On any given lunchtime once every couple of weeks my friendly, neighborhood apiarist Dave Fruchtenicht stops by to eat with us and catch up.
He is either coming to or headed from tending a few of his thousands of farm creatures. He treats them dutifully and gives them fantastic care. He loves them, is inspired by them, and is passionate about their survival. They sometimes repay this care with a quick dose of venom, but you would assume he doesn’t mind too much, judging by his frequent visits.
Dave is a beekeeper. He has been one for many years, and amazingly he plans to be one for a while to come. That’s quite lucky for us all. Not only is Dave a tender to one of the most important agricultural inputs, he is willing, despite the copious obstacles set in front of him, to continue to do such a demanding and all-too-often depressing job.
As you probably know, the bees are in big trouble. They are being constantly bombarded with pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, viruses and pests that all weaken their immune systems, which leads to a lot of fully collapsed hives each year.
If the bees go, either we do too, or at the very least, our diets will get so amazingly boring that some of us will wish we had.
Bees are responsible for pollinating so many of things we love to eat. Life without them would seem crazy. But here we find ourselves, in a world where that is a real possibility, so boy am I excited to see Dave on his rounds.
He is such a treasure trove of knowledge when it comes to the craft of bees. He can tell you what plants they are working for pollen or honey and at which point in the season. I just learned from him that here in the Piedmont bees make all their honey in April and May. Those two months are critical to keeping them going through the winter months, when hives typically die off.
Dave told me that he regularly has 30 percent loss of hives these days. You might think that kind of loss would drive him away from this crazy lifestyle choice of stinging insects. Just to get at the hives Dave bushwhacks his way through poison ivy and ticks, while donning heavy protective clothes in the heat of summer.
Once in the bee yard, he then commences to smoke the bees and break apart the hives, hence the backbreaking part of bee keeping. Each one of the many layers of the hive, called supers, weighs around 50 pounds, held out in front of you, swarming with bees and dripping with honey.
But this isn’t Dave’s first bee rodeo. He has been keeping bees since childhood in northern California. After grad school, he plunged into full-scale honey farming, mixed with plenty of carpentry and house remodeling of course.
Now he is in his seventies, so it’s fair to say he knows a little about the subject of bee farming. That heavy production has waned, but Dave currently has around 60 hives, some of which reside on my farm. All the honey he coaxes from these little winged honeybirds gets sold at the Durham Farmers Market along with his awesome beeswax candles.
You might think that bee keeping is a lonely existence, but Dave is way too smart for that.
On top of having thousands of little buddies, he not only gets to visit several different farms throughout the year, but he finds the best to people to share his craft with. Over the last few years he has taken on an apprentice/coworker in the form of my amazing friend Renee. When not making her custom jewelry or heaving veggies out of the ground at a breakneck speed here at the farm, she’s quite a bee enthusiast as well.
I love when I see them at market selling their wares, including the Renee-inspired lip balms and salves. I love when we catch them in the bee yard splitting up hives, sharing the heavy lifting, and moving this queen here and that one there. But what I love most is that Dave’s knowledge is getting passed on to someone else who is just as passionate about such a cool craft.
Like most farming endeavors, keeping bees can be heartbreaking and it’s rarely profitable, especially when done in a way that is environmentally responsible. Their reasons for doing it are more intangible then the money. (That’s a sentence I feel like I have typed in almost every column I’ve written about farmers, and it always seems necessary.)
My true hope is that one day, I will write about an environmental victory that was done because of foresight and not a disaster, or a food system endeavor that is making both a difference and a profit. But in the meantime I’ll happily settle for writing about heroes of mine who aren’t afraid to get stung repeatedly so we can all enjoy the sweetest things in life, harvested locally, and lovingly crafted.
George O’Neal owns and operates Lil Farm in Timberlake in Person County and sells at the Carrboro and Durham farmers markets. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org