Though the numbers have decreased over the years, there are approximately 200,000 beekeepers in the United States. Approximately 76 of those are members of the local Southwest Arkansas Beekeepers club.
Britt Bailey is an active member who has currently procured 97 hives and hopes to increase to 300 someday. He has taken part in this agricultural venture for six years.
“I love nature in any format and insects are one of my favorites. Bees are an insect that I can control and raise them just like people do with cows or chickens,” he explained. “After the first time you look in a hive, you are hooked. Seeing how such a small creature will work endlessly till they die is fascinating to me.”
Bailey sells much of the honey produced by his bees, and stated that he can retrieve an average of anywhere from 45-100 pounds of honey per hive.
“It all depends on the forage for the area your bees are in,” Bailey said. “Ours is mostly just wildflower in the area. If you can get them on soybean or cotton fields they can produce upwards of 200 pounds per hive.”
For Fulton resident James Lamb, his love of beekeeping is what inspired him and his wife, Rita, to open their store, Southwest Arkansas Beekeeping Supplies.
The Lambs have raised bees for a little over five years and owned the store for approximately half of that time.
James Lamb’s interest in the art was honed by his uncle, who housed bees in the 1980’s, and was later encouraged by his son and friend, who are also beekeepers.
“It took me six months to get my wife interested and out there tending to the hives with me,” he laughed.
James Lamb went on to say, “What’s most interesting is watching the bees and how they work together. They’re fascinating.”
The Lambs currently hold 16 hives, and like Bailey sell their honey as well as give it away. The couple is hoping to get between 25 and 30 total hives some day.
The honey also makes the candies, soaps and lip balms that the couple sells in their store.
Aside from that, Southwest Arkansas Beekeeping Supplies also furnishes medications for bees and beekeepers alike, beeswax molds, beekeeping tools, woodenware and plastic frames and foundation, books, beekeeper suits and much more. They also ship these items across the country.
“From the time the beekeepers get the bees, we handle about all of it,” James Lamb noted.
There are several ways an individual can begin beekeeping. Beforehand, it is important to seek information about the task. An interested party can do this by contacting someone through the Southwest Arkansas Beekeeper’s website arbeekeepers.org or by getting in touch with a beekeeper they know.
There are a number of ways to obtain bees, as explained by James Lamb.
One of these includes catching a swarm of them. James Lamb noted that there are two types of swarms: wet swarms, which are more easy-going, and dry swarms, which are “mean.” If catching them seems too intimidating without some help, there are several individuals who will cut nuisance hives out of the walls of houses, schools and other buildings who might then give them to someone new who wants to partake in beekeeping.
Another way to obtain bees is to order them in a package that contains about 10,000 bees, or you can ask a current beekeeper to “split their hive,” which basically means they take part of their bees and transfer them to your hive.
After embarking on the journey of beekeeping, caring for the insects can be both easy and difficult.
For one thing, bees do not need a lot of hands on care. Some keepers check on their hives once a day, some once a week and some go even longer periods of time than that.
“New beekeepers often feel like they have to be in there constantly checking on their bees, but really, they can mostly take care of themselves,” James Lamb explained.
According to Lamb, the most time-extensive work comes with pulling the honey.
Bailey further explained how he and other tend to their bees.
“You have to keep them healthy just like any animal,” he said. “Make sure they have plenty of honey and pollen year-round.”
He went on to note that the first of April until late June is the smoothest time to keep bees because most of the plants they forage on are in bloom.
“Spring is the time of the year that bees will swarm most likely as well. A swarm is natural for bees to do. The queen decides when its time and will start cells in a hive to produce a new queen and before they hatch the old queen will take about half of the bees and find a new home somewhere else, leaving behind half of the bees and a new queen to take over.”
Beekeepers who are able to find a swarm may use it to start a new colony. This swarm is called “free bees.”
Bees have the shortest lifespan in the spring, thriving for only about 45 days partly because they fly so much that their wings often tatter before they can return to their hives. On the other hand, the creatures can live for almost four months since they hardly fly.
Honey is usually extracted around July 1. Both Bailey and Lamb stressed the importance of leaving some honey for the bees.
“Always leave honey for bees to eat on and make it through,” Lamb said. “I would say that if you’re a new beekeeper, don’t expect to get honey the first year. Leave that for the bees and you’ll be thankful later on.”
“If a beekeeper steals too much honey from his/her bees during this time, they will have to supply them with sugar syrup and artificial pollen to give back to the bees because there is very little nectar or pollen during the hot summer months,” Bailey said.
A small flow of nectar and pollen from foliage, such as goldenrod and aster, occurs around late September through October and is very important for bees in order for them to build up their honey supply during winter.
“It takes around 45-60 pounds of honey, and 3-4 frames of pollen, for a strong hive to eat during the winter months,” Bailey explained.
During winter, bees are able to regulate temperatures in their hives between 55 and 60 degrees by clustering into a ball and vibrating their wing muscles. The bees take turns rotating from the middle of the ball to the outside. The queen ceases to lay eggs during the coldest portion of winter then begins again in late January in order to replenish the losses from winter. The cycle then begins again.
Lamb said that one of the most difficult things a beekeeper can experience is losing a hive.
“It’s costly and it’s difficult because you’ve been working with them and raising them up and it becomes like a part of you,” he said.
Bailey and Lamb outlined diseases and pests that can cause hive loss.
“The two biggest things beekeepers have to worry about is varroa mites and small hive beetles. The beetles will attack and want the pollen. Strong hives can fight back, but if the beetles win they will take over the hive and slime the honey,” Lamb explained.
Southwest Arkansas Beekeepers Supplies sells a number of things to combat hive beetles, such as freeman beetle trays, beetle blasters and even medications for the bees that prevents the pests. The only downside of these medications, said Lamb, is that they usually can’t be used during honey flow.
Bailey remarked that varroa mites are the number one killer of bees.
“They literally suck the life out of bees and tracheal mites live inside the trachea and will starve a bee to death,” he said.
Bailey also said that there is only one disease bees can contract: American foulbrood. This disease is incurable.
“If found in a hive, you have to close the bees, burn it, then bury it two feed deep to get rid of it. It will kill every hive it gets to,” he said.
Pesticides and some herbicides can also harm bees. Bailey encouraged those who used these products to look for safer alternatives that will not be toxic to bees or to spray before daylight or late in the evening when bees are not foraging.
Bees are a vital part of the environment for more than just their honey production. Their pollination is a key component for approximately 2/3 of the foods Americans consume. It is because of this that keeping bees alive and healthy is important, and that beekeepers are the unsung heroes who’s behind-the-scenes work keeps us alive and healthy.
There are now several ‘junior beekeepers’ who are the future of this task.
Fifteen-year-old Codie Jamison is one of 11 junior beekeepers in the Southwest Arkansas Beekeepers club.
She has been raising them for about three years.
Jamison’s grandfather kept bees, which peaked her interest in it. After getting her supplies from the Southwest Arkansas Beekeepers club, who gives it to first-year beekeepers, she got her first hive.
“I’ve learned so much,” she expressed. “I can share a lot of the information I’ve learned with my friends. Like, if we see a bee and they start swatting at it, I can tell them, ‘Leave it alone and it will leave you alone.’”
Jamison plans to split her hive later on in the spring and to continue raising bees as she gets older.
“I want to keep some honey for myself and get more hives and sell some locally,” she said.