Anna Kinchen

Buzzworthy Business

Do you enjoy fruits, vegetables, and nuts, along with a variety of options at your grocery store? If so, you can thank a special kind of pollinator, the honeybee, for diversifying America’s dinner plates. Honeybees are essential to maintaining food production in North America today. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), honeybees help provide one out of every three bites of food Americans eat. Although small, these tiny titans are big business.

These social and hardworking insects produce six hive products – honey, pollen, royal jelly, beeswax, propolis, and venom – all collected and used by people for various nutritional and medicinal purposes.

Honey, of course, is the most well-known and economically important hive product. The U.S. Department of National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) reports that honeybees made 157 million pounds of honey in 2019. With the cost of honey at $1.98 per pound at the time, it was valued at over $339 million.

Honeybees also produce a mixture called propolis, better known as “bee glue,” from the sap of trees and buds. This sticky resin collected by the bees is used to seal cracks and drafts, repair the hive, and provide defense for their immunity. Propolis has an antibiotic trait that also keeps the hives healthy, which is why it is also used to make medicine. According to the National Library of Medicine, current antimicrobial applications of propolis include formulations for cold syndromes (upper respiratory tract infections, common cold, and flu-like infections), wound healing, and treatment of burns, acne, and neurodermatitis.

Beeswax is another important hive product, which is popular for making candles, artists’ materials, and leather as well as wood polishes. The pharmaceutical industry also uses the substance as a binding agent, time-release mechanism, and drug carrier. Beeswax is also one of the most used waxes in cosmetics.  

But the greatest importance of honeybees might not be a product of the hive at all, but more of the service the bees themselves provide to the agriculture industry – their work as crop pollinators. The agricultural benefit of honeybees is estimated to be between 10 and 20 times the total value of honey and beeswax. A USDA report from 2017 shared that honeybees pollinate $15 billion worth of crops in the United States each year, including more than 130 types of fruits, nuts, and vegetables making it indispensable to U.S. agriculture.

It was all these things and more that ignited an interest in an Ag Education teacher in South Georgia and led him to chase the sweet rewards of beekeeping.  

A Hive of Knowledge

In 2015, Ag Educator Mark Lashley attended a breakout session at the Georgia Ag Teachers MidWinter Conference (GVATA) on — you guessed it — honeybees. “I was very intrigued with the process of beekeeping, and it seemed like a manageable side business or hobby,” said Lashley. He obtained his Bachelor of Agriculture Science from the University of Georgia in 2011 and began teaching at Central High School in Carrolton, Georgia. A fellow teacher was already hobbying in beekeeping and helped answer his more immediate questions.

Over two years, Lashley consumed as much golden knowledge as he could. He was given ‘The Beekeeper’s Bible’ by a student and turned to the endless library of YouTube tutorials and social media hobby groups for resources. He also relied on a phone mentor – a state bee inspector with the Georgia Department of Agriculture. In 2017, Lashley returned to his hometown of Bainbridge, Georgia, and took a role as the Ag Educator at Bainbridge High School. At the same time, he purchased his first set of nucleus colonies of Western honeybees as an after-hours hobby. He spent approximately $500 on four hives containing five frames of bees, honey, pollen, and brood. A ‘brood’ is a frame of pupating bees. A ‘hive’ can consist of one to four separate bee boxes.  

When asked what made him feel ready for the task, Lashley explained, “I don’t know if you are ever fully ready to start beekeeping. Most people who get into it find a deal on a hive and take the leap, not realizing how easy it is to fail that first year. Bees require year-round tending and observation.” Having done a healthy amount of research, Lashley still lost four out of five hives his first year.

“Bee management is very in-depth. You just do not go out and get honey. Controlling viruses and parasites that attack the honeybees is a major part of ensuring the success of the hives and the long-term sustainability of your operation. All that said, it’s amazing to witness the work of a honeybee and enjoy the benefits of raw honey.”

Bees are subject to an increasing number of stressors such as pests, diseases, and pesticides. According to Lashley, everything wants to attack a bee inclusive of two main parasites – the Varroa Mites and Hive Beetle. An article written by the University of Georgia’s Bee Program says Varroa Mites are invisible to the naked eye and feed on developing bees, spread disease, and lay their eggs inside the cells of the colony. Most infested colonies die within one to two years if no action is taken. Small Hive Beetle larvae tunnel through combs, ruining the structure and killing bee brood. They also defecate in the honey, causing it to ferment and become unpalatable to the bees. In bad infestation cases, bees will simply abandon the hive altogether.

Placing hives in sunny areas on nonpermeable or dry soils helps control pathogens as well as taking preventative measures which include lowering exposure to pesticides and promoting good nutrition. This calls for practices such as sugar supplementation.

Lashley monitors his hives daily and ensures their survival by feeding them high fructose corn syrup in the winter season when there is less plant diversity. “Pollen is their protein. Honey/syrup is their source of carbs. Bees take in golden rod pollen between September and October and make winter stores on it. They also take in the wild radish that grows around here in the winter, if accessible.”

