CHAPEL HILL — Eva Hoke takes the point of her thumb and presses down on the soft, waxy comb until it gives way, releasing the oozing, golden liquid.
Pulling her thumb upward like a scoop, she raises it to her mouth and licks it clean, sighing at the thick, sweet taste of honey.
"That's the way to do it," she said, holding out a frame from her hive boxes, painted soft shades of green and blue, at her home in Chapel Hill.
If the idea of sampling luscious honey from your own hive can't persuade you to keep honey bees, maybe watching their behavior can close the deal. Or maybe knowing you would support the insect that provides essential pollination of one-third of our favorite foods, from apples and strawberries to cucumbers and almonds.
The hive is an intricate social complex. Worker bees guard the hive, nurse larvae, forage for nectar and pollen, and clean the hive, even acting as morticians, dragging out the bodies of dead bees. The drones are lazy couch potatoes whose sole purpose is to mate with queens - then they get kicked out of the hive in the fall. The queen lays thousands of eggs, gets fed "royal jelly" and is the sole focus of the workers - there's a reason for the expression "queen bee."
"It is just so fascinating to me," Hoke said. "Sometimes in the hot summer, you can see the bees standing on the ledge of their hive, looking like they're holding hands, flapping their wings to get airflow through the hive to cool it off."
Beekeepers seem to have walked through a remarkable door to nature's inner world, becoming part of the ebb and flow of a bee's cycles of productivity. Beekeeping even has a language of its own: nucs, supers, propolis, "hiving the package."
And the bees themselves communicate with their own special code: the bee dance. Bees tell one another how to find a nectar source by doing special dances, depending on the distance and location of the flower relative to the hive.
In North Carolina, there are about 13,000 beekeepers with 100,000 hives. The N.C. State Beekeepers Association has grown from 40 members at its founding in 1917 to more than 2,000 members, with local chapters in more than 50 counties. The NCBA is the largest and one of the most active beekeeping associations in the U.S.
State Fair find
Hoke became interested in beekeeping after seeing an educational exhibit at the N.C. State Fair. "I talked to the farmers there, and they were just so exuberant when they talked about their bees."
She joined the Orange County Beekeepers Association and was mentored by a Chapel Hill commercial beekeeper, Jack Tapp.
Like most people, Hoke worried at first about stings. David Tarpy, associate professor of entomology and extension apiculturist at N.C. State, says it is a misconception that honey bees are aggressive.
"People tend to lump stinging insects all together," he says. "But honey bees are incredibly nondefensive. Most people who get stung are stung by yellow jackets - wasps are much more highly defensive. Knowing that distinction is important."
A major concern of beekeepers is the increasing loss of bees because of pests such as hive beetles and varroamites. "Losing 5 to 10 percent of a hive used to be a bad year," Tarpy said. "Now loss of one-third of the hive in a year is the national average, and the hives require much more vigilance because of various pests and diseases." Tarpy's research at N.C. State is focused on methods of combating pests and breeding queens for improved reproductive quality.
No colony collapse here
Although colony collapse disease has gotten much attention, Lewis Cauble, a master beekeeper, said there have not been any documented cases in North Carolina.
In his role as extension apiculturist, Tarpy noted that becoming a beekeeper is "a great gateway to agriculture and where our food comes from. It can be done on a large or small scale, in suburbia or even rooftops in New York City. It's a very effective means of educating children about husbandry, agriculture, biology and insects."
Setting up beehives costs about $300 per hive, depending on the extent of equipment and pest controls used. Bees can be ordered by mail or through local apiaries and are usually installed in mid-April. Before ordering bees, it's a good idea to join a local association and to attend a bee school to learn the basics of managing a hive, with some hands-on exercises in handling bees, using smokers, building frames and collecting that honey.