Beekeepers keep an important skill alive
by Emily Adams
Jul 08, 2012 | 2710 views |  0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Keith Tyler, beekeeper at Sylacauga Grows, maintains the hive at the  garden and two  hives  at his home.
Keith Tyler, beekeeper at Sylacauga Grows, maintains the hive at the garden and two hives at his home.
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It takes dedication, a few painful stings and a fervent interest in continuing the natural process, but beekeeping is a hobby with sweet rewards.

“I really enjoy raw honey, but the process is really about more than that,” Talladega beekeeper Randy Horn said. “People that know will tell you bees are one of the most needed things there is. You have to have bees to survive.”

While other insects also perform pollination, the process of bees, particularly honey bees, is faster, more productive and more efficient, said Horn, who has been a beekeeper for about 25 years.

Fruits and vegetables depend on pollination to grow, and there are discernible differences in gardens located near a bee hive. The Sylacauga Grows community garden, operated by the Sylacauga Alliance for Family Enhancement, is one example of this difference. The garden recently produced 22 dozen ears of corn and 45 pounds of tomatoes, among heaps of other produce — a crop Sylacauga Grows believes was enhanced by bees.

“Having the hive here really increases the production, and everybody within 2 miles of here also benefits from the hive, because the bees travel within a wide radius collecting nectar and pollen,” said Keith Tyler, beekeeper at Sylacauga Grows. “It’s not just for the garden; it helps the entire area.”

Tyler maintains the hive at the garden and two hives at his home. He said he enjoys beekeeping as a hobby because it doesn’t require a huge time commitment, but is still rewarding.

“There’s not a lot of upkeep,” he said. “I check this hive once every couple of weeks just to make sure everything looks good, and basically I don’t do anything to them. The bees are pretty self-sufficient.”

Horn said beekeepers can dedicate as much or little time to the job as they wish, depending on how much honey they want.

“When I first started keeping bees, I had a lot more honey, but that’s when I was fooling with them every day,” Horn said. “They knew me about as good as I knew them. I was robbing every two weeks, and that’s almost unheard of. Now I check them about twice a week.”

Horn, who also operates a security alarm business, currently has about 500,000 Italian and Russian honey bees between the 12 hives on his property, not including his hives in Coosa County. He typically gets about 300 pints of honey from a couple rounds of “robbing the hive,” or collecting honey. Tyler said he gets about 25 pounds of honey per “super,” which is a box on the hive where the bees store honey. Typically, a hive can be robbed twice a year, Tyler said.

“You rob them in the spring because they have plenty of time to produce more honey to get them through the winter,” he said. “About mid-August is the latest you want to rob.”

Bees store their honey, which is concentrated flower nectar, in a hexagon-shaped comb built on a wax frame in the hive. Once a cell is full of honey, the bees seal it with wax to keep moisture out. When a comb is about 80 percent sealed, it can be robbed by placing it in an extruder, a device that uses centrifugal force to extract honey without damaging the comb.

As far as processing the honey goes, these beekeepers prefer to keep it simple.

“I strain it and jar it up,” Tyler said. “Commercial honey is pasteurized, but if you want to keep it raw, that’s all you do. Some people will mix syrup with their honey and sell it as pure honey, but it’s not a good product. If you’ve ever had the real, raw honey, you know the difference.”

Horn puts his honey through four filters, each a smaller size of mesh.

“The last filter is about like a stocking; its real fine,” he said. “Filtering gets out any impurities. When you sling the honey, you’re going to have pieces of wax and debris. Sometimes you might even have a piece of pine straw in it, but a bee is a pretty clean thing. The stronger the hive, the cleaner it naturally is.”

The taste of pure honey is what initially attracted Horn to the hobby, and it’s what has kept him interested, despite some bad experiences over the years.

“Several years ago, I lost about 30 hives, which is about $3,000 worth of bees,” he said. “The bee inspector had been here two weeks prior to them leaving and didn’t see anything wrong with them, but everybody is having trouble with them leaving like that every now and then. I almost didn’t do it anymore after that, but my daughter encouraged me to.”

There are several theories for why bees spontaneously leave the hive, including foreign diseases and cell phone signals.

“I think it’s because they mass produce so many of these queen bees now,” Horn said. “I’d much rather catch a feral swarm somewhere than buy them, but of course sometimes you have to.”

Bee populations took a steep dive in the 1990s, and at one point, it was a federal offense to kill a bee, but Horn said they are starting to recover.

“Once all the bees left, the mites that were causing the problem left too, so its pretty much eradicated now, and if you can get feral bees, they’ve lived through all that so they’re immune,” he said.

Now that bee populations are more stable, beekeepers can focus on the more enjoyable aspects of the hobby, like eating honey.

“I like to eat my honey with biscuits, and that’s about the worst thing you can be eating all the time is biscuits,” Horn said. “That’s my biggest problem with bees.”

Horn said he never has trouble selling his honey, although he doesn’t produce enough to make a profit.

“I like comb honey, and so do a lot of other people, and it’s hard to find,” he said. “I have a lot of people asking for more honey, so I may add some hives back next year.”

Aside from the sweet taste, raw honey is widely thought to have medicinal benefits as well. Tyler said honey placed on a skin burn, even a major burn, will prevent scarring. Eating locally produced honey may also help build immunities to allergens.

Horn said one of his frequent customers used to swear honey treated hemorrhoids.

“He said you had to eat the comb and hemorrhoids would go away. He sold it at his store just so he could tell people about that,” Horn said.

Some of his other customers use bee stings to treat bone degeneration, arthritis and other joint problems. A spoonful of honey with a spoonful of vinegar is also used to help control blood pressure, Horn said.

“Some people mix it with liquor too, probably because it tastes good, but they claim it helps with coughing,” he added.

Tyler said beekeeping is a fairly easy hobby to get in to, and it only takes about $400 to get started.

“Visit another beekeeper and get what is called a ‘nuke,’ which is a queen bee, and about 1,000 workers,” Tyler said. “You put that in the hive body, and they start from there. Within a fairly short period of time, they’ll have the hive built up.”

Tyler said the environment and local communities would benefit from more beekeepers.

“You’re always going to have a few wild bees, but the more forest land we lose, the more bees are going into places where they’re going to be destroyed,” he said. “It’s a valuable resource we need to protect and grow.”

Honey from Sylacauga Grows is sold at Yoder’s Gift Shop in Sylacauga. Nature’s Pure Honey is available at the Talladega County Exchange, Waldo Quik-Stop, DeSoto Grist Mill and from Horn.