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Local businessman employs millions in Kershaw County’s sweetest job

Posted: June 28, 2013 4:09 p.m.
Updated: July 1, 2013 5:00 a.m.
Tray Dunaway/C-I

Craig Bell with some of his beekeeping materials during a recent weekend at the Kershaw County Farmers Market. Bell began keeping bees in 2002. More than a decade later, he “employs” about 150 million “girls” who make honey and pollinate South Carolina crops.

Craig Bell runs a sweet local business that employs about 150 million girls in South Carolina. Occasionally he gets out of state calls, generally from men, and transports some of his girls across state lines after receiving requests for his girls’ services. Rather than the lead to a seamy story, this is a wholesome and nutritious enterprise: Bell is the only professional commercial beekeeper in Kershaw County.

Bell became intrigued with bees in 2002.

“I had a swarm of bees show up on my farm,” Bell said. “I had been buying honey from a local beekeeper and using his phone number on the honey jar, I called him and he helped me capture and hive the swarm.”

For Bell, it was a sweet beginning.

“I bought two more hives that year and the following year I had about 20. By my third year of beekeeping, I had over 50 hives and I shipped my first load of bees to California to pollinate almonds,” he said.

At the time, Bell had a full time sales job and realized he might be able to make a living keeping bees. Quitting his day job in 2005, he was able to devote all his energies to his “girls.”

Today, Bell maintains 1,500 hives of Italian honeybees -- with an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 bees per hive -- arguably qualifying him as one of the largest employers of “girls” in the state. All of his hives are in South Carolina and while predominantly in Kershaw and Sumter Counties, his hives can also be found as far away as Spartanburg County. A perennial Kershaw County Farmers Market vendor, Bell also recently opened Camden City Market on Rutledge Street across from the Farmers Market location.

While Bell’s farm fresh and local food market hours are set, the demands of husbanding bees at different hours of the day, factored with seasonal changes, set his work day schedule. At this time of the year, the female worker bees are busy collecting nectar and pollen from spring and summer flowers and Bell provides extra hive space for growing bee colonies and honey storage.

“If hive growth exceeds hive space, a large number of the bees swarm with the queen and find a new home, and honey production will slow from the hive as the worker bees will be occupied with raising a new queen,” Bell explained.

Optimizing bee health, reflected directly by honey production, is the ultimate goal of a beekeeper.

Bees, as a “super-organism,” are biologically enthralling. The queen bee is the only female with mature ovaries and this single queen bee in the hive is responsible for producing all the hive’s eggs. At peak egg laying production, the queen can lay up to 1,500 eggs a day, an egg every 30 seconds. Most of the eggs the queen lays are fertilized and develop into female worker bees. Like the name implies, females do most of the “work” in a hive. Newly hatched worker bees first attend to hive responsibilities: construction, maintenance of beeswax comb, cleaning and caring for eggs that develop into larvae and pupae. With a life expectancy of 90 days, older worker bees graduate to work outside the hive as guard bees and foraging bees.

Honeybees can travel up to 3 miles from the hive in search of flowers and it takes nearly 5 million visits to flowers to create one pint of honey. Nectar collected from flowers is stored in one of two stomachs bees have and is deposited into the hive. The nectar reacts with an enzyme provided by the bee that converts the nectar into honey. Worker bees control the humidity and temperature in the hive and as excess water is evaporated from the nectar, honey is produced. Once the bees determine the water content is below 18 percent, the hexagonal cell of honeycomb is capped with beeswax and is stored for the winter. Pollen is also collected on visits to flowers as a protein source for brood; baby bees, that is.

While honey is eventually removed by Bell, he’s quick to point out that “bee colonies store more honey than they need to get through our winters and to keep the bees healthy and happy, we only take a portion of the total honey the bees collect.” South Carolina honey collection starts at the end of May and will continue through the end of August. The standard Langstroth hive boxes holds individual frames of honeycomb when it is harvested. In the process of uncapping the cells of honey, the beeswax caps are gathered and Bell melts the beeswax and creates a variety of candles and beeswax decorative items. The frames of honeycomb, now uncapped and emptied of honey, are replaced back into a hive and the bees can refill the comb with honey without having to build new honeycomb.

