The morning honey treat gathers momentum and quality since in recent years, the interest in backyard and hobby beekeeping has grown monumentally. Bees are now kept in the White House and Buckingham Palace gardens as well as the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and the Birmingham Zoo. The Jefferson County Beekeeping Association’s Beginner’s Beekeeping Course added a second class this year due to the overwhelming demand. In February, the 16th annual Auburn University Beekeeping Symposium, drawing beekeepers from all over the country, garnered record attendance.
While there are numerous theories related to the cause of this increased interest in the bees which make history's original sweetener, producing honey to eat is just one of the primary motivators. Because it is not intensely heated and filtered to prolong shelf life in the grocery store, honey produced by backyard and hobby beekeepers offers more flavor. Honey contains multiple minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. It also has skin healing and antiseptic attributes. Some allergy sufferers believe the pollen in honey produced where they live presents relief from their seasonal allergy symptoms.
In the Walker County area, beekeeping snares a variety of beekeepers, men and women, young and old. The prize-winning Walker County Beekeepers Association draws beekeepers from multiple counties and currently includes 28 members.
Two of its enthusiastic supporters, Glenn and Doris Pumphrey, eagerly share their beekeeping knowledge and wisdom which has accumulated over the last six years when they began a beekeeping partnership as a part of their 50-year marriage partnership.
Glenn began beekeeping in 2006 after he retired from a career of more than 40 years in the coal mining industry. He smiled and laughed as he explained, “The only thing I knew about a bee in 2006 was that it stings you.” But he always knew he would try beekeeping once he retired. Glenn grew up on a Blount County farm with a grandfather and an uncle who were beekeepers and his interest in these fascinating creatures grew as he studied them over the years.
Beekeepers willingly mentor newcomers and Buck Drummond of Sipsey helped Glenn get started with two hives. James Downs provided additional guidance. When asked about Doris’ involvement, Glenn noted, “When I first started, I didn’t think I would get her within a mile of the bees… But I got those hives and I came in one day and she had a beekeeping suit.” Although Doris always shared his interest in their bee project, he knew she had become a “real” beekeeper when she retrieved a bee swarm completely on her own while he was out of town. Doris pointed out that although beekeeping appears easy, their twelve hives are quite time-consuming.
Honey bee basics
from the Pumphreys
With ready ease, Glenn and Doris explained several honey bee basics. Bee hives function with three types of bees and every bee holds a specific role.
Drones are the male bees and their only function in the colony is to mate with the queen. Worker bees are the sterile females and they perform all the labor including housekeeping, preparing the hive for the queen bee to lay her eggs, feeding the drones, protecting the hive, collecting water, foraging for pollen to feed the developing baby bees, and gathering nectar for the honey.
Workers also produce wax for the comb and royal jelly, the queen’s food. When cold weather approaches, they actually drive the drones out of the hive so they do not have to be fed over the winter.
Doris pointed out that if the queen quits laying eggs, the workers will replace her by choosing one egg and feeding it royal jelly so it will mature into a queen. Glenn emphatically defined the short life span of the worker bee when he said, “They work themselves to death in about 35 to 40 days.”
The queen bee’s job is to eat the rich royal jelly and lay eggs which hatch in about 21 days. A good queen lays at least 1,500 eggs daily. One bee hive usually hosts 30,000 to 60,000 bees and each worker is believed to produce approximately one-half teaspoon of honey. So the queen must keep eating and laying eggs so that the endless chores are divided among thousands of workers.
One expert described the queen as the “heart and soul” of the colony since every bee’s job is basically centered on her.
In the spring and early summer, sometimes half of the bees or more will leave a crowded, older colony, in a swarm. The queen is protected at the center of the swarm and scout bees search for a new home. Before leaving, the bees load up on honey, essentially “packing their suitcases” for a long trip. Because they have eaten excessively, swarming bees are more docile and in expert hands, can be caught to start a new hive. Since the queen is always gorging, the workers stop feeding her a few days before they leave so she is light enough to fly.
Once the honey is ready to be extracted out of the comb, Doris and Glenn use a honey extractor which looks like a large hand crank ice cream freezer. The frames from the hives are inserted into the extractor and when the crank is turned, the honey spins from the comb utilizing centrifugal force. The honey passes through a strainer into a container and is ready to be bottled. The frames are re-inserted into the hive where the ultra-tidy bees clean them up and use any leftover honey.
