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Wanna Bee Startin’ Somethin’

Green Country is abuzz with bees. With a demand for local honey, getting hive-minded has local families finding new revenue streams and welcome distractions to already busy lives.

Article
Jennifer Zehnder
Photos
Jennifer Zehnder
Posted
August 28, 2018

All across the state, people are raising bees. Whether you want to aid in the restoration of declining bee populations, boost your garden efforts, escape your daily grind, produce, consume and sell your own healthy bee products, or simply test drive an affordable homestead hobby — beekeeping can be a rewarding venture for just about everyone.

A Family Affair

It’s early morning in Peggs, Okla., as the sun peeks out from behind some trees and bathes the beehives in a warm glow. Inside and all about, the hives’ industrious inhabitants go about their daily chores — tending to larva, collecting pollen, and taking care of their respective queens. It’s a peaceful scene and one that David and Jessica Spencer have come to appreciate as a welcome distraction from their full schedules.

“We own several businesses, and beekeeping is an escape from our busy lifestyle,” Jessica explains. “We’ve found that when you have 20,000 bees buzzing around you, it’s difficult to worry about customer and tenant issues.”

The Spencers began their bee adventure as a family seven years ago. Their children, Layne, 10, and Madalynn, 8, have been raised as beekeepers and are ready hands when it comes to working and harvesting the hives. Jesse Maner, a family friend, is also an integral part of the family beekeeping operations, which currently numbers 19 hives.

The Spencer family spends an estimated 50-plus hours annually tending to their bee friends, which includes checking for swarm cells throughout April, harvesting twice a year, and winterizing the hives in late fall. (Photo: Jennifer Zehnder)
The Spencer family spends an estimated 50-plus hours annually tending to their bee friends, which includes checking for swarm cells throughout April, harvesting twice a year, and winterizing the hives in late fall. (Photo: Jennifer Zehnder)

Raising bees has provided its share of learning opportunities, says David. Enlisting a mentor was an important first lesson.

“Honestly, we didn’t do much research at all. We decided after reading an ad in the paper to get some bees and try it. We purchased the book Beekeeping for Dummies [by Howland Blackiston] at the same time that we joined the waiting list for our first hive.”

Unfortunately, the family lost their initial hive that first winter.

The Spencers enlisted the help of local beekeeper Roy Hall later that spring. Encouraged by his mentoring visits, the family purchased four hives from their trusted beekeeper, signed up for various beekeeping forums, and even posted ads for honeybee swarm removal services.

The family spends an estimated 50-plus hours annually tending to their bee friends, which includes checking for swarm cells throughout April, harvesting twice a year, and winterizing the hives in late fall. The investment is well worth the sweet reward, Jessica says, especially since they’ve been able to supplement costs by building their own boxes, adding swarms, and selling excess honey locally.

“Of course the honey is the biggest reward for any beekeeper. If you have a garden, the production could increase up to 40 percent with beehives nearby. The learning experience is rewarding as well. Bees are absolutely fascinating creatures,” she says.

“As for cons — maybe being stung isn’t for everyone. However, it doesn’t bother us too much. On average, we are each stung about 10 times a year, which isn’t much considering the amount of bees we encounter.”  

Want a rewarding hobby, David asks?  “Hive in. It’s interesting and has been around forever,” he explains. “Bees are an essential part of life, and the world needs more people to help protect them.”

Homestead Hobby

It’s early evening in Vian, Okla., as the sun starts its subtle retreat and casts a hint of shade upon the beehives. Outside their colorful boxes, thousands of bees beard — or collect — in an effort to cool their hive amid the high humidity and stifling heat. Off in the distance, assorted chickens scratch around lush gardens and diverse flowerbeds as Grant and Brooke Tracy make their way to the family’s bee yard.

