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Wanted: Generation X beekeepers

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 1, 2003

PIEDMONT, S.C. - J. Milton King has racks of beekeeping supplies on his screened-in porch ready to sell cheap or give away if he can find the right young person to take up the craft.

So far, King, who at 86 has been hobbled in recent months by a blood clot in his leg, has had no takers.

"The old people like him are dying out," said 73-year-old Ernest Kastner, who learned beekeeping from King a few years ago after the mentor left a jar of fresh honey at his house. "And there just aren't enough young people to take over."

Beekeeping is a hard, sweaty and sometimes painful job that yields a small, sweet reward. Swarms of beekeepers have quit during the past few decades, frustrated by long hours and pests that invade the hives.

Now aging beekeepers struggle to find young apprentices eager to don the stifling protective overalls, helmet and mesh and spend hours coaxing bees out of their honey.

"It's a day's job, and it's hot," Kastner said. "You know how young people today are."

Beekeeping can be a lucrative hobby. Honey prices are up this year - King is selling a quart for $7 - but it's too much work to be big business.

Of the 2,000 or so beekeepers in South Carolina, just a dozen make their living exclusively off bees, said Mike Hood, a bee specialist with Clemson University.

"Most of them do it for pleasure, to make a little bit of honey for themselves and their friends and maybe sell a little on the side," he said.

It's getting harder to turn a profit because pests such as mites and wax moths can wipe out whole hives, destroying years of work in just a few days, Hood said.

"We've lost a lot of good beekeepers because it is expensive to fight them off," he said.

But bees are more than just honey-producers. And that revelation drew Charles Holden, 64, into beekeeping about a decade ago on some land he owns near Piedmont.

The first year he worked the land, his fruit trees had a terrible yield. Then, inspiration stung him on the arm in the form of a sweat bee.

"I noticed I hadn't seen any honey or other bees on my property, so I went and got a couple of hives and put them out," Holden said. "Next season, I had so much fruit the branches were breaking under all the weight."

By transferring pollen from one plant to another, bees help increase the size and yields of fruits. The University of Georgia College of Agriculture estimates pollination adds $9-billion to the farming industry in the United States each year.

"Everyone down to the home gardener benefits from bees," Hood said.

And the same pests that have hurt beekeepers have destroyed wild bee populations. Holden said he almost never sees bees outside of colonized hives.

Holden is passing his knowledge down to one of his co-workers, 24-year-old John Cranmer.

Cranmer's choice of hobbies seems odd. He used to be allergic to bee stings and remembers a trip to the hospital when he was 9 after several bees stung him while he played in an abandoned house.

Right after he started beekeeping, one sting might cause him to swell up for days. Cranmer now says he has gained an immunity and is confident enough to work with the bees without the protective overalls, helmet and mesh.

"Most people are scared of the stings," said Cranmer, who is fascinated by how much bees accomplish despite their small size. "But it isn't much, once you get used to it."

Holden thinks the sting, which he said doesn't bother him any more than a mosquito bite, is why few young people get involved.

"Everybody wants the honey, but nobody wants to get stung," he said.

Beekeeping is a patient job.

On a recent afternoon, King and Kastner took about 10 minutes in the 90-degree heat to slip into their protective suits. Then came the slow, deliberate process of blowing smoke on the bees to calm them.

Finally, the men peeled off the wooden top of a hive and took out a frame about the size of a shoe box lid. That's where the bees make their honey, protected by a thin wax coating to keep it from flowing away.

When the bees started getting madder, buzzing and swarming closer, the pair blew more smoke and worked more slowly.

They checked just a couple of the frames, called supers, before calling it a day. A beekeeper might check several dozen frames when harvesting honey in the late spring or early fall, King said.

His daughter and son have helped him before, and he's trying to get his grandson to pick up the hobby, too.

"I try to help everyone I can," King said. "Because we need more beekeepers."

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