In these winter days honey bees are clustered in their hives keeping warm. But now is the time for beekeepers to get equipment ready and plan for spring, say some Bulloch County beekeepers who make a business of getting other people involved.
Bobby Colson, now 79, has been a beekeeper since 1989, with B&G Honey Farm named for him and his wife Gail. The colony collapse disorder that hit 11 years ago wiped out more than two-thirds of his hives, but B&G has since been rebuilding and expanding to new markets. In 2015 two beekeepers in their 40s, Matt Sauls and Kevin Patrick, became partners with Colson in the honey company.
The three of them that year also founded a new company, Bee Sweet Farms, which sells starter hives called nucs, pronounced like “nukes” and short for “nucleuses.” They also offer guidance for beginners who buy their bees.
“What we’re really trying to do is start to help educate this community and then the outskirts of this community that you can literally help pollinate the world, bring the bee colonies back up, by having a couple of hives in your back yard,” Sauls said. “A lot of people don’t know that you can buy bees.”
About one-third of all fruit and vegetable crops are pollinated by honey bees, Patrick said. Of all plants in the world, about 90 percent are pollinated by bees, Colson added.
So keeping bees is a way to help support the sustainability of agriculture and plant life, Sauls said.
“You get two hives in your back yard, and the way that God perpetuates these animals is they swarm,” he said. “They might swarm twice in a year or they may swarm five times in a year, you don’t ever know, but if you start just simple math and each one of those hives swarms in the spring once, now you’ve got four hives, and those four swarm the next year, you’ve got eight. …”
A swarm is a group of bees that leave a hive to start a new one. Colson originally got his start by catching swarms in the wild.
‘Godfather of bees’
Sauls acknowledges Colson as his mentor in beekeeping.
“He took time to come to my house and show me, teach me,” Sauls said. “He didn’t just see me bees and say, ‘Have a good day.’”
“And we try to follow that same blueprint,” Patrick said. “We want the bees to survive,” said Sauls.
Patrick, who in turn got his start in bees with help from Sauls, called Colson “the godfather of bees in this area.”
When he was a youngster, his father kept bees. But Colson didn’t pick up the passion until 1989, when he and his wife went to Florida to visit a cousin who was a beekeeper.
“When we started to leave Florida, he loaded my truck down with bee supplies,” Colson recalls. “All I wanted was a couple of hives, and a neighbor called and said I got a swarm here, and another neighbor called and said I got a swarm there, and over a period of time we accumulated 450 hives of bees.”
Then, in 2006-2007 when the colony collapse disorder was first noted across North America and Europe, Colson and his family lost about 350 of those hives. The collapse, in which worker bees disappear leaving the queen behind, has been attributed to many things. A virus spread by Varroa mites, little tick-like bee parasites that appear in virtually all hives in this area, is widely cited as a factor.
Weakened hives are also subject to being taken over by hive beetles, another common pest. These things, Colson said, make good management of hives essential.
B&G Honey Farm, based on Sinkhole Road in southern Bulloch County, has rebuilt to a couple of hundred hives, Colson said. His daughter, Cindy Dailey, bottles, labels and delivers honey while Colson tends most of the bees. B&G honey can now be found in stores from Savannah to Augusta and from Statesboro to St. Simons, as well at farm markets, festivals, a seasonal honey shack and its website.
Meanwhile, Bee Sweet Farms, besides selling nucs and package bees, provides pollination services, placing hives in fields and orchards. One major client is a Bulloch County farmer who in 2017 grew about 200 acres of watermelons, which went to supermarkets across the region.
A nuc consists of bees around a queen on five hive frames, half the number that will fit in a standard hive box. Bee Sweet Farms does not sell hive boxes, but refers customers to Tillman, Brannen & Minick Farm Supply for these and other beekeeping supplies.
Colson, a member of several other beekeeping organizations, is current president of the Ogeechee Area Beekeepers Association, which meets at 5:30 p.m. on the last Thursday of each month at Fordham’s Farmhouse Restaurant.
Not just a bee man, he was Statesboro’s public works director until he retired in January 2010. His partners have other careers as well, at U.S. Foods, where Patrick, from Brooklet, is the local manager in sales and Sauls, from Statesboro, is a territory manager.
Both have other family members involved in beekeeping.
Patrick’s son Tommy, 16, often helps his father look after bees in the hives.
Sauls’ wife, Laurel, is reportedly much braver around bees than he is, and was first to want them. They have six children, and the four youngest, Bauer, Wilder, Piper and Scout, will set up a honey stand on a Saturday and talk to customers about the benefits of honey.
“And they’re doing that together, you know, as brothers and sisters, and that right there is teaching them things about life that go well beyond beekeeping or selling a product or anything like that,” Sauls said.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.