Caleb Lawson strives for A’s at school but is happy with bees at home.
A Covenant Day School sophomore, he enjoys beekeeping, a family tradition he started a couple of years ago with the encouragement of his grandfather. He attends to several hives in his backyard near the Arboretum, selling the honey he extracts to friends and at school.
Caleb is matter-of-fact when talking about his hobby, from the process to the inescapable reality of being stung. “It’s really not that hard,” he said. “I just thought it would be interesting.”
His curiosity was first stoked a few years ago when he was going over some old slides that his grandfather had from childhood. Caleb noticed some beehives in the Carmel Road neighborhood, and he and his grandfather decided they wanted to get some bees.
“We talked about it for a while and then just got into it,” said Caleb, 15. Before long, Carolyn Lawson said, her son and father “kind of became bee buddies.
“They went to a class together. They were sidekicks. ... My father passed away last summer, so Caleb’s just forging on.”
Both got a quick education at the beginning: buying and building hives and their many components, finding the right protective equipment, buying bees, the first difficult extractions. “When you start, it takes a lot of time,” Caleb said. “But after a while you really don’t even need to go in there.”
He said he spends the most time when he extracts honey or cleans the hives around this time of year. On an average day, “mostly I would do an inspection just to see how everything’s holding up in there.
“There’s really not much to actually do because they’re very self-sustainable – and they had been (for) a long time before I actually even started to use them, for honey production and for agricultural needs (in his family’s case, pollination of vegetables).”
Caleb had six hives going this summer, but with the cooler weather he’s down to two; some honeybees relocate and some die off in cooler weather. He said an average summer hive has about 200,000-350,000 bees but is down to about 100,000 now. He has gotten some bees from being on a swarm list, in which “people who see swarms in, say, their backyards, on their roof or under a deck can call and have the swarms removed by beekeepers.”
In winter, bees “don’t sleep. Basically, they bunch up together and buzz their wings to keep warm and just sit there and eat honey throughout the entire winter.” (Some studies have found that hives of honeybees will consume up to 30 pounds of stored honey over the course of one winter.)
Extracting honey from the hive – and the bees’ homes, called supers – typically happens at the end of summer. “You get the top super that holds the honey; they’re usually a lot shallower than the ones at the bottom that are full of eggs,” Caleb said.
“You then take those supers off and there’s multiple ways to get all the bees out with a bee brush. What I do is, I pull the frames out, swipe all the bees off into the hive, put the frames in a different box and then carry them inside or wherever I’m doing the extracting.”
Extracting is often the most dangerous time in terms of bee stings. He said he wears a veil, jacket and long pants for protection: “I wasn’t scared of being stung at the start, but after I got stung the first time it dawned on me that I needed to be careful because I’m partially allergic to the stings,” said Caleb, who estimates he’s been stung 15-20 times. “It’s usually just excessive swelling.”
His mother said she wasn’t too worried about the stings from the start. “I knew he and my dad were going to do this, and I thought it was wonderful that they had something to do together,” she said.
She loves the benefits of her son’s hobby. “I always make sure there’s at least a quart for me,” she said. “It’s so different than any honey at the store. The honey at the store, to me, has a very watered-down taste.”
Though Caleb is a member of the Mecklenburg Beekeepers Association and also mentors there, he said beekeeping is “just a hobby” at this point. “I’m just keeping my eyes open and seeing where it takes me,” he said.
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