When Craig Bell told his wife eight years ago that he wanted to expand his beekeeping hobby into a full time career, she probably didn’t know exactly what he meant when she said okay. But before long, the couple’s rambling farm had a warehouse and all the necessary equipment to go into the honey business, and Wendy Bell was the first lady of bees in the little farming town of Rembert, which sits just east of Columbia.
While Craig Bell is the keeper of the bees, driving down the seven mile stretch of road leading to the couple’s home that is surrounded by verdant fields and ancient swaying trees, one can understand the draw of getting back to nature and making a living out of something as old as the earth itself. A coyote dashes across the two–lane road and, high above, ebony crows and majestic hawks play in the breeze while all the time the subtle buzzing of bees and the sweet smell of honey fill the air.
“It’s peaceful out here, and the bees are fascinating,” Bell said. “They have their society all worked out and every one of them knows what they are supposed to do.”
From those bees doing what bees do best, Bell Honey LLC, has grown into a company that serves the state from Columbia to Greenville to Darlington to Charleston and beyond. Along with featuring raw, unfiltered, local wildflower honey, Bell also stocks and sells beekeeping supplies and equipment as well as providing pollination services for farms, gardens, and ranches across the state.
In the off months for honey, the company concentrates on beeswax candles that not only smell terrific but are designed to be decorative and durable.
“These candles are able to burn up to eight hours,” Bell said. “Last year, I got a little artsy with them and put dried flowers in the wax. They really turned out nice.”
Bell himself is an expert on bees, and unlike this reporter, has no fear of being stung.
“I wear a bee suit, but they are pretty docile,” he said, trying to encourage me into the hives. “They are far more interested in the job of making honey than stinging you. Just don’t act scared.”
Even donning the bee suit and netting, acting fearless around thousands of bees is no easy feat for a person who runs from gnats and thinks Noah made a huge mistake in taking bugs on the Ark. But even I can’t help but be enthralled by the little fuzzy creatures and how well they work together.
“The queen lays about 2,000 eggs a day, and the worker bees will care for the larvae,” Bell said. “Once the swarm outgrows the hive, another queen will be raised by the colony, and she will leave with some drones and worker bees, and they will start a new hive somewhere else.”
In the world of bees, the queen is just that—the queen. Her sole job is to mate and lay eggs. The worker bees are all female and the only thing that distinguishes them from becoming a queen is that a royal larvae hangs vertically and a worker bee larvae is horizontal.
“If I want to raise a queen myself, I change the orientation of the larvae and then when she emerges, I can move her and a handful of bees to a new hive,” Bell said.
While the drones and worker bee larvae are fed bee bread, a substance made from honey and pollen, the queen larvae is fed royal jelly, a secretion from the young worker bees.
The queen larva also has her own special “room” in the hive called the queen cell. Again, the worker bees build it for her and take care of her until she emerges.
All worker bees have the potential to be queen, but even the bee keeper himself doesn’t know how it’s determined who gets the royal nod.
“That’s a question that is as old as time,” he laughed. “I doubt we’ll ever know the answer to that.”
The drones are all male and their only job is to mate with the queen. The worker bees feed them as well. While this may seem like a cushy and coveted job, when their usefulness is over, they are kicked out of the colony to fend for themselves and eventually succumb to the elements and predators, Bell said.
Bell also rents his bees out to farmers who want or need the extra pollination for their crops. To move a hive, he must go at night with a forklift and load it onto a flatbed truck and then physically drive the hive to its destination. There he again uses the forklift to unload the hive and leave it on the farmer’s land near the crops.
“You have to move them at night because they are less active,” Bell said. “They will stay with the hive and are less likely to swarm.”
Swarm??? Wasn’t that a horror movie years ago?
Bell laughs at my reaction and explains that in the natural progression of bee hives, that when the current hive gets crowded and a new queen is raised, some scout bees, usually the worker bees again, are sent out to search for a new location. Once they settle on a place, they go “tell” the other bees, and the new queen, her drones and workers all swarm to the new home.
“They aren’t interested in stinging anyone; they just want to get back to work,” he said.
He then goes on to explain to me that the drones don’t have stingers and while the worker bees do, they are barbed and once they sting you, the bee dies. He pulls an old stinger out of his finger to make his point and shows me the tiny little barb that goes into the skin.
“That’s why if you ever do get stung, you don’t press on it,” he said. “The barb will release the venom when it’s pressed and that’s what hurts.”
“The queen is the only bee who can sting repeatedly,” Bell said. “And she’s almost never out of the hive.”
I silently give thanks for the zoom lens on my camera and step away from the hive.
To contact Bell for information on honey or pollination, call (803) 422- 2101.
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