Beekeepers’ regional network looks to attract new hobbyists

Several beekeeping organizations will offer bee schools throughout the Charlotte region this month.

The courses – roughly 18 hours for about $50 – give beginner and intermediate beekeepers access to experts who will share tips and resources that will help ensure success in this challenging hobby.

According to the N.C. State Beekeepers Association, about 72 affiliated local chapters represent about 85 of the state’s 100 counties, and most of those groups meet monthly.

Clubs throughout Cabarrus and Iredell counties, as well as the Lake Norman and University City areas, represent hundreds of beekeepers, who tend to millions and millions of bees.

Kannapolis resident Bob Doty, of Bob and Kay’s Green Acres Honey, has been keeping bees for four years. Beekeeping isn’t easy, he said, but it is rewarding and educational.

Gray Fisher, a master beekeeper from Kannapolis, has been involved in beekeeping for 11 years. He was intrigued by the hobby and has grown from managing one hive to managing about 50 hives.

Doty and Fisher agreed that taking a beginner beekeeping course is the best way to get started.

“You’ll be wasting your time and money if you don’t,” Doty said.

Beginners can plan on investing about $400 to purchase a hive and other supplies, in addition to the class, Fisher said.

“If you don’t go through the class, 99 percent of the time you won’t succeed,” Fisher said.

And beginners shouldn’t plan on recouping that expense until at least the second year, maybe longer.

The class “gives beginners the basics, from setting up the hive up to what’s going on in the hive – good and bad, diseases, what to look for and how to correct it – then it teaches you what to do with parts of the hive that are marketable,” Fisher said. “And everything has a market.”

Asked whether they get stung often, Fisher said, “Which day?”

Doty shared a sting story that backs up the use of Apitherapy, the practice of using honey bee products – honey, pollen, venom – to help people with arthritis, allergies and multiple sclerosis.

“I’ve got arthritis in my wrist, and when I got stung, … I’ll be doggoned if my wrist didn’t stop hurting for about a month,” Doty said.

“I got stung about 10 days ago, and I was glad I did, because it makes my wrist stop hurting.”

As a species, the honeybee is suffering, but anyone can learn to help combat the decline of the honeybee population, Fisher said. Honeybees are essential to human life because they pollinate most food and feed plants.

He encourages people to plant bee-friendly plants and to avoid using pesticides and insecticides.

If you do use chemicals, Doty said, avoid using powdered ones. Use only a liquid spray later in the evening, when bees have retired for the night.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, colony collapse disorder, an unknown killer condition, has honeybees battling for their lives as colony numbers decline to some of the lowest levels in decades.

Data collected by during the winter of 2012-13 indicate an average loss of 45 percent of hives across all U.S. beekeepers, up 78 percent from the previous winter. That season showed a loss of 31 percent of commercial hives, which is on par with the past six years.

National Geographic magazine labeled the “global pollinator crisis,” which also has hit Europe and Asia, as unprecedented.

But honeybees have pulled disappearing acts for more than a century previously, and they’ve been domesticated for roughly 4,500 years.

“Working to promote beekeeping and educate people on the benefits of maintaining healthy bee populations is a worthwhile and rewarding cause,” Doty said.

Cabarrus County extension agent David Goforth said beekeeping has gotten much more difficult within the past 25 years because of pests that are harmful to honeybees, such as the trachea mite, the varroa mite, the small hive beetle and various viruses.

“It is no longer a casual endeavor,” Goforth said. “In addition, the forage (territory) for bees has been reduced with urbanization and modern forestry or farming practices, and bees don’t have the amount and variety of pollen they used to have.

“Everybody who gardens can help with bee-friendly gardening,” Goforth said. “Landowners can also help by selecting certain plants, like poplar and linden.”

Gerry Mack and his wife, Libby, have been beekeepers since 2002.

“We started after seeing an ad … and quickly became enthralled with the community of a bee hive,” said Gerry Mack, president of the Mecklenburg County Beekeepers Association.

That association, which serves the University City area and surrounding communities, has more than 300 active members.

“Our bees pollinate neighborhood gardens, trees and ornamental plantings,” he said, “and (members) provide educational programs for schools, garden clubs and other civic organizations.”

David Little, 67, has been beekeeping 11 years. For the past five years he has served as program chairman for the Iredell County Beekeepers Association.

He mentors beekeepers from Lake Wylie, S.C., to Thurmond, and manages about 60 colonies of bees. Little said he sells about 75 gallons of honey annually.

Last year, he said, he lost 30 colonies from what he suspects was related to genetically modified agriculture products.

“I worked for years watching my bees die and getting more, trying to learn along the way,” Little said. “I came within a breath of piling the whole thing up and burning it.”

Later, however, he helped three area beekeepers work 600 hives, and he learned a lot in those two years, he said.

“I came up in beekeeping when it was a pretty tight-knit group and information was hard to find on your own,” Little said.

Little said he believes the best instruction is the hands-on kind. Unlike in the recent past, he said, beekeepers now are willing to share their secrets with beginners.

“These (beekeeping) classes are and can be invaluable, and the network (of people who) understand the urgency associated with the survival of the honeybee,” Little said.

“The class is a starting place to get a new beekeeper off on the right foot with the fewest disappointments.”