Valdosta Daily Times

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April 6, 2014

Drew Apiary: Beekeeping a booming business

HAHIRA — Think about the last three bites you’ve taken, maybe finishing off that afternoon apple, munching on a grilled chicken salad for lunch or tearing through an ear of corn fresh off the grill at a spring cookout.

According to the Department of Agriculture, three bites — on average — is all it takes to come in contact with food that has benefited either directly or indirectly from bees.

Pollination plays an essential and necessary role in American agriculture, but for the last few decades, bees have been under constant attacks.

The Varroa mites, a small, red, oval-shaped mite showed up in the United States in the 1980s and quickly decimated wild bee populations. Feeding off the bodily fluids of adult honey bees and transmitting a virus that leads to deformed wings, the Varroa mite infestations led to beekeepers to have to take a more active role.

“Bees depend on beekeepers just as much as the beekeepers depend on the bees,” said Danya Drew, with Drew Apiary in Hahira.

With the wild bee population taking a huge hit, farmers throughout the country have either had to cultivate their own bee colonies or rent colonies from beekeepers, something Drew Apiary got into in the late 1980s.

“It’s become a booming business. There’s almonds in California, blueberries in Maine, peppers in Florida and locally there’s watermelons, squash and cucumbers.”

Every spring and fall, the bees start heading out. While it’s up to the farmers how many colonies they want to rent, Drew advises one and a half colonies per acre, which usually adds up to about 90,000 bees. The apiary has to educate farmers about bees and protecting them from pesticides.

“When you’re talking about your crops tripling versus no bees, they know how important it is.”

Colonies are moved at night and the early morning so the bees don’t fly away. Once they’re at the farm, the colonies stay for a maximum of 45 days; any longer and the continued pollination could cause fruit crops to not ripen into picking maturity.

The colonies are transported back to the apiary, where they tend to their other jobs: making honey and taking care of the hive.

The beekeepers at the apiary tend to their own jobs, making sure they have food, bee-friendly plants and a queen.

“We try to try to keep them as happy and healthy as possible. It’s a very delicate dance. We depend on them for our survival as much as they depend on us. If we ask too much from them, push them too hard, they won’t thrive and neither will we.”

Taking care of bees is different now than it was when Drew Apiary started breeding queens in 1957.

On top of having to be constantly vigilant for Varroa mites, trying new medicines and ways to ward them off, in recent years, beekeepers have had to deal with Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD.

The factors adding up to CCD are myriad, but they all add up to one thing: stress. That stress can come from pesticides, from too much noise, too much automobile traffic, from having to fight off infections and parasites.

Much like humans, too much stress can weaken a bee’s immune response to viruses. The equivalent of a bee cold can turn into a plague for stressed out bees.

“Everything is always dependent on weather, chance, circumstance and a little bit of God. We’re always fighting to keep the bees okay.”

It’s something you need to be aware of if you want to have a bee colony of your own.

Along with renting out colonies to farmers, Drew Apiary also sells prepackaged bees and Nucs. Nucs are everything you need to get a colony going on your own: bees, brood, pollen, honey, a queen and the main part of a beehive. It allows the hobbyist and the backyard gardner to benefit from the increased yields that pollination brings.

“It’s for the laymen. You’re not expected to know the ins and outs of it.”

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