It Takes a Colony

In addition to a knowledgeable beekeeper, it takes a whole colony of hard-working bees to have a successful honey harvest.  

According to the FDA, a honeybee colony is a highly organized society made up of three kinds of adult bees – workers, drones, and a single queen — each with specific roles. Worker bees, also known as foragers, are sexually undeveloped females and under normal hive conditions don’t lay eggs. As suggested by their name, worker bees are the hive’s laborers, performing all the tasks needed to maintain and protect the colony and rear the young bees. Despite being the smallest physically, they are by far the largest in number, making up nearly all the bees in a colony. A worker bee’s life span ranges from six weeks in the busy summer to four to nine months during the winter.

Drones are male bees that are on standby for mating with a virgin queen, should the need arise. For the drones, death instantly follows mating. They number from a few to several thousand and are usually present only during late spring and summer.

As the lone sexually developed female in the colony, the queen’s only function is to lay eggs. She mates only once with several drones and remains fertile for life. According to the National Honey Board, a productive queen can lay 3,000 eggs in a single day. The queen has an average productive life span of two to three years. When she dies or her productivity declines, worker bees raise a new queen.

Proper Framework

In the Spring of 2018, Lashley took his remaining hive, split it into five smaller hives, and purchased four new queens to great success. Next, he purchased thirty-five hives and essential equipment from a retiring beekeeper out of Pensacola, Florida. He noted that his initial investment of $2,000 would run closer to $8,000 today.  

As his knowledge of beekeeping grew and his operation progressed, Lashley moved from bottom boards to a palletized system to store his hives off the ground – four-way pallets – four hives per pallet. Today, he manages up to 350 hives outside of his employment as an Ag Educator and Advisor for the Decatur Young Farmer’s Chapter. He has transitioned from a hobbyist to a ‘sideliner.’ “I am much smaller than a commercial beekeeper.”

Lashley runs several yards of approximately 12 pallets containing 44-48 hives each, across multiple locations near his home on the edge of Decatur County. His county home adjacent to agricultural fields rotating crops, mustard grass, and occasional wildflowers, ensure there is plenty of food accessible to his hives year-round. “I allocated a place towards the back of my yard that is close to a water source and gets full sun. Good sun exposure can help control the Hive Beetle, providing a better opportunity for the bees to be successful. But that summer sun sure is harder on the beekeeper,” Lashley chuckled.

A Keeper’s Guide to Equipment

There are a few necessities required if you are interested in becoming a beekeeper, too. Mark Lashley recommends the following:

  • A Suitable Location
  • A Consultant – Mark cannot stress enough the benefit of having a trusted and experienced beekeeper to consult with.
  • Boxes with Lids, also known as brood chambers and/or honey supers.
  • Excluders – These keep the queen confined to the bottom portion of the box, so she does not lay her eggs in honey.
  • Frames – There are eight-frame and ten-frame boxes. Lashley uses ten frames per large box.
  • Bee Suit – Bee suits, jackets, and hoods protect you from getting stung.
  • Bottom Boards or Pallets – Allows separation from the bottom of the box and ground.
  • Smoker - The most valuable tool for working bees. A smoker calms bees and reduces stinging. Pine straw, grass, and burlap make good smoker fuel.
  • Hive Tool - Ideally shaped for prying apart supers and frames.
  • Feeders - Holds sugar syrup that is fed to bees.
  • Skid Steer – For moving whole pallets of bee boxes.  
  • Flatbed Trailer – For moving pallets to new locations.  
New Hobby, Minor Pains

Consider this strong investment advice: Anyone who keeps bees will inevitably get stung! Lashley expresses little concern over being stung by the tenants he shares his property with. “Either I am used to them or they are used to me. The reaction seems to diminish over time. Thank goodness, I am not allergic! Bees don’t want to sting you.”

He stresses that working an aggravated hive with no protective gear is not good for the keeper or the hive. Why? Consider what actually happens when a honeybee stings you. First, the stinger pierces your skin and injects venom. This can cause sharp pain, swelling, and even an allergic reaction in some people. But did you know that a bee stinger is barbed? The barbed stinger is meant to anchor into your skin after it has been used. When the bee flies away, the stinger separates from the body of the bee, causing the bee to die.  

A fact that he says most non-beekeepers find interesting is the pheromone bees release when they sting you. “Oddly enough, it smells like bananas.” That pheromone attracts and alarms the other bees, letting them know there is a problem, an intruder. This is why you may get stung more than once if you are close to a hive.

Lashley recommends these tips for reducing aggravated swarms and stings. First, use protective gear and a veil. Second, consider opening your hives on warmer days when the majority of the worker bees are out foraging. Last but more importantly, consider using a smoker to control them. “Honeybees communicate through touch and smell. Smoke breaks up their communication abilities and can also cause them to gorge on honey, resulting in calmer behavior.

Sweet Rewards

“Everyone does it for the honey.” And quite possibly the honey money.

