Unique hobby keeps local man ‘bees’y
Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 1:17 pm
“There are two things I tell new beekeepers,” says Terry Woodard, a local beekeeper who lives off of the Paris Highway just outside Dresden. “First don’t swat at the bees or try to mash them and, second, don’t worry about the weeds in your lawn. The bees like those dandelions and other flowering plants with nectar.”
As he talks in his driveway, bees lazily circle him and occasionally light on his shirt, but he does not swat. Woodard has concocted some sugar water for the little insects earlier in the day to supplement their diet and the bees still smell something on his clothes. Because of the drought, the bees have had a harder time finding enough nectar to get them through the winter.
Due to the concern expressed in the media over the loss of bee colonies over the past few years, beekeepers like Woodard have multiplied. In 2008, according to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, there were nearly 1,300 registered beekeepers in Tennessee; in 2012 that number has over doubled. Just in northwest Tennessee alone, the local chapter has risen to 50 members in just two years. They meet the second Thursday of each month in Dresden and offer yearly short courses to help new hobbyists get started. A Tennessee Beemaster’s Program managed by the UT Agricultural Extension Service sponsors many events that help educate beekeepers.
Still, nationwide about a third of the bee colonies are disappearing yearly, says Woodard, for a variety of reasons, but intensive research and growing interest from beekeepers is a cause for optimism. Integrated pest management is a strong focus of keeping the bee colonies alive, according to the UT Agricultural Extension website.
Bees play an essential part in pollinating most plants but especially ones like blueberries, cherries and almonds that are 90 percent dependent on bee pollination. “About a third of every bite you put in your mouth is a result of bee pollinated crops,” says Dr. John Skinner, UT Extension Specialist on the UT Bees and Beekeeping extension webpage.
Woodard’s main job is delivering the mail on a rural route. His bee operation has grown, however, over the 13 years he has been dealing with the little winged insects. He now has four apiaries, or groups of colonies kept in one location, in the near vicinity of his home. One apiary off of the highway aids in the pollination of a local farmer’s strawberry crop and has 11 hives, each housing a colony.
He also maintains about 70 “nucs” or nucleus colonies to keep the hives going. Various other boxes are scattered around the “nucs” designed for the breeding of queen bees, that essential member of the colony.
Woodard got started in the business, he recalls, when a beekeeper in Paris sold him three hives. He read “a lot of books” and pretty soon, he was expanding every year. His courage to deal with them perhaps came from early experiences when he was just a boy, holding the smoking can for his grandfather who kept bees.
He has learned along the way and gradually managed to wean his hives off of chemicals that are designed to cut down on the harmful mites and viruses that have plagued hives around the country, though he lost one half of his colonies at first.
A more diversified stock that is more resistant to little beetles and mites has helped. Woodard says the whole thrust of the industry now is to keep the stock as localized as possible. He has supplied queens for instance to area beekeepers. Registered beekeepers get regular updates from state agricultural experts on new parasitic mites and proposed treatment.
As Woodard opens his hives and pours in the sugar water concoction he has made for the bees, he wears a protective jacket and mesh hood. Though he has heavy gloves, he is not wearing them today because he has let a visitor borrow them. He smokes the hives from a can of burning pine needles to calm the bees down and they do not seem to mind a bit that he is pulling out frames that contain their combs and honey. Woodard says that he was stung twice earlier in the day, but it’s hard to see any marks on his hands; he thinks he’s mostly immune.
The spring is the busiest time for the bees as they actively forage for pollen from blooming trees and flowers. “This is what we are managing for,” says Woodard. They even pick up nectar from blooming Tennessee crops like cotton and soybeans. Woodard harvests the surplus honey from their hives averaging about 45 pounds from a medium hive. Woodard sells the product in small bottles from his garage. A “local honey” sign at the foot of his driveway points the way.
“They say there is something called a beekeeper scent,” says Woodard as he moves slowly and methodically through his hives. On this day at about 4 p.m., the bees are coming in from foraging and are collecting on the “landing board” to the hives.
Woodard marvels at the behavior of the bees he observes offering encyclopedic knowledge about jobs performed by the drones, worker bees and queen. “Not many people realize just what a fascinating, complicated insect it is,” says Woodard. “They are super organisms.”
Published in The WCP 10.9.12