Damon Howell / Photo
Talking Rock Honey Bee Farm beekeeper Sean Cook checking his hives.
The first flush of spring is here, and along with it waves of color from blossoms of the dandelion, the dogwood tree, wisteria, and honeysuckle. Not only is this display of new life exhilarating for people tired of the cold, barren winter, it’s exhilarating for honey bees and the keepers who keep them.
“I just posted on our Facebook page that it’s almost honey season,” said local beekeeper Sean Cook, who along with his wife Nancy run Talking Rock Honey Bee Farm. “It’s a very exciting time.”
The post also includes a video of their bees getting nectar from a flowering cherry tree. It reads, “Lots going on ‘bee-hind’ the scenes to make this the best year yet!!”
In addition to the copious amount of bee puns used in the world of beekeeping, there’s no shortage of passion for an insect that pollinates our food supply and makes a sweet treat so many love – and one that is arguably in danger of being wiped out.
The sweet season
Sean tells me that despite beekeeping being a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week job, honey season is short lived.
“It’s only in the warmer months that you get honey,” he said.
Nancy clarifies, and addresses a common misconception.
“People think that bees use pollen to make honey,” she said. “But bees use nectar to make honey.”
This sweet spot when plants bloom is what beekeeper have coined “honey flow.” It’s the time when nectar sources are in abundance and weather is right for bees to collect the sugary fluid plants secreet. It’s only after the honey flow that beekeepers get honey.
Winter is maintenance mode when the male drones are “kicked out,” Nancy said. Hives usually decrease in size. During spring and summer month bees and beekeepers go into high gear.
“Yesterday I was out here the whole day working our bees,” Sean said just before pulling out booty from last season - a wooden frame laden with combs his bees built, filled with honey, and capped with wax when it was ready.
Of course, honey bees aren’t so considerate that they would make honey for us. They’re making it for themselves.
“Humans steal bees’ food from their food pantry,” Nancy said, then replace it with something like the simple syrup they use to feed their own bees.
Nancy points to three bottles of honey from their hives, which range from a light yellowish to a deeper amber color, and explains how the different blossoms impact the final product.
“Most honey is called wildflower honey because it’s a combination of a variety of blossoms,” she said. “It’d be very difficult to prove that your bees only got nectar from one kind of blossom, like clover honey, for example. We decided to bottle each hive individually rather than mixing honey from all the hives into one batch. It’s kind of like wine. The result is honey that looks and tastes very different because the bees pollinate different blossoms.”
Harsh winter, harsh losses?
The Cooks are hoping for a good year after devastating losses to their hives this winter. The couple, who started beekeeping in 2009 and had their first extraction in 2011, lost all but five of their 29 hives.
Sean points to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), or the sudden disappearance of most worker bees in a colony. Workers leave behind a queen, food, and nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen.
“It’s a great mystery of science,” Sean said. “The hives could be disappearing for a variety of reasons – hive beetles, insecticides, no one really knows, but you’ll come out and the hive will be empty.”
Nancy explained the gravity of such a move.
“That’d be like you leaving home without any food and all your babies alone,” she said. “Why would you do that? We didn’t do anything different this winter.”
There are many varying theories about what’s killing honey bees. Bill Norris, President of the Appalachian Beekeepers Association, said it’s normal for beekeepers to experience 20-30 percent loss to their hives over the winter months, but that over the last two to three decades there have been more issues in U.S. beekeeping because of things like pesticides. He said this winter many local beekeepers took a hard hit.
“I haven’t done a survey, but it seems like locally there have been more losses this winter than usual,” he said, pointing to one commercial beekeeper in Blue Ridge who lost 90 percent of his hive population. “It’s not just one thing happening. Losses could be because of pesticides, mites, weather, quality of the queen. You can’t really tell what happened unless it’s something like deformed wing virus or starving bees.”
Norris said mites could be one culprit.
“This year we had a bitter winter,” he said. “Usually it’s one to two days of freezing then back up to 50 degrees. This year we had two weeks below freezing. If the hive is too weak, then you have an extended cold period you could have losses.”
Another local beekeeper, who lost 90 percent of his hives this winter, said historically losses have waxed and waned. He collects old beekeeping books, some a century old, and they show periods of very little hive loss followed by more significant, near catastrophic losses.
“It puts things into perspective a little,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of research on this and the conclusion is nobody knows what’s going on.”
The Environmental Protection Division reports that beekeepers began experiencing unusually large losses around 2007.
Norris said honey bees pollinate the food more industrialized countries eat, and that a loss of the honey bee would be felt more here than other parts of the world.
“They pollinate things we enjoy in the U.S. and affects countries like ours more because it pollinates the fruits and vegetables we eat - not thing like wheat and soy eaten in other countries.”
He also pointed out that the honey bee is the only bee species humans can manage, which makes it good for travel to farms and gardens.
“We can’t box up other species and put them where we want to pollinate,” he said.
Outside of honey, honey bees as pollinators are big business. Farmers and gardeners will rent hives of bees that will pollinate and improve the quality of their plants. Locally, the Cooks have a few of their hives at Gibbs Gardens, where they also give bee lectures. Talking Rock Produce Owner Wendell Aenchbacher has hives on his large farm that are owned and cared for by a local beekeeper. Aenchbacher said from what he was told, the hives did not experience significant loss, and they looked good for honey season.
“They overwintered well,” he said. “He’s even talking about splitting them.
I’ve got about 20 hives on my property, but I just need two for pollination. The rest are for honey production.
While pollination is big business, honey is big business, too – but not all honey is created equal. The first episode of the Netflix series Rotten explores the dark underbelly of the honey industry. With demand at an all-time high but bees dying off in record numbers, some manufactured honey is being cut with hidden additives that make the final product a shadow of its raw honey counterpart.
“They cut it with stuff like corn syrup, especially overseas,” Sean said. “And a lot of commercial honey is pasteurized and microfiltered, which kills any of the antibiotics and medicinal benefits. You don’t get any of the health benefits.”
Local herbalist Crystal Merrell agrees honey is good for health.
“Good quality raw honey is antimicrobial and great for sore throats,” she said. “Local honey can also help with seasonal allergies.”
An easy solution for customers who want pure honey is to read the label before they buy.
The Cooks and other beekeepers sell their honey in town, and some can be found at the Jasper Farmers Market. Market manager Jenny Fellenbaum said local honey is a big seller with customers.
“Everything we sell has to be made by them so is all local honey. We opened last weekend and already had people come in asking for it, but it’s not ready yet,” she said laughing. “It’s hard to get some people to realize the seasons, and we’re not going to have things like tomatoes in April, you know? I remember one vendor ran out of honey last year around August and someone asked if they were going to have any next week. Ummmm, no. The bees are working on it now, but it’ll be a while for it to be ready.”
Unfortunately, the market lost a longtime vendor and master beekeeper Bud Champlin last fall. Champlin, owner of Bud’s Mountain Honey & Bee Removal, brought displays of active hives to market that him popular among customers.
With honey season underway, beekeepers and their bees are busy at work, and honey lovers can take solace knowing fresh honey will be ready soon. As for the Cooks, they’re back up to 13 hives from their devastating winter losses and hope to have 30 by the end of the year.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s kind of like deer hunting,” Sean said. “You’d have to make $5,000 a gallon to make what you’d put into it, but I love it.”