May Markoff of Clayton has been keeping bees since spring, and it all started with a taste of honey.
“I initially got the bug when my brother sent me a little jar of honey, and I realized how amazing it was when it was right from his own hives,” she said. “And I thought, ‘OK. If he can do it, I can do it.’”
Markoff enrolled in a beekeeping class last fall, and the hobby quickly blossomed into much more than a quest for something sweet to have in the kitchen. The more she learned about the little insects, Markoff said, the more fascinated she became.
“It’s a world that, as you get to know it, it just keeps growing and growing,” she said. “You get more and more questions, more and more enthusiasm.”
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One of the lessons Markoff learned was to appreciate just how much effort goes into a jar of honey.
All of the honey in a hive is produced by worker bees – an all-female caste of bees that certainly earn their name. Toiling her entire lifetime, which lasts three to four weeks in the summer months, Markoff said, the average worker bee produces just one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. But in doing so, that bee might fly up to 500 miles in her life.
“They hatch, and they know what their mission in life is,” Markoff said. “And they literally work themselves to death.”
To produce a pound of honey, a hive of bees must work together to tap 2 million flowers and fly more than 55,000 miles.
Markoff has two beehives in her backyard, and she takes a lot of care when opening the insects’ homes to check on their progress. Each hive is home to 30,000 to 40,000 bees, and that number could grow to 70,000 once the colonies mature. To make sure her bees have enough food to get through their first winter, Markoff does not plan to harvest any honey until next year.
Markoff learned a lot of what she knows from Ray Hunt, a certified master beekeeper and vice president of the Johnston County Beekeepers Association. Hunt teaches classes that turn “green newbies” into certified beekeepers in a matter of weeks, he said. The fall class just started with