On warm summer weekends, Al Hildreth does not escape to the beach. Instead, he spends most Saturdays selling homegrown honey at the Clayton Farm and Community Market. And the Four Oaks resident devotes his Sunday afternoons to harvesting honey from one of his 23 hives spread across Johnston County.
Hildreth picked up beekeeping as a hobby in 2008, starting with two hives. Now he is among the roughly 300 honey producers who call Johnston County home. Most are members of the Johnston County Beekeepers Association or Five County Beekeepers Association.
Jim Wilson, who maintains more than 40 hives throughout the county, has been a beekeeper for more than 15 years. An outdoorsman to the core, he began keeping wild honey bees after finding them building a hive near his home.
Since word spread that Wilson was a beekeeper, people have been asking him to remove hives from their properties. In the case of honey bees, he relocates them to a hive in one of his six locations.
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At his property, Wilson traps bees from the surrounding woods with homemade bait hives. Strung dozens of feet in the air in a tree, the wooden boxes hold two frames of old comb. Once the curious bees start building a hive, Wilson slowly lowers the box to the ground and begins a hive body.
“I remove bees for the bees,” he said. “I don’t really exploit them for honey; I just take what’s leftover.”
Beekeepers generally spread out their hives. This is partly in consideration for neighbors but also to avoid losing all of their bees in case of an accident. Spreading out hives also varies the sources of honey.
Hildreth checks his hives every 10 days to ensure that a new queen bee is not flying away with some worker bees to start a new hive.
To find homes for his hives, he often negotiates with farmers who need pollination for their crops. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about one-third of food consumed in the United States requires pollination by bees, and yet the number of colonies has shrunk nationwide to fewer than half of the 5 million maintained in 1940. Beekeepers attribute the loss of hives to weather and unknown causes.
Business is buzzing
Beekeepers fall into one of three categories, said Amie Newsome, an agent with the Johnston County Cooperative Extension Service. Hobbyists care for up to 25 hives, while sideline beekeepers care for 26 to 299 hives. Commercial beekeepers, of which there are none in Johnston County, keep more than 300 hives.
Newsome said her beginner beekeeping class at the Johnston County Agricultural Center has launched multiple new businesses in bee care and bee products.
Wilson, who produces honey, prides himself on not mixing honey from one hive with honey from another. Instead, he keeps the honey separate to keep the flavor unique. Lighter shades of honey come from the earlier harvest and are supposedly better quality. The darker honey comes later in the spring and tastes more like molasses. Wilson says customers often prefer his darker honey.
Two years ago, Hildreth opened up Shamrock’s Buzzy Bee in Four Oaks with his wife, Kathy Hildreth. She runs the store full time, contributing baked goods to their honey and beeswax products.
Although Hildreth works full time, he spends up to 30 hours per week maintaining the hives and helping his wife run the honey business. In addition to sales to individual customers, the Hildreths sell to local grocery stores.
In the future, Hildreth said, he and his wife plan to produce mead, an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey and water. Hildreth says the location of his business and the growing popularity of mead should help his business grow.
“Bees are one of the few living creatures that spend their whole lives laboring for others and not themselves,” Newsome said. “How can you not respect that?”