The Dirt: Bees and the people who love them

A week or so ago I ran into my pal Debra Roberts, who squealed as she rushed by on her way to somewhere. “My queens are piping, my queens are piping!” she said. I didn’t have a chance to ask her what the heck she was so excited about, though I knew it had something to do with her beehives.

Adding to the mystery, I recently saw the following ads under the “Bees and Other Livestock” heading in IWANNA: “Bee hive bodies, supers, outer covers, inner covers, hive stands and more. Most supers have drawn comb. Ready for spring flow, $500 firm.” And, “2 hive boxes with frames, 4 nucs each. Already fumigated. $220.”

Buzz, buzz: Local beekeeper and videographer Debra Roberts. Courtesy Debra Roberts

Clearly, something is going on here that is outside the normal flow of society. When it comes to beekeepers, a language is spoken that is completely lost on the average person, and the folks speaking it seem very excited about it.

I noticed this when I attended a monthly meeting of the Buncombe County Beekeepers Chapter in early May. I was impressed by a palpable passion exhibited by folks who have a fascination with honeybees, one that seems to cross political, financial and religious lines in favor of camaraderie and learning.

Started in 1986, the organization’s annual WNC Bee School is, according to the N.C. State apiarist Dr. David Tarpy, acknowledged to be one of the best bee schools in the nation. This year it introduced about 300 neophytes to the study of beekeeping; more than 100 had to be turned away due to space constraints.

The co-founder of the school is Edd Buchanan, resident beekeeper at The Biltmore Estate. At the club meeting, I sensed the clear respect the audience had for Buchanan and enjoyed his unassuming and easygoing manner. But Buchanan isn’t the only honeybee luminary in WNC. I’ve noticed for years that it’s impossible to talk to anyone newly baptized in the study of bees and not hear about another person who is revered as a teacher and mentor by the apiary acolyte.

The free-passage beekeeping knowledge is a large part of the learning process for folks of all skill levels. I was impressed at BCBC’s May meeting by the flow of questions from newcomers that were directed generally and answered spontaneously by anyone in the audience who had a good answer.

I was also impressed by the age-diversity among newcomers. One very mature guy in the audience had the look of the most sage of beekeeping old-timers, but, as it happened, he was just a beginner. There were plenty of people my kids would call “old” who are just entering a pastime that will take years to master, a good indication of the passion people feel for beekeeping.

One of the very cool parts of the WNC Bee School is the fact that complete beehive setups (i.e. a bee-filled hive and everything required to make a successful start in beekeeping) are donated by local businesses and given to the people with the highest grades on an end-of-school test. This year, a whopping 25 such hive set-ups (worth an estimated $7,500) were given to the top 25 students.

One of the recipients was Sherry Ellis. As a longtime gardener, Ellis says that beekeeping has given her a new awareness of what is blooming in her garden and what plants bees are pollinating at any given time. She loves the hands-on aspect of opening up the hive, which she calls “scary, exhilarating and fun.” She has yet to be stung, in spite of the fact that she is using only a head-net for protection. Of her bees, she says, “I love my girls.”

When bees first captivated Debra Roberts, she went to the kids’ section of Pack Memorial Library in order to find an elementary-level book explaining their natural history. She failed to find what she was looking for. It was then that she envisioned a video that could introduce kids to the subject, and help dispel some of the myths that perpetuate the fear of honeybees.

As a longtime video producer, Roberts has a long list of successful educational and uplifting videos. Roberts’ initial concept has snowballed, with the help of others, to include the development of honeybee-related classroom materials, as well as involvement from the N.C. Arboretum to create an $800,000 state-of-the-art, interactive exhibit that can travel internationally.

Roberts recently unveiled a bee-themed music video starring 14-year-old Todd Elliott of Union Mills, highlighting his natural singing ability (and Jimi Hendrix performance-moves with a fiddle). Aimed at third- through fifth-graders, the video teaches four “foundational truths” about the benefits of honeybees. Roberts’ current task is to produce her educational video and to procure the funding for all three parts. You can find out more at www.thehoneybeeproject.com.

Writing an article about keeping bees is like writing an article about eating a mango. The essence of it really gets lost in the printed word. But for folks who have a curiosity about all the excitement, you have a chance to get a good taste of it at BCBC’s annual summer picnic on Saturday, June 7. At the picnic, Edd Buchanan and some of his master-beekeeping cronies will hold demonstrations that allow people who have never done it before to see it all. Find out more at www.wncbees.org.

[Jeff Ashton lives and gardens in Weaverville.]

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