Long Live the Queen

by Jennifer Noel, photography by Gregory Blank

Strength in numbers. The adage certainly proves to be true, especially when it comes to honey bees. Thousands of bees may blanket a single hive in order to create the intricate structure known as the honeycomb; a geometric design imitated in countless ways because of its ingenuity.

A summer picnic would be incomplete without the buzzing of a bee; a cup of tea not quite ready without a spoonful of honey; a flower garden not as vibrant without the assistance of pollination. The scope and importance of the honey bee is easily overlooked, and the art of beekeeping is often misunderstood. But the beauty that surrounds the docile honey bee, simply stated, is impressive.

All in the Family

For Hal Mack, the business of beekeeping really began as a family affair. Floyd, his wife’s grandfather, who he also fondly calls “Grandpa”, had a vast beekeeping hobby even into his 90’s. He taught Mack the patience and skill required to maintain colonies of honey bees. Floyd had over 600 hives himself.

“He did the beekeeping because he enjoyed it,” Mack recalls. “He lived to be 93 and was sharp as a tack, so for me it brings back a lot of memories, and I look forward to this as a retirement plan.”

Mack is the beekeeper for Dawg Gone Bees Apiary and Meadery, a business begun and maintained by his wife, Jacki, and youngest daughter, Merissa James.

“They took my hobby and made it a business,” explained Mack with a smile.

Specializing in raw honey and honey related products, Dawg Gone Bees prides itself on quality products and best practice when it comes to managing and sustaining their hives.

Besides fruit spreads made with honey instead of refined sugar, the company also sells honey butter, popcorn, beeswax candles, honey lotions and lip balms, and will even make a wedding day a little sweeter with bottled honey as favors.

Mack manages about 180 colonies (each contains one hive) which may have as many as 85,000 bees as residents per colony.

A new enterprise for the Mack family is creating mead, an alcoholic drink produced through the fermentation of honey, water and yeast dating back thousands of years. Dawg Gone Bees specializes in 3 types of mead which can be found nearby establishments as well as by the bottle in local Weis Markets.

“The process to make mead is actually very simple,” explained Mack. “You tweak the recipe to your honey, but that’s my top secret ratio.”

Sweet, Sweet Honey

Mack maintains a “from the hive to the jar” philosophy, only implementing minimal filtering for wax after extracting honey. The honey is natural, unprocessed, and never pasteurized, unlike most manufactured honey.

Mack’s full-time job in agronomy helps him become even more knowledgeable in beekeeping practices. After just a few minutes, it is easy to recognize that he understands what it takes to maintain a healthy honey bee population, even in the midst of their dwindling numbers recently. The importance of cultivating the honey bees’ numbers is now more critical than ever, as colony collapse is on the rise.

It is extremely difficult to treat a hive once compromised; although antibiotics may initially treat and restore the health of the colony, the offspring are likely to acquire the same disease unless all new hive boxes are installed.

“I don’t use antibiotics in my colonies, because I don’t believe in it,” explained Mack. “The problem is that certain pesticides are now being introduced to plants that bees are attracted to, not necessarily corn or soybean crops.”

Each hive houses one queen protected by the remaining colony. Mack even sells colonies of bees to individuals looking to begin their own hives.

Honey collection occurs twice each year, once in the spring and once in the fall. In most cases, honey extracted in the spring will be much sweeter and lighter in color; while the fall brings a dark, richer, more amber colored honey.

“The grade of honey really depends on time of year and location,” said Mack. “Variation is an interesting part of extraction, the 6 mile range around the hive and the type of pollen extracted by the bees in that area really dictates the color and flavor more than any other factor.”

Each colony can produce about 70 pounds of honey per collection. Mack will leave some honey for the bees to feed on during the winter.

The health benefits of honey are numerous, including being used as a natural cough suppressant, sweetener, energy booster, and skin moisturizer.

Honey bees are actually very gentle, and contrary to popular belief,  will not actively seek out individuals to sting. In general, the only time a honey bee becomes defensive is when it feels that the hive is threatened.

“We have hives on either end of our deck and can be out barbequing and not even notice the bees coming and going,” Mack commented.

If bees are seen ‘swarming’ or collecting in large numbers outside the hive, they are not dangerous. They are simply resting and protecting the queen while moving toward a more permanent residence. Mack and other beekeepers can be contacted to collect the swarm, generally at no charge, so no insecticides are used on the colony to disperse them.

Many aspects of the honey bee seem to be a mystery. However, it is easy to see that they protect each other and their homes, work together in seamless fashion, and certainly maintain a sense of community.

“I learn something every day from the honey bees,” concluded Mack.

Maybe the honey bees have a lesson for us all.

Author: HM

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