Forsyth County beekeepers keep the tradition alive, one hive at a time

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Beekeeper Heath Wind obsessively researches about bees in his free time. He cares for 18 different hives at his home in Winston-Salem.

It’s not as loud as you would think.

David Link walks around his hives, carefully pumping out smoke from a small canister in his left hand, aimed towards the thousands of bustling bees flying in and out of the boxes. He’s covered head to toe and wears a tan safari-looking hat with a net to protect his face. Bright blue latex gloves cover his hands.

“I had a slight hesitation of being around a stinging insect in the beginning,” Link admits. “But once you get one that works easily… it’s a real pleasure being with them.”

While you might imagine the sound of close to 100,000 bees to be deafening, it’s actually more like a low, droning hum. After a while you don’t even really notice it.

Link, who has been beekeeping for almost a decade, takes care of three colonies or hives — each with about 30,000 bees — at the Wake Forest Campus Garden off Polo Road. The hives look like separate columns of colorful dresser drawers stacked on top of one another, attracting the bees with their bright hues of red, yellow and purple.

The smoker — which looks like a makeshift mason jar with a small funnel encased in a metal cage, with a small accordion attached to the side that releases smoke each time its pressed — helps calm the bees and makes them focus on eating the honey in their hive, rather than investigating the humans ripping into their home.

“These things are kind of addictive,” says Link, who owns about 60 hives in Forsyth county and beyond. “Being out here with them is extremely relaxing.”

He says he initially started beekeeping to supplement his gardening. Now, it’s become an almost full-time hobby.

And he’s not alone.

Link is part of a growing community of beekeepers in the Winston-Salem area. He’s a member of the Forsyth County Beekeepers Association which began in 1973 with 38 members and has grown to more than 300 active participants.

Heath Wind and June Hartness both belong to the club and are active beekeepers in the area. The latter used to be the president of the association and now runs the group’s beekeeping school, which offers classes once a year. Wind joined the club ten years ago and became certified through the school in 2011.

Hartness says the school, which meets five or six times starting in February, has seen rising enrollment over the past few years.

“We usually have a waiting list,” Hartness says. “There is definitely an awareness and want to do beekeeping in the area. In this last school, someone drove all the way from Raleigh.”

For years, beekeeping was popular among older generations, Hartness says.

“It seemed to be older, farming men,” she says. “But now, there’s more women, a younger group, people from different backgrounds. I think that it is changing.”

Hartness, who owns about four hives right now, started beekeeping seven years ago. She says she was also looking for a way to liven her large property, full of berry bushes and trees, and had heard about the declining bee population.

“It’s the weather change and the chemicals in the environments,” says Hartness about why the bees are disappearing. “We’re cutting down all of the trees and putting homes up. And people grab pesticides instead of doing alternate, homeopathic sprays to get rid of bugs. Until we look at some of that, it’s gonna be an issue for a while.”

She says that this past winter was particularly difficult for bees because of the fluctuating temperatures. She and others mentioned that they lost between 50 to 75 percent of their bees.

“Bees don’t hibernate, but they’ll gather in a cluster to stay warm in the winter,” Hartness explains. “We had a warm January and once it gets to about 50 degrees, the bees will come out but in January, there’s not that much blooming. And then they won’t cluster to keep warm and they die when it gets cold the next day. Or they can’t find food and they’ll eat their food stores and then starve.”

According to research by experts like David Tarpy, a professor at NC State University, honeybees are the primary insect pollinators for many of the different agricultural crops in the state; about a third of our diet depends either directly or indirectly on bee pollination.

A 2015 study first published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also found that the wild bee population in the contiguous United States declined 23 percent between 2008 and 2013.

Hartness says that she continues to keep bees to educate people about the harm they could be doing.

“Unless you’ve been beekeeping, you don’t realize these things and people will be like, ‘Oh my goodness. I’ve been killing the bees,’” she says. “You can change their minds. That’s the best thing about it.”

In addition to a warming climate, habitat destruction and harmful pesticides, another looming threat to bees in North Carolina are the varroa destructors, an external parasitic mite that attaches to honey bees and weakens them.

Wind says he’s been working to perfect a method of keeping the deadly mites at bay. And after about a decade, he thinks he’s figured it out.

“I spend an awful lot of time reading about bees, about mites, critiquing in my own mind what I hear,” Wind says. “I have just learned so much about mites particularly because to be a good beekeeper, you have to know that the problems are. Mites are the 800-pound gorilla.”

Wind explains a complex process that includes pulling the honey out of his 18 different colonies — all housed in his backyard — taking his colonies up to the mountains to feed on sourwood trees, extracting the queen bees and treating the colonies with an oxalic acid vaporizer, all before the weather gets colder in September.

And sometimes, it’s not enough.

Once, when Wind went to check on his bees in the mountains, he says he found that a bear had gotten into his hives, searching for honey. His boxes were strewn about and scattered, leaving a mess. But that did not break Wind.

In a matter of hours, he constructed an electric fence barrier, powered by a solar panel, around his hives, complete with a peanut-butter trap that would scare off the honey-seeking pest.

“It’s a constant process of learning,” he says. “It’s not easy; it’s challenging.”

Hartness agrees. Neither get paid to keep bees, and yet, during the busy season from March to June, these hobbyists spend about four to five hours a day, tending to their hives.

“It’s like people who golf,” Hartness says. “It’s an expensive hobby, but it’s an important one. We’re helping to give back.”

As for the future of beekeeping and the plight of the bees themselves, Wind says there’s still hope.

“The future is bright in that people are becoming more aware of the need for plants for pollinators,” he says. “If you want to do something for bees, planting shrubs and trees that are good for bees is a really good idea because that initial bit of work can provide a beautiful thing that lasts for longer than we will be around.”

To learn more about the Forsyth County Beekeeping Association, visit their website here.

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