Bee populations peak mid-summer and, in the fall, hive population shrinks down to its smaller winter size. Male bees -- drones -- are born from unfertilized eggs and are barely tolerated by the hive since they provide no “work” but feed off stored honey, but are the only way queens can be fertilized when new hives are established. Once the need for a queen’s fertilization in the beginning of her reign in spring and summer is over, drones are forced out of the hive to die to conserve the stored honey resources for the bees that will populate the hive for the winter. These overwintering bees help grow the population in the spring as the bee’s cycle of life continues for another year.

“Bees are fascinating to work with and to understand,” Bell said. “Understanding bee biology and the behavior of bees allows me to optimize their happiness and honey production with integrative pest management.”

Integrative pest management is a process that uses a number of natural resources and techniques to keep the bees at top performance. Using chemical-free methods based on understanding of bee biology and bee interactions in the ecosystem reduces or eliminates the need for artificial additives and antibiotics that may otherwise interfere with the bees or the legendary flavor of Bell Honey.

Bell’s honey is carried by about 200 grocery stores in South Carolina. Hundreds of restaurants in our state receive Bell’s honey from a network of restaurant supply distribution companies. Although almost everyone can enjoy honey, children under the age of one year should avoid honey to preclude an uncommon complication that can occur in an infant’s immature digestive tract.

Aside from honey, honeybees play an essential role in agriculture as they account for 80 percent of insect pollination of plants. Fully one-third of all fruits and vegetables we enjoy depend on this pollination and without the assistance of bees, many commercial crops would vanish. In years past, Bell has provided bees for pollinating South Carolina blackberries, watermelon, cucumber, squash and strawberries, as well as Maine blueberries, California almonds and Wisconsin cranberry farms. Pallets of closed bees hives are loaded on trucks, usually at night when bees are in their hives, and are rapidly transported to commercial farms where they are then opened to allow the bees to visit blossoming plants.

Bell confides he presently concentrates more on honey production than long-distance pollination.

“Pollination invites a lot of wear and tear on both beekeeper and bees and often does not result in optimal honey making,” he said.

Additionally, some bee pollinating blossoms, like almond flowers, produce a bitter honey. Bell said working with farmers and pollination is a highlight of his business and is an ongoing source of environmental pride.

“While not everyone in South Carolina has tasted my honey, I know they’ve eaten fresh produce that my bees have helped put on their table,” Bell said.

As a beekeeper, Bell is a charter member of Wateree Beekeepers Association in Camden organized by Richard Guess, a Camden resident. Like a hive in spring, the club has had explosive growth during the last two years.

“Starting in 2009 with three original members, we now boast over a hundred members,” Guess said. “One of our annual highlights is the trip to one of Bell’s beeyards for a ‘gloves on’ experience’. The association hosts an annual beginners beekeeping class each January that provides all the basics necessary to begin beekeeping.

With the increased interest in the environment and ‘green activities,” beekeeping is more and more popular,” Guess says. For established beekeepers, the club provides a variety of seasonally appropriate topics covered in monthly meetings and an opportunity for beekeepers to network.

Honeybees are environmentally too valuable to ever kill, but undesired colonies can be relocated by various association members who also do bee removals and swarm captures.

Speaking with Bell at the Kershaw County Farmers Market on a recent Saturday proved his point about the most common question he’s asked.

“Do you get stung?” a child asked when a parent explained what Bell does for a living.

His answer: “Usually every day in the beeyard.”

Even after years of stings, they still hurt.

“But at the end of the season, the sting sites don’t swell as bad as they did in the spring,” Bell said.

Occasional bee stings are not the toughest part of his job.

“One full box of frames with honey can weigh 50 to 60 pounds,” Bell said, “and while I use a forklift to move pallets of multiple hives, all the honey harvesting is done by hand and requires a lot of lifting.”

Not surprisingly, “beekeeper back” is a common occupational hazard.

Bee suits, protective gloves and headgear, as well as ergonomic lifting, may protect the beekeeper, but Bell wishes protecting the bees was as easy.

“Bee’s are having a hard time with lots of issues with honeybee health that translates into increasingly high amount of dying bees. There is not one answer,” he said, “but rather there is the need to address multiple issues -- but a sure environmental hazard we can all help with is prudent use of garden pesticides.”

Bell suggested that if local residents using garden pesticides want to help honeybees survive, they should read label directions fully and use a pesticide when flowers are not in bloom. Those who feel they must use a pesticide with blooming plants, should plan to use it in the very early morning or preferably in the evening when bees are not actively flying to visit blossoms.

These simple steps, Bell said, will allow everyone to continue enjoying sweet honey and neighborhood honeybees will very much appreciate the reciprocal sweetness.


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