Just three years into their beekeeping hobby, the couple continues to enjoy the lessons and contributions bees have added into their homestead mix. Conscientious stewards of their environment, the Tracys have tapped a host of resources — the library, Internet (Google and YouTube), local bee clubs and word of mouth from other beekeepers — to aid them in their journey. Of course, the bees have proved themselves some of their best teachers.

“Bees are awesome. Their society is so developed, and they have such interesting lives,” Brooke shares. “We’ve learned a ton, and are constantly learning new things about their lifestyles and how to keep the hives healthy. There are so many details about the rituals they have and how they work — it’s a wealth of information waiting to be learned.”

Like many, the Tracys began with a hive starter kit. Buying new equipment gave them the opportunity to learn the parts of their hive while putting it together. (Photo: Jennifer Zehnder)
Like many, the Tracys began with a hive starter kit. Buying new equipment gave them the opportunity to learn the parts of their hive while putting it together. (Photo: Jennifer Zehnder)

Like many, the Tracys began with a hive starter kit. Buying new equipment gave them the opportunity to learn the parts of their hive while putting it together. Their packaged bees also gave them hands-on experience in manipulating a small colony. As their colony grew, so did their knowledge. They were able to witness its growth from a small group to a fruitful honey-producing colony.

Today, the couple and their daughter Althea, 6, have expanded their bee hobby into a six-hive setup, harvesting once a year. Just like the Spencer family, the Tracys find their bee work a rewarding break from their public careers. Brooke is a high school biology and chemistry teacher and Grant is a touring musician in a popular Red Dirt band.  

“You have to check the hives regularly, but it doesn’t take a lot of time — checking for intruders, making sure they’re healthy, looking for any abnormalities or other issues,” Grant says. “You could spend a lot of time when splitting hives, collecting honey, and so on.”

According to the couple, beekeeping has been a blast.

“We’re so glad we are doing this. We think more people should look into it and enjoy what there is about bees. The bees need our help and we need them. It’s great for the environment, great for your gardens and those of your neighbors, improvement of local pollination, free honey and other bee products,” Brooke says.

“I don’t think anyone who tries beekeeping will be disappointed.”  

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Abridged Glossary

Beehive:  A structure in which bees are kept; dome or box; tree hollow in nature.

Colony:  Group or “family” of bees within the hive that are socially organized around the queen bee.

Drones:  Male bees, whose main function is to fertilize the queens outside of their hive; very small percentage of the total colony; expelled from the hive each fall.

Frames:  Removable wooden structures placed in the hive; bees build their comb within them; allows for easy inspection.

Honey:  Sweet, viscous product created by bees from nectar.

Pollen:  Very small dust-like grain produced by flowers; male germ cells of the plant; provides a protein source for honeybees.

Queen:  Only fertile female bee in a colony; lays all of the eggs and serves as the central focus of the colony; only one queen per colony.

Swarming:  Action of a colony finding a new home; how honeybees expand their population.

Worker:  Infertile female bee; do all of the work in the hive and forage for food.

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Beekeeping by the Numbers

  • 6-8 Weeks:  The average lifespan of a worker bee in the summer; queens live between 3-5 years
  • 1/12 Teaspoon:  Amount of honey produced by a worker bee in its lifetime
  • 12 MPH:  Average rate of speed for a honeybee
  • 2,000-3,000:  The amount of eggs produced per day by the queen in summer
  • 50-100:  Number of flowers visited during one collection flight from the hive
  • 1 Ounce:  Amount of honey it would take to fuel a bee’s flight around the world
  • 60,000-80,000:  Number of bees in a colony at peak population (mid-summer)
  • 1/3:  The amount of all food Americans eat that is directly or indirectly derived from honeybee pollination
  • $20 Billion:  Worth of bee pollination to the U.S. farming industry
  • 200:  How many times a bee’s wings will stroke per second
  • $20-25:  Average cost of a quart of honey in the region
  • Under $500:  Start-up cost for a hive, bee equipment and packaged bees

American Beekeeping Federation, Beesource.com, pollinator.org

May 2019 Cover