Once every two weeks, Gaby Soden suits up before venturing into her backyard.
She slides her hands into thick sheepskin gloves, covers her face with a mesh veil, and zips herself up in a heavy cotton long-sleeve jacket. It takes about 15 minutes to don all the gear.
Gaby is a state-certified beekeeper.
Since April, she has cared for an estimated 100,000 bees housed in two wooden hives in her backyard.
Ive always liked the environment, said Gaby, 14, a ninth-grader at Myers Park High. I have a compost pile. Im a vegetarian. I try to do whats healthy and natural for the environment. I heard bees were (becoming) more endangered and they pollinate a lot of plants, and I have a garden, so its really important those plants get pollinated.
Gaby said keeping bees seemed to be the next logical step to help replenish nature. In fact, she spends so much time thinking about the impact she has on the environment that she laughed and said her parents refer to her as their hippie child.
She got started on her bee project last year with online research. She stumbled upon the Mecklenburg County Bee Association and its bee school, and discovered she could actually become a beekeeper.
Gaby did tons of research before she even walked in our door, said George McAllister, president of the Mecklenburg County Bee Association. She knew that there are not many bees left in the wild and that plants rely on bees.
McAllister said a sold-out crowd of 125 people attend bee school each January, and about eight are high-school-age or younger. His is one of the largest county clubs in the nation, he said, with 300 paid members. Yearly memberships cost $5.
Gaby found the notion of the club so intriguing that she decided to get her whole family involved.
Gaby got us composting, Gaby got us a garden in the front yard, said Meg Humphrey, Gabys mother. While I was skeptical about the time commitment of the bees, I never doubted (Gabys) seriousness.
January through March, Gaby and her family attended two-hour classes each week, and learned how to care for bees, diseases that invade hives, the proper tools to use in the hive, species of bees and how to spot the queen.
Its important to have a queen bee in a hive, Gaby explained, because without the queen, bees leave or become agitated and do not produce honey.
In bee school, participants are also assigned to a mentor, a veteran beekeeper. McAllister is Gabys mentor, and works with her each week, chatting by phone to answer her questions and visiting her familys home to see their beehives.
After attending classes and passing a certification exam, Gaby and her family became certified beekeepers, and in April, McAllister helped them install their own two hives.
Its best if you get two hives, so you can track their progress between each other and you know if something is going wrong or not, Gaby said.
Installing the structures proved to be quite a process. Hive boxes have to be raised off the ground, typically on cinder blocks; hives need to stay dry; and the hives need to get sun in the morning to warm the bees.
Gaby said she has never been stung, but admits she was a bit nervous the first time she entered a hive and bees landed on her veil.
Since then, shes learned tricks, such as how to use smoke to get honeycombs out of the hive. She burns pine needles in a smoker, then pumps the smoke into the hives. The bees, thinking the hive may be on fire and they may have to relocate, consume honey, which subdues them.
So they are calmer, and not coming out to attack you.
That lets her remove the frames of honeycomb, one by one, from the hives. Each holds 10 frames, and an entire hive full of honey can weigh up to 50 pounds, so its important to have a partner help lift them.
She has spent the past month preparing her bees for winter. Every two days, she feeds each hive by placing about 14 gallons of homemade sugar water inside, to ensure the bees survive the cooler temperatures.
Shell get her first harvest in the spring, when the bees are able to leave the hive and get nectar from blooming flowers.
Gaby said although she hopes to become a doctor when she is older, she intends to keep keeping bees.
I just enjoy being outside and working with the bees, she said.
Gaby stands out among McAllisters students, he said, because she is so curious and so comfortable around the bees.
She has no fear, he said. And she is also very inquisitive about why we are doing what we are doing and how this all comes together.