Log in Newsletter

The Secret Life of Bees | By Nathan Walls

They’re the jack of all trades, master of them all. Bees, that is. They produce honey, this we know. But how many Southerners realize that a glass of chamomile tea is made possible thanks to the work of honeybees?

And it’s not just a Southerner’s sweet tea – much of the food that graces American dinner tables is thanks to the work of honeybees to the tune of $15 billion and 90 commercial crops grown every year. About one-third of our crops rely on insect pollination, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And when things go wrong, as they sometimes do, Fayetteville farmers turn to Kenny Bailey, agricultural extension agent and master beekeeper. “If you don’t have bees,” Bailey says, “you don’t have food.” Every spring, Bailey teaches a beekeeping class for beginners, a class which proved so popular this year he may add a second course come fall. On Monday nights, students gathered at the Cumberland County Extension office for six weeks of classroom instruction followed by four weeks in the field. Students learned to build a hive and how to use the right bees and equipment. Karen Graham lives in Fayetteville, but an ecology class at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro piqued an interest in beekeeping. “You can come here as a backyard gardener and learn without pressure,” she said. “This is a pretty open forum and a nice learning environment.” It takes about a year to establish a hive, which resembles a filing cabinet with moveable frames inside. Bees are sensitive to temperature and weather; a chilly or wet spring can keep them inside the hive and away from their job. Hives may be kept just about anywhere, but Bailey recommends placing at least two hives in a sunny spot exposed to morning light and afternoon shade. A healthy colony has 30,000 to 60,000 bees. About three years ago, beekeepers started seeing the sudden disappearance of hive populations but scientists have yet to find the cause of colony collapse disorder. This has left commercial beekeepers – and the farmers who depend on them – struggling to find a fix. But even as bees struggle, and perhaps because they are struggling, backyard beekeeping is more popular than ever. Michelle Obama even introuced honeybees to her White House garden. New York City recently lifted a ban on honeybees, ending the days of renegade beekeepers who risked $2,000 fines to keep their rooftop hives. The City of Fayetteville allows honeybees for personal use. John and Debbie Watkins decided to take the class after trying to learn beekeeping from a book. The Watkinses are from Fayetteville, but they own 58 acres in Virginia where they farm and keep cattle. “I look at it this way,” John Watkins said. “I own the land, but I am just a steward of it and trying to maintain it.” The beginners learned from experienced beekeepers, members of the Cumberland County Beekeepers Association who offered students the chance to win a new hive, raffling it off in exchange for joining the association for $10 a year. The association found new disciples, students like Tim Evans and Julia Love, an avid gardener who decided to take the class so she could raise more vegetables in her family garden. Chris Hollis is starting a small family farm with his girlfriend in Eastover. “We’re both young growers, so we have a lot to learn, but we have a vision and we have the land,” he said. That vision includes free-range chickens for eggs and crops such as peas, carrots, broccoli, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, lettuce, collards and turnips, not to mention Hollis’ favorite, the chamomile plant. If bees can produce honey to sweeten a glass of chamomile tea, well, that’s all the sweeter. “If we can grow sweet tea in our back yard,” Hollis said, ”then I think we’ve accomplished our goal.”