By Rick Hemphill
A beehive is an unimpressive structure. Rising less than four feet, its squat linear design stands in stark contrast to the gentle curves of the natural environment that is so dependent upon the efforts of the sixty thousand or so inhabitants. Gently and quickly, a beekeeper in a white protective full-body suit, which more closely resembles a visiting alien, raises the cover to inspect the contents and marvel at the efforts of the all-female work crew—working steadily to create honey, store pollen, and most importantly, raise more bees.
The insects are uninterested with the gloved hands pulling and pushing at their home, and the worker bees go about their daily chores, oblivious to everything except nature’s important duties. They’ve been ignoring the interference of beekeepers, or Apiarists, for at least three thousand years.
“I remember the first time I opened a hive; I had a good deal of trepidation,” says Herb Everhart, the president of the Eastern Panhandle Beekeepers Association (EPBA). “So I like to take a new beekeeper directly into the hive, to get over all the nervousness of reaching into ten or twenty thousand bees that first time.”
Everhart remembers the early years being a bit difficult. “I’ve been keeping bees for ten years; the first two years, I lost my bees over the winter.” He wasn’t aware of an organization in this area back then. “I had no mentor, so it took me some time to get the hang of it.” The club was started in 1982, when ten local beekeepers got together and set up a simple set of bylaws to begin the group. It has since grown into the largest of its kind in the state, with over 150 dues-paying members, who share information and experiences.
“The membership of the club is more diverse than any organization I can think of,” Everhart reveals. “We have school teachers, lawyers, people who are retired, and young people in their twenties. The scope is so broad that it takes in everybody, regardless of their ages and occupations.” Member Ed Burwell chimes in, “We all have to start from somewhere, and we started with no knowledge at all, and we progressed from there.”
Donna Miller adds a female perspective, “I got involved in beekeeping six or seven years ago when I saw an advertisement for the beekeeper’s course. I don’t really think my take on beekeeping differs too much from a man’s. My hives are perhaps more brightly colored, and I have handles on my hives so I don’t break my nails.” Miller stresses that she loves to go out and work her hives—all six of them. “Our main focus is education,” Everhart admits. “We want to help people define their goals in beekeeping and reach those goals, and we stress our mentoring program.”
Burwell adds, “There are a lot of personal benefits from beekeeping, but you are never going to get rich. But we do have a lot of fun; we’re meeting an awful lot of nice people.” Miller brags on the club’s mentoring component, “I would have never gotten this far if it weren’t for the club’s mentoring. It’s the only reason I got bees that first spring, and continued. It’s great to read and study about beekeeping, but until you stand in front of someone else’s hives and watch them work the hives, and then allow you to work their bees, well, that’s absolutely priceless.”
Everhart appreciates the club’s ability to explore new avenues. “Like organic beekeeping; it’s a direction for the club to explore for those who are interested.”
He particularly enjoys seeing a successful harvest. “What I look forward to is seeing that smile on their face when a new beekeeper gets that first big crop of honey. Nothing beats the taste of your own honey. And I never get over the excitement of tasting next year’s crop. Each year is different.” The benefits of natural honey are many. “The stuff you buy in the store has been pasteurized, and it may have been cut with corn syrup,” Burwell explains. “The honey your bees grow has many different flavors and the listing of the therapeutic values is incredibly long. We have pages of them around here.”
Some people may be more concerned about the little barbed stinger on the business end of the worker bee. That can instill a bit of fear and hesitation in most everyone. Burwell insists there’s nothing to be afraid of. “My wife is a classic example; she was really uncomfortable with insects.
Now, I’ve seen her walk through a hundred thousand bees in our driveway. So the best answer is just familiarity. You learn that they really aren’t that interested in you.” Building upon and spreading that familiarity is something the club really wants to establish in both the immediate and long-term future.
“Our youth program is starting slow this year, and some of the members are contributing to make it work,” Everhart affirms. “Any young person from thirteen to eighteen can submit a paper on beekeeping and we will provide the hives and bees to help them get started. They’ll have to buy the tools, and their own gear, and make so many meetings and field days.”
The club is also investigating the development of a similar program for disabled veterans. “I’m a hundred percent disabled vet, and if I can do it, anybody can,” Everhart insists. “It should be operational before the 2012 season gets here.”
Burwell knows that every season is vital. “The biggest contribution of beekeeping, without a doubt, is pollination. Honeybees account for eighty percent of all insect pollination, and thirty percent of everything we eat is absolutely dependent upon pollination. The insecticides people are using on their lawns are wiping out a tremendous amount of bees.”
Everhart understands the value of educating the public about bees, but he also knows that such knowledge does very little to benefit bees or humans if it isn’t shared. “I want to help others avoid what I went through. If we are going to take the time to teach you, then you are going to have to take the time to go out and teach someone else. It forces people to reach out and give something of themselves to help other people.”
The EPBA meets on the second Tuesday of each month at James Rumsey Technical Institute in Martinsburg at 7:00 pm. For more information, check out their website at: www.wvepba.org/index.htm