Recently, Eddie Strickland, a fifth-year senior studying mechanical engineering, has spent a lot of his time harvesting honey with his dad. In the mornings, they go to one of their bee yards, where they have about 10 beehives.
“We’ll go through [and] check them,” Strickland said. “If there is honey ready in the boxes, we’ll drive the bees out with smoke from our smoker.”
They have equipment that removes the wax cappings from honeycomb cells and spins the honey out into buckets. From there, the honey is poured into bottles to be distributed and sold.
Through his company, Eddie’s Bees, Strickland sells the honey they harvest to restaurants, roadside stands, organic grocery stores and coffee shops.
“[Coffee Cat] will mix it with chocolate and other stuff and put it in drinks,” Strickland said. “Or you could just ask for it straight, and they’ll put it in drinks. They also retail it.”
From 60 beehives, Strickland collected 366 gallons of honey this summer. He said that while that sounded like a lot, there are people who make much more than that.
When Strickland was a kid, one of his neighbors was a commercial beekeeper who sold to large companies like Kellogg’s. Strickland said his neighbor managed over 2,000 beehives.
It was this neighbor who introduced Strickland to beekeeping. He would get his honey from the neighbor and decided at age 14 that he wanted to try beekeeping for himself.
“We learned pretty much everything that we needed to from the neighbor who was experienced and got us started and then from YouTube, pretty much, just looking up stuff,” Strickland said. “The rest of it was just trial and error.”
Strickland said it takes him and his dad about two weeks of work during the summer to harvest their honey. During the fall, the bees normally continue producing, but at a slower rate, so it only takes them one week of work to harvest.
The biggest mistake he said beginning beekeepers make is assuming the bees won’t need to be paid close attention.
“What we’ve seen in people that are just getting started is they’ll get one or two hives, just getting started and figuring things out,” Strickland said. “Then they’ll have the idea that, ‘I can just put them there and they are good. I put them in the box; they are good to go. They are bees. They’ll be fine.’ But they get weak, they might have a pest problem, something happens to the queen and you come back after a month or two and your bees are dead, or they are gone.”
Strickland said they haven’t had any big issues with disease, but pests have been a problem for them. Small hive beetles can become a big problem for hives if left untreated.
He said they don’t want to medicate their bees heavily, so they’ve turned to natural solutions instead. At the bottom of their hives, they have installed wire meshes with holes large enough for pests to fall through but too small for bees. Below the mesh is a pan filled with mineral oil, which drowns pests.
He said bee conservation is an issue he’s paid a lot more attention to since becoming a beekeeper. From what he understands, pesticide use in large-scale agriculture can lead to colony collapse disorder, when most worker bees leave the colony, leading to its eventual death.
“It’s worrisome, for sure, but luckily we haven’t had to deal with it too much,” he said.
His neighbor, however, has not been as lucky. When colony collapse disorder began appearing in his hives, he went from 2,000 colonies to 200 in one year.
Strickland said there isn’t much large-scale agriculture near his hives, so it hasn’t been an issue for him. His hives are spread across his family’s property and the property of his family friends in south Montgomery County and into Pike County.
“You want to put some distance between your bees,” Strickland said. “One, because there is only so much blooming within a certain area and if you have too many bees, there is only so much that could support them right. Also, if you have them together, you are more likely to have more problems with disease and with pests.”
Behind a fence on Lem Morrison Drive sits a row of buzzing boxes painted blue, orange and white in various patterns. These boxes are the homes of some of the bees being studied by the Auburn University Bee Lab.
“At the end of the day, we are there to understand what’s going on with our bees and what’s going on with their health,” said Geoff Williams, a professor in the department of entomology & plant pathology who conducts his research through the Bee Lab.
About half an hour west of Auburn, a farmer is using bumblebees and honeybees to pollinate his kiwi orchard, Williams said. The Bee Lab is trying to find out which pollinator was more effective for the orchard.
According to Williams, each species of bee has different traits. Some species pollinate early in the day. Some species have longer tongues for better pollination. Some species, like the honeybee, produce honey.
“There are all these different aspects of bees that are really important to know while we are studying what is the most efficient pollinator of a specific species of plant,” Williams said.
He said a lot of the things we eat are dependent on pollination from bees, like blueberries, strawberries and small specialty crops.
The Bee Lab can have anywhere from 60 to 100 colonies each year, spread out over five or six miles in every direction from the Bee Lab. Most are on University property, but some are on City of Auburn property or the property of partners a few miles outside of town.
“For us, it makes sense to have an area that’s not so tightly connected with homes or buildings, just because we need to have, for efficiency, maybe the ability to have 20 or 30 colonies at that site,” Williams said. “Clearly, you can’t plop 30 colonies in someone’s backyard.”
When arranging the colonies at a site, the Bee Lab will have hive entrances facing different directions, so bees are less likely to enter the wrong hive. Williams said bees can recognize color and shapes, which is why they paint their bee boxes different colors and patterns.
One hive was painted with blue and white vertical stripes. Another had two paw prints painted on it.
“Of course, some bees go to the wrong colony,” Williams said. “Even if there is a strong wind, you will see bees ending up going to the wrong colony because of that. There’s also a trend where if you have a long line of colonies, the colonies at the end tend to pick up more of the flying bees than the colonies in the middle.”
According to Williams, what happens when a bee goes into the wrong hive is a little bit of a mystery. In theory, the guard bees that watch the entrance of the hives should stop intruders.
“On paper, there are guard bees at the entrance that are essentially sniffing out bees who are coming and going and will turn away a foreign bee or insect or whatever,” Williams said. “In reality, again, it’s not a perfect system. In some cases, if that bee is naively coming back to her colony thinking that she is ready to drop off some nectar, she can just walk right by and do her business, and all of a sudden she is helping out that one colony.”