Doris retired last year from T.R. Simmons Elementary School where she worked for 29 years in the library and the office. Over the years, she was the partnership’s marketing agent and coordinated the solid customer base for their honey. The color range of the Pumphrey’s honey varies from a yellow-golden to much darker, depending on what the bees worked for their nectar. Sometimes the color varies within a hive. Fall harvested honey tends to be dark and strong, particularly if the bees worked goldenrod.
Beekeeping supplier Randy Posey
Andrew Posey and Son Hardware in Jasper has been selling beekeeping supplies since the mid- 1970s when owner Hershel Posey journeyed to the Walter T. Kelley Company in Clarkson, Ky., to tour their beekeeping supply facilities. In business since 1924, Kelley’s motto is “Bees are our business and our passion.”
Current Posey and Son owner Randy Posey, a former beekeeper for 10 years, now sells these supplies to about 150-200 beekeepers whose hive numbers range from one to 20. Graduates of the Jefferson County Beekeepers Association’s Beginner’s Beekeeping Course are referred to Randy so he can guide them in purchasing their supplies. As a former 20-hive beekeeper and longtime supply merchant, Randy’s special perspective allows him to handily share his knowledge and provide unique help to his beekeeping customers.
From Randy’s point of view, beekeeping is popular for a variety of reasons. Concern for the environment motivates some beekeepers as the wild honey bee population has declined significantly in the United States over the last forty years and major die-offs occurred in 2006 and 2007. Hobby beekeepers have become an important link in replenishing the bee population. Honey bees are interesting insects to work with and observe. The queens can live for several years, a rarity among insects.
Many beekeepers raise honey bees for garden pollination. Dr. James E. Tew, Auburn University and Ohio State extension specialist, who has studied bees at Auburn for the last sixteen years, explained that all vine vegetables require pollination. “We have to have bees. Every seed in the watermelon, every seed in that cucumber is the result of a bee transferring a pollen grain.” A large scale beekeeper, who raises bees for crop pollination, restated the bee’s crucial role in this explanation, “They are as important to food production as water or
Beekeeper Barry Banks
With beekeeping in his blood, when Barry Banks retired after a lifetime of work for Alabama Power, he turned to beekeeping as a hobby. But he had a secondary goal. “I got into beekeeping for pollination purposes.” After Varroa mites wiped out the honey bees near his home, knowing that the Bumble bees cannot do all the pollinating, he started his first hive by capturing a swarm of honey bees.
Fourteen years later, Barry has 15 hives. With one extraction in July 2011, his best honey year so far, his hives produced 75 gallons of honey. Figuring he would have enough honey to supply his 50 regular customers until Christmas, the demand for Banks Honey Farm honey depleted the supply before Thanksgiving.
Barry grew up on his family’s farm near Oakman where the majority of his hives are located today. His father was a coal miner, but farming with two mules, “We ate off the land.” His mother’s grandfather was a beekeeper, so the inclination to keep bees predated his own life.
While many honey bees gather nectar from the prolific privet hedge, Barry spoils his bees by planting specifically for them, including Sourwood trees and White Dutch clover. He also plants corn which the bees forage for pollen to feed to the baby bees. Barry stressed the importance of being attentive and looking at the bees every day in the spring and summer. “I can learn a lot about each hive by just sitting there and evaluating for five to 10 minutes, just watching the coming and going.”
Active in both state and local organizations, Barry is secretary-treasurer of the Walker County Beekeepers Association, commodity chairman of the Bee and Honey Division of the Walker County Farmers Federation, and serves on the board of directors of the Alabama Beekeepers Association and the Alabama Farmers Federation. While emphasizing the importance of working in these organizations to promote quality farming and beekeeping practices, Barry enjoyed sharing a beekeeper’s truism. “We tell every new beekeeper who comes into our club, you can ask the same question to ten beekeepers and you’ll get 10 different answers, and every one of them will work.”
This year Barry’s nine Oakman hives include 26 honey supers, the part of the hive where the honey is collected. Each super averages about 10 quarts, totaling 260 quarts or 65 gallons of honey. Standing in front of those hives and expecting his 2012 honey yield to be the best in his beekeeping life, Barry proudly added, “There’s a lot of honey sitting there.”
Regardless of the impetus for beekeeping, devoted backyard and hobby beekeepers thrive on an environmentally friendly outdoor hobby which is rich with rewards, tangible and intangible. While encompassing a sense of balance and harmony, this well-rounded hobby ultimately yields a deliciously wholesome Southern breakfast hallmark.