Lashley built a honey house on his property – a 20x30 enclosed shed that is home to his processing equipment. He works with two centrifuge extractors that sling the honey of the cells located on the hive frames. He can harvest up to thirty frames per extractor. The honey then goes into a sump (water-jacketed tank) that will hold up to twenty-five gallons of honey in it. The sump cleans the honey allowing the wax to float to the top for easy removal. Lashley then pumps the honey from the sump into 55-gallon barrels (equivalent to 650 pounds) for storage.

On average, Lashley’s honeybees produce 8,000- 10,000 pounds of sweet, golden honey each year. He admits that based on FSA stats, his numbers are below the county average compared to reports from the Farm Service Agency (FSA).

“You can send off honey samples to conduct pollen counts. Pollen counts indicate where your bees gathered their pollen. When no single floral type presents itself, such as a cotton blossom from a cotton crop, or tupelo from tupelo trees, the honey is labeled as wildflower. Tupelo trees are almost exclusive to North Florida, so the majority of what I produce is wildflower.”

At first, Lashley marketed his honey to friends and family. He also utilized Facebook as a tool to get the word out. He now sells his product by the jar, but also sells those 55-gallon barrels, wholesale, to buyers across the region. KGD Produce in downtown Bainbridge, Georgia, and Jones Country Meats in Whigham, Georgia are two locations where you can purchase his honey.

If you would like to sample the product before you buy it, Lashley recommends you try the cast iron skillet cornbread and honey at The American or a cold pint at Southern Philosophy Brewing, both located in downtown Bainbridge. The skillet cornbread served with Lashley’s special honey has been a menu staple for the last seven years. Southern Philosophy Brewery, on the other hand, uses Lashley’s honey as a natural sweetener in some of their brews.  

“Both the owners of The American and Southern Philosophy Brewing take pride in and are known for sourcing quality, fresh ingredients. Have you been to those places? Man, their stuff is great! And I deeply appreciate that they support several local farmers, not just me.”

How Honey is Made

Bees eat two types of food, both of which come from flowers. “Enzymes in the bees’ stomachs break this down into the simpler sugars. The simple sugars get stored inside of a honeycomb cell. The bees then fan their wings to evaporate the water content of the nectar, creating sweet honey. Once the honey is the correct consistency, the bee will seal the honeycomb cell with a wax capping. We harvest the honey by collecting the honeycomb frames and scraping off the wax cap that bees make to seal off honey in each cell.” 

The Great Migration

University of Georgia’s Extension Agency shares that in the United States, the added value to agriculture from honeybee pollination is more than $9 billion annually, and many beekeepers earn extra income from renting their bees for pollination. This buzzes true for Mark Lashley.

Following a conversation with a fellow beekeeper in 2018, Lashley learned about the extra income earned from shipping hives West to pollinate California almond orchards and has been participating in the man-made bee migration ever since. Lashley is one of many who work with California-based bee brokers to negotiate personal hive rental fees each year. Come February, when the almond bloom begins, a large percentage of Lashley’s bee hives are shipped to southern California where the hives are coded, tracked, and placed in orchards across approximately 50 miles. “Southeastern beekeepers ship close to two million hives to pollinate approximately 900,000 acres of almond trees every year. It is one of the biggest ag migrations in the country.”

Lashley’s bees pollinate the almond orchards until mid-March, after which his hives are shipped back to his production yard for assessment and loss. He notes, “It’s a high-risk, high-reward scenario. The average hive loss is around five to ten percent. Of the 144 hives I ship, I could lose up to 14. And that loss is not insured or covered by the broker, nor the almond farmer.”

Pollinating Southwest Georgia

In addition to the work Lashley’s bees put into honey production and pollinating the almond orchards, he occasionally provides pollination services to Southwest Georgia farmers.

Upon return from their West Coast adventures in March, the hives are split, new queens are introduced (when necessary), and Lashley works to get his hive numbers back up. Prep work for honey production quickly follows. Lashley’s ‘honey flow’ begins mid-April and lasts to the first week of June, depending on the wildflower crop. Overlapping, pollination for the squash, zucchini, and cucumber crops begins in May and lasts until June. “It can take up to two hives per acre to pollinate those crops. It can take up five hives per acre on blueberries.”

Cotton pollination (cotton blossoms) takes place from mid-July to late August. “Cotton does not require bees to pollinate, and I typically do not get compensated for that. But the bees thank me with sweet cotton blossom honey when there is a field nearby.”

The Bees Knees

The phrase ‘bee’s knees’ might have been invented as a spoof, or slang expression, but it has developed through the ages to mean exceptionally great, excellent, high quality, or outlandishly good. Could they have been describing the taste of a honeybee’s most popular product all along?

Maybe the next time you spy a roadside produce stand promoting fresh honey, you note a hint of sweetness in your local brewed IPA, or you sop your southern-made cornbread in gooey richness, you can say with conviction, and a little more appreciation, “Yall! That honey is the bee’s knees!”

And all beekeepers will say, “Amen!”

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