Cabarrus

Keeping alive his beekeeping heritage

It's no exaggeration to say that beekeeping is in Robert Blackwelder's blood.

He is fifth in a direct line of beekeepers dating to the days after the Civil War.

Blackwelder's great-great-grandfather, Jacob A. Litaker, who also lived in eastern Cabarrus County, lost an arm in that war. The injury restricted his ability to farm, so he turned to beekeeping.

Blackwelder said that after the war, the federal government started a program encouraging disabled veterans to keep bees, providing them a way to stay active. Thus began a family tradition that's continued basically unchanged.

Blackwelder refers to his ancestor as "advanced" in the art of beekeeping. Modern beekeeping started in the mid-19th century, and not much has changed since.

Beekeepers at that time developed ways to extract honey without destroying the colony. They discovered "bee space," the exact amount of space in which bees can move in the hive. Any variation from that measurement and bees will either reject or seal the hive.

Beekeepers then also began to use wooden frames rather than hollow logs for the bees' hive building. Blackwelder uses that same sort of frame today; in fact, he says, he uses basically the same equipment Litaker would have used more than 100 years ago.

Blackwelder believes he inherited more than equipment and technique from his ancestor. Litaker was said to be a man with a calm demeanor, which is necessary for a beekeeper. Blackwelder says bees can sense if a person is fearful, tense or nervous.

Growing up around bees, he's never feared them and always appreciated the amazing job they do. In fact, he says, people don't understand how important bees are.

Not only do bees produce honey, they are required for pollination. Every farmer who's ever grown anything owes his success to the work of bees. Two centuries ago, farms had to be self-sustaining, and they had to have bees to make the land produce.

Of course, Blackwelder and his ancestors have also enjoyed sweet treats, a little extra income and the wonderful smell of hand-dipped beeswax candles, thanks to the bees they've raised.

Blackwelder, 61, a retired surveyor, has five grandsons, and though they are still young, he's exposing them to beekeeping, hoping they'll want to take up his hobby.

Blackwelder is active in the Cabarrus County Beekeepers Association, and he encourages anyone who'd like to know more to check out the group and its website: www.cabarrusbees.com.

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