By Kimberly Armstrong, Dare County Cooperative Extension
Don Babin is a busy man, as busy as the bees in the 25 hives he keeps on the Outer Banks. From Manteo to Corolla, and all the beach towns in between, he oversees the care and maintenance of thousands of bees – 50,000 to 60,000 per hive.
When it comes to beekeeping, dare we say, Don is the bee’s knees. With 60 years of experience, he knows the buzz around bees. As an agriculture student at the University of New Hampshire and later at the University of Iowa, he was involved in honey bee research (while earning $1.50 an hour). After school, he started a hive business providing bee pollination services for blueberry crops, apple orchards, and various grape crops in New Hampshire. Bees help maximize the pollination process, which improves crop yield and value. His reputation as a beekeeper grew with his activity, leading to the establishment of 150 hives. He continued as a beekeeper until he retired (for a while) and finally settled on the Outer Banks where, unable to resist, he entered the wonderful world of bees.
Honey bees in the United States are a diverse mix of races introduced from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Most beekeepers choose Italian, Carniolan or Russian bees. Don’s bees are Italian, which are appreciated for their softness and maneuverability.
He houses his bees in vertically stacked modular boxes known as the Langstroth system. Here the bees have space to roam and the colony is isolated from the weather and protected from predators. It’s the next best thing to a hollow tree. The frames that support the comb sheet on which the bees will do all their work fit perfectly into the boxes.
Every 10-14 days, Don gets out in his van, picks up his friend Jimmy Daily and they set off to inspect the hives, driving from town to town and hive to hive.
Don approaches a hive elegantly decked out in head-to-toe protective beekeeping gear – a must-have to avoid stings. He pumps the bellows of the smoker and soft puffs of smoke hover above the hive. The smoke creates a calm among the bees, making them less defensive, allowing him to safely accomplish what he needs to do.
Last spring, he harvested 276 pounds of honey. But the welfare of the bees is always paramount in his mind. “In the fall, I make sure they have enough honey for the winter. The worst thing you can do is not leave enough honey for the bees. As winter approaches, I won’t be extracting the honey because I want to make sure they have enough. And he’ll prepare his hives for colder temperatures by wrapping them in black landscape fabric, which is porous and absorbs heat, ensuring his bees will be warm and cozy.
He checks the lower box, which contains the brood chamber, or nursery, where eggs, larvae and pupae develop by feeding on pollen, nectar or honey. During inspections, Don is always on the lookout for the dreaded varroa mite – a parasitic mite that feeds and lives on a bee, as well as feeds and breeds on developing brood. It can detect symptoms fairly quickly and will safely heal the hive to protect it from the mite. “If you wait too long to treat them, it’s very difficult to save them,” he says.
Don checks on the queen, careful not to disturb her highness as the loyal worker bees buzz around, tending to her every need. They have engaged in this behavior since she was a simple larva feeding on royal jelly (a protein-rich secretion from glands on the heads of young workers). We cannot say that this little lady does not deserve, the future of the colony depends on her. Laying up to 1,600 eggs a day is no mean feat!
Visiting and inspecting all hives takes 2-3 days. Back home, Don will begin extracting honey from the frames he has collected from the hives. He uses an electric, heated uncapping knife to remove the layer of wax covering the honey. “It’s quite an art to run the knife over the wax just like that,” he says. “You don’t want to waste any honey.” He places four frames at a time into the hand-cranked extractor and the honey harvest begins. Using centrifugal force, the frames are spun and the honey is extracted from the combs, collected at the bottom of the drum where it can be released through a tap and into a bucket. The honey is passed through a filter and bottled in one pound jars with handmade labels.
“When you think about the number of bees it takes to make a pound of honey and the number of trips they have to travel, it’s mind-boggling,” says Don. It is estimated that it takes two million visits to flowers and 55,000 miles of flights for bees to make one pound of honey.
Babin Apiary Honey is available at several Outer Banks Farmers’ Markets, including Secotan (Roanoke Island), Dowdy (Nags Head), and Avon (Hatteras Island).
“I have a passion for beekeeping,” says Don with an enthusiasm and energy that belies his 85 years. “One of my greatest pleasures is just watching them. I’m so intrigued by them. They have their system and there doesn’t seem to be any bickering, they just do their job. “I tell people that if we could work and get along like bees do, it would be a much better world.”
Such a wise observation and such a sweet feeling. As sweet as honey.
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