By CHRIS ALDRIDGE, Kentucky Proud Connection
CROPPER, Ky. – State Apiarist Sean Burgess estimates that Kentucky is home to just over 3,500 beekeepers who take care of slightly more than 20,000 hives housing about 1.3 trillion honeybees.
About 660,000 of those bees belong to 75-year-old Kentucky Proud member Buddy Bowles in 11 hives on his family’s old farm in northeast Shelby County.
“I’ve fooled with bees for 35 years,” Bowles said. “Since the early 1960s, I’ve had a fascination with bees. When I was in college at Western Kentucky [University], I got a hold of some old hives and worked all fall to get them in shape. I moved ’em from Bowling Green to here.”
“Here” is 30 acres and a barn that make up half of the family farm where he grew up just outside a small rural community appropriately named Cropper. Like his three siblings, he inherited 15 acres from his parents, then got 15 more from his sister.
Like many Kentucky beekeepers, Bowles’ hives had a tough time surviving rollercoaster temperatures this spring. He lost nine of his 11 hives and more than 80 percent of his bees.
Bowles’ trouble has been common among beekeepers this spring in Kentucky, according to Burgess.
“I estimate Kentucky’s winter bee loss at 50 percent, mostly because of our freeze-thaw cycle this spring,” said Burgess, noting bees were drawn out of the hive to forage on warm spring days, then froze to death when temperatures dropped at night.
“Due to the spring conditions, there’s going to be a shortage of honey, and this year will be more magnified,” said Burgess, who keeps bees as a backyard hobby in addition to running a large commercial operation with 450-500 hives in southern Mississippi. “Last year, we had a mild winter and a good spring [in Kentucky], and I doubled my average [honey production].”
Bowles said the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD) is not to blame for his losses. Two of his hives were queenless, so they didn’t reproduce and died off. Stress caused by the cold and tiny bee parasites called Varroa mites also took its toll.
“You’re trying to kill a bug on a bug,” Bowles said of the mites. “As we move along, the bees are getting more predators.
“Beekeeping is a lot of work now,” he said. “The fun days are over.”
“I’m getting an alarming number of calls [from Kentucky beekeepers] right now about pesticide poisoning, which seems to be coinciding with corn going into the ground,” Burgess said in early June.
“Bees are an amazing insect that we’re losing so quickly that it’s frightening,” Burgess said. “It’s a real challenge to keep bees these days.”
This spring, Bowles bought two packages of bees, caught five swarms and was given two from his assistant and neighbor, Pat Hornback. The wife of state Sen. Paul Hornback has been training with Bowles for three years.
“She caught 17 swarms and gave me two,” he said. “So I’ve got my 11 [hives] again.”
Bowles said problems with disease caused him to give up beekeeping for 15 years from 1985-2000. He traveled the state frequently as an area service manager for New Holland Machinery Co.
“With my work, I couldn’t take care of ’em,” Bowles said.
When he retired, he restarted his hives. Bowles also helped start the Shelby County Beekeepers Association, serving as its first president for 2½ years. He now serves on the board of the association, which has nearly 40 members.
Burgess said beekeeping in Kentucky has been trending up over the past five years due in part to news reports about CCD.
“Because of all the talk, a lot of people want to get back into beekeeping,” Burgess said. “We had a down economy, and a lot of people want to be more self-sufficient, and their gardens need pollinators.”
The Shelby County beekeepers are attempting to get the younger generation involved by starting a 4-H Bee Club that has five members at Cornerstone Christian Academy in Shelbyville.
Bowles appreciates the fact that the Kentucky Proud label “identifies my honey as a Kentucky product.”
“I don’t sell honey at a farmers’ market, but I sell at my house all the time,” Bowles said. “When I have a new crop, I put up a sign in my front yard.”
Bowles hangs a small “Local Honey for Sale” sign each spring and fall in front of his home at 1999 Frankfort Road. The only other time Bowles sells his honey in public is every November at the Trims and Whims Christmas Craft Show at Wright Elementary School near his home.
Bowles’ bees feast mostly on clover, giving his honey a light golden color. But they also feed on blooms from locust trees that line the fencerows that border his hay field, hairy vetch spread throughout the meadow, poppies that were once part of his mother’s flower garden, several vitex bushes, a bee bee tree that he planted in the 1960s, and 3,000 apple and peach trees on neighboring Mulberry Orchard.
Burgess never tires of touting the benefits of honey.
“Honey is called the superfood,” he said. “You could survive eating nothing but honey; it’s the only food I know that can do that. And honeybees are the only insect that makes food for man.”
Some pediatricians prescribe local honey harvested within 45 miles to children as young as 1 year old to treat allergies.
“If you have allergies, you get small doses of the things you’re allergic to,” Burgess explained.
Burgess said honey is a fantastic wound dressing because it allows a cut or scrape to breathe but bacteria can’t grow in it. The Chinese have been using honey for centuries for medicinal purposes, and Roman soldiers once carried it into battle to care for their wounds.
“My dad had a leg wound that would not heal, so I told him to put some honey on it,” Burgess said. “When it healed, his doctor was amazed and asked him what he did.”
Bee venom is being used to treat arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
“Some beekeepers swear by it,” Burgess said. “They gather some bees and make them sting places on their bodies where they hurt.”