In a field in Forsyth County that to the naked eye looks like unsupervised springtime overgrowth, one of the most crucial creatures to the status quo of human food production buzzes from petal to petal. By the thousands. At first sight, you may see a few bumble bees lumbering around. They’re not it.
Look closer. Maybe even un-focus your eyes a little.
Jay Hendrix is a local beekeeper, and he understands the importance of keeping honey bees alive. He didn’t get into the honey-making business the way many do, by wanting to start a company to earn money.
Hendrix and his son Mike are in it for bigger reasons.
They’re out to save the world.
The total honey bee population in the United States has declined 61 percent from 1947 to 2008, according to an Apidologie journal article titled “Survey of honey bee colony loss in the USA 2013-2014” that was co-published by Keith Delaplane, a professor, Walter B. Hill Fellow and Honey Bee Program director at the University of Georgia. Hendrix said there is a glimmer of hope every couple of years, but that the averages even out.Colony numbers have increased, according to the journal article, from 2.39 million in 2006 to 2.64 million in 2013.
However, close to 45 percent of the nation’s colonies were lost in 2014.
Honey bees have been dying at a rate of 40-50 percent since the mid-80s, Hendrix said. Though it has been pushed into the public eye in recent years, the consequences haven’t affected everyday life. Yet. “Honey bees pollinate a third of what you eat. We’re losing them, and they are critical to people, and a lot of people don’t understand that.”
Part of the problem is the varroa mite, “the number-one danger to honey bees right now in the western world.” Imported from Asia in the mid-80s, the tick-like mite “is disastrous because it brings a lot of diseases with it.”
A bigger problem, Hendrix said, is large-scale monocropping, an agricultural practice that avoids rotating multiple crops and instead focuses on growing a single crop. Its increase in popularity has caused a dramatic change in the environment over time. Bees can no longer tolerate most environments in the U.S. and western Europe. “If you have 10,000 acres of corn in the Midwest, no bees can live in that.”
“What people would tell you, and what all scientists would tell you, is we are at a teetering point,” he said. “When you’re losing 40-50 percent of the bees each year, if it weren’t for people like us who are trying to regenerate that every year, we would be able to see a difference.
"You would start losing all of your crops that require pollination. That’s all the edible crops. Fruits, nuts, grains, vegetables. Honey bees are not the only pollinators. The single best pollinator is probably the bumble bee, but the problem with it is there’s not many of them and there’s so many more honey bees.”
That’s why the Hendrix duo began beekeeping.
“It was like everybody should do their part for the world, you know?”
Apiary. A place where hives or colonies of bees are kept to pollinate and produce honey. Not just any field will do. “You have to know you’ll have the right plant life for them to get food and water.” Jay and Mike have three apiaries in Forsyth County.
Bricks. Jay and Mike put them on hives that need attention or to be checked, like making sure a queen bee is born or monitoring levels of varroa mites.
Crops. “It all starts with the things that bees have to have to live and make honey. First we planted trees like apple and cherry trees because those are early bloomers.” This time of the year has mostly canola plants and crimson and white clover. Summer crops include buckwheat, and goldenrod will come after that. But planting crops is a supplemental food source. Honey bees will travel a two- to three-mile radius in search of nectar.
Division of labor. Mike said he thinks honey bees are the ultimate super-organisms, and part of that is their division of labor inside their hives. The queen bee passes down her genetics to every bee in the hive. Drones, or males, have one primary role: to mate with a fertile queen. Worker bees, or females, make up 95 percent of a hive’s population. In their early life, they are responsible for nest duties like feeding, cleaning and rearing. As they grow they begin foraging for nectar for food and honey and pollinating other plants while in flight.
Electric-heated knife. Used to scrape off wax caps from wooden panels in the hives that contain honey.
Family. The Hendrix family settled in Forsyth County, which is where Jay’s wife’s family is from, after Jay retired. Jay works with his younger son, Mike, in the apiaries. “It’s a great thing to do together,” Jay said. “Some people say the measure of success is how fast you can get away from your family,” Mike said. “But being close to my family has saved my ass a lot of times.”
Georgia Master Beekeeepr. There are only 20 UGA-certified living in the state, Jay being one. Mike is a Certified Beekeeper.
Hives. This time of year, each one holds 25,000-30,000 bees. In July, they will hold about 80,000 each.
Income sources. Beekeepers make money by selling honey, wax, propolis (a substance bees use as sealant), the bees, themselves, including the queens, for breeding, as well as performing services like renting bees for pollination or removing swarms from homes.
July. When most honey is harvested.
Knowledge. The best way to help protect honey bees. Home garden and lawn products can even be harmful if the wrong pesticides are used. Do your research.
Life-span. Queen bees live 3-5 years, worker bees only about 6 weeks.
Military. Mike moved 16 times by his senior year in high school while Jay was in the Army as an officer and infantry airborne ranger. “At one time I spoke about five languages.”
Nutrition. Honey has antibacterial, antibiotic and nutritional values. For instance, eating local honey can help with allergies that are more specific to that area. “People will swear by it.”
October. How long they plant crops through.
Pollen. Protein for honey bees and what allows any crop humans eat to grow.
Queen. One per hive, she is the only bee to lay eggs. All eggs start out the same, but a queen is made by feeding it royal jelly, a secretion that comes from workers bees. “The health of the queen is fundamental to the health of the colony.”
Raw honey. This is honey that has not been heated, which can help avoid crystallization. Clear honey looks better in stores but takes away the nutritional and antibiotic qualities.
Smoke. Pumping smoke around and onto bees blocks the pheromones they use as communication and warning systems, making them more docile and less likely to sting. “The key to stinging is don’t get stung the first time.”
Tulip poplar trees. A major honey plant in the eastern U.S. that produces a dark-colored, medium to robust flavor.
Unfertilized eggs. Become male, or drone bees. They do not have stingers and do not collect pollen. They are mainly responsible for creating drone congregation areas, where queens fly to mate.
Varroa mites. A pest brought from Asia in the mid-80s that causes deformations and diseases in western honey bees by feeding off them like a tick.
Wood chips. Smoked in a handheld pumper to use on bees. Some keepers use grass, pine straw or compressed wood pellets.
Xylitol. A widely-used sugar alcohol used as a sugar substitute in gum and candy, though potential side effects tend “all-natural” diets toward pure, raw, local honey.
Year-round planning. Mike said beekeeping is a “series of calculated plans.” Planting lasts from late winter to October, and even during the winter they are figuring out what crops they need next or which building equipment needs updating. “If [a farmer has] a bad crop, that’s one thing,” Jay said. “If bees die, you’re in real trouble. At the end of every day, Mike will say, ‘OK, what’s the plan for tomorrow?’”
Zero waste. Jay and Mike started beekeeping for the bees; to help their environment and the economy. But they realized, if you’re successful, bees cannot eat all the honey or use all the wax they make. So they had to start harvesting and selling honey to avoid waste. “We didn’t get into it for the money. That part just comes with it naturally.”