For some events at the State Fair, a bad season can dampen competition for the blue ribbon.
In the case of the bee and honey contest, entries fluctuate because of weather or the experience of amateur beekeepers.
This year, the fair received 513 honey and bee product entries, a surprising increase from last year’s 326.
“The Bee and Honey Exhibit was the first department to see an immediate increase in numbers compared to previous years,” said competitive exhibits director Denise Walker. “It’s something we have not seen before. It was a surprise for a lot of us.”
Overall, the popularity of beekeeping has grown in recent years, according to State Apiarist Don Hopkins. The best year for entries at the fair was 2011, when there were 671.
Organizers and state apiary inspectors attribute the dramatic rebound from last year to the growing popularity of beekeeping as a hobby, an ideal harvest year and marketing efforts by Hopkins.
State apiary inspector Nancy Ruppert says last year’s weather hurt many beekeepers. Heavy spring rains impeded honey-making, and some amateur beekeepers allowed their bees to starve in the winter.
“There was not as much honey overall,” Ruppert said. “It was a bad honey year.”
Over the past eight years, honeybees have suffered from a mysterious disease called “Colony Collapse Disorder,” where the majority of a colony disappears. Hopkins says some beekeepers began keeping hives to preserve the population.
This year, beekeepers could enter any of 87 different categories, from beeswax figures to mead – an alcoholic beverage made of fermented honey.
The competition is tough. In addition to flavor, honeys are judged on density, the absence of crystals and whether the jar is filled perfectly. Cleanliness of the jar counts for 30 percent of the score.
Hopkins started marketing the idea of competing at the fair at the earliest meetings of the N.C. State Beekeepers Association, as well as his regular tours of the county associations. This year, 31 counties were represented, and Hopkins hopes to see more.
This year, Durham County displayed for the first time at the fair, though host county Wake did not make a showing.