BEULAVILLE — When most fathers and sons choose hobbies to enjoy together they turn to activities such as sports, repairing cars, or woodworking. For one Duplin county family, however, a shared interest in the natural world has led to a more exotic past time—beekeeping.
Darrell Penny and his son, Wade, are newcomers to the ancient craft of raising and caring for bees. “I messed with it growing up with my father, and I just recently decided to get back into it,” said Darrell. “I bought a couple of hives last year. We had some problems with those first hives, but the ones we have now are doing pretty well.”
According to Darrell, his son has been the motivating force behind his renewed interest. “He’s really gotten into it and enjoys working with them. If he wasn’t so enthusiastic about it, I probably wouldn’t have started back up.”
According to Darrell, the bees arrived in three-pound packing units that included worker bees, drones, and a queen, which can be distinguished from the other bees by pale blue markings on the head. Darrell said the bees had to be hand fed for a time until they could fly on their own and collect pollen from plants.
Walking into the back yard of the Penny’s home beside Old Highway 24 in Beulaville, the low hum of the insects collected around the six hive boxes is subtle but immediately recognizable. The bees congregate around the bottom of the boxes, which are raised off the ground with cinder blocks, lazily making their way inside to deposit pollen and water, or patrolling the perimeter to protect the hive inside from potentially hostile invaders.
According to Darrell, he and Wade are currently raising Italian bees, which are conditioned for warmer climates.
The Penny’s explained that all of the worker bees in a hive are females, while the drones are exclusively male. After the female mates, she returns to the nest to lay eggs. Once the eggs are laid, they go through the same stages as caterpillars and butterflies do, first hatching into larvae, and then becoming cocoons and, finally, pupae. They then emerge from the cocoons as adults.
According to Darrell the temperature inside the hive must be kept at approximately 92 degrees in order for the eggs to develop properly. The bees are so adept at controlling their environment, he explained, that they will use wax to seal up the box should the temperature become too cool.
The queens are developed from larvae selected by worker bees and specially fed royal jelly, a protein-rich secretion from glands on the heads of young workers, in order to become sexually mature. There is normally only one adult, mated queen in a hive who is the mother of most, if not all, of its bees. Darrell said the majority of drone bees are kicked out of the hive in the winter, and are replaced in the spring.
The average life span of a worker bee, said Wade, is 45 days, while a queen can survive for several years. “They re-queen every three to four year,” said Wade.
Darrell said the hobby takes both time and patience. “It’s time consuming, building the boxes, monitoring the hives. If it got any bigger it would also start to become a large expense.”
Using a metal can with a pumping device, Darrell spread smoke around one of the hives whose top had been removed to expose the brood chambers, where the eggs are kept, attached to removable frames inside the box. Each box contains approximately eight frames.
Donning a protective suit and gloves, Wade removed one of the frames containing the eggs, which was covered in a nearly solid mass of bees. Later, he explained that the eggs are moved from smaller, starter boxes once they have matured and placed in the larger containers.
According to Wade, the frames are first coated with a foundation of wax, which helps prime them for cell production, and are then placed in the box along with the bees. “A strong hive could fill a frame in 7-14 days,” he stated.
Darrell said, while he’s been pleased with the bees production so far, he feels more rain could have benefited the hives. “There’s an old saying, ‘April showers, bring May flowers, brings June honey.”
The Penny’s said bees also play an important role in crop production. “Bees are used by farmers for crop pollination, mainly cucumbers,” said Darrell. “A bee has to visit a cucumber 20 times to pollinate it properly.”
Last year, said Darrell, hive beetles devastated nearly all of the bees him and Wade were attempting to raise. “We didn’t do our homework. It was a mess. We managed to salvage only one hive, but it turned out to be a good learning experience for us.”
In addition to the six hive boxes in his back yard, the Penny’s have also placed three boxes dedicated to raising queens in the adjacent woods “It makes it easier to keep intruders out,” commented Darrell.
Honey production is one of the major draws for many beekeepers, although it takes time to see results.
“We haven’t taken any honey from the hives we’ve just started,” said Darrell. “We don’t even bother until the second year.”
In an effort to increase the bees pollen gathering, the Penny’s said they make sure to have all the hive boxes facing east to ensure that they catch the morning sun. “It gets them out a little earlier so they have as much time as possible to be outside working,” said Darrell.
Most of the honey the bees produce this year, said Darrell, will be used to feed the hive throughout the winter.
Apart from its sweet taste, Darrell said honey is rumored to have a number of medicinal uses as well. “A lot of people have told me honey helps with allergies,” he stated. “I’ve heard doctors say that local honey is best because of the nectar.”
In addition to their beekeeping venture, the Penny’s also run a bee removal business. “We worked at this house in Richlands one time and had to remove part of the siding to get to the bees,’ remembered Darrell. “Sometimes if you have a hive in a tree, you can just knock it down with a broom and they’ll crawl right in the box.”
Bringing home captured bees poses it own set of problems, said Darrell. “It’s more involved than using starter packs. You have to clean out the honey, get your brood eggs, and save the queen. Usually when you capture them from a nest in a tree, they’re in flight to somewhere else. So when you get them home, there’s not a lot you can do to make them stay. Sometimes they’re just determined not to.”
While both Penny’s said they would like to expand their bee keeping activities, they said they plan to keep things low key for now. “We may try to make it a little larger, but we’re just taking it slow and trying to learn as much as we can about keeping the bees healthy,” said Darrell.
Working with bees, of course, involves certain physical risks. Both Darrell and Wade said they’ve been stung in the past, but have managed to avoid it this year. “A sting or two isn’t a big deal,” said Darrell. “Neither of us is allergic.”
The potential danger, said Darrell, is one of the is one of the most interesting aspects of the hobby. “It’s like an adrenaline rush. There’s something about those creatures, just standing there and knowing they could do me major damage if they wanted to. Knowing they could sting me but they’re not. It’s intriguing; it gets out hearts pumping.”
Darrell and Wade said they’ve noticed a growing interest in beekeeping.
“I’ve seen more in the last two years,’ said Darrell. “I know of at least two people within six miles of here that keep bees.”
For anyone considering working with bees, Darrell had this advice: “Do your homework. If you don’t, your bees are going to get wiped out and you’ll get discouraged. But really, you can read all the books you want, but mostly it comes down to experience. Bees don’t read books; they don’t always do what they’re supposed to.’