”
Bees have other antagonists outside of sprayed chemicals. The varroa mite has been known to infest bee colonies. Leanne has taken steps to use essential oils, particularly thyme oil, in her hives to keep the pests away. Thyme oil is used often in the commercial treatment for the varroa mite. Leanne also feeds her honeybees supplemental sugar water at times to keep her bees from dying off. In that sugar water she includes other essential oils, in addition to thyme, such as lemongrass, which is the closest mimicker to the queen bee’s pheromones, as well as wild orange and peppermint. These slight flavors make their way into the honey, providing subtle notes of sweet tastes.
“Different flavors from the flowers and the location of the hive can change the taste of the honey,” says Scott. “The source of the food will change the flavor and the color consistency.” Flavor is subjective. Scott prefers a darker, aged honey with a strong flavor, like buckwheat. Leanne is partial to black sage.
To keep the honey flowing — dark, light, and every color in between — the honeybee must thrive. Scott does not think that will be a problem. “Quite frankly, honeybees have lived through destruction and global freezing, ice ages, and catastrophes, so I think they will outlive us all in the end. They will live despite us.”
Oh honey, let’s hope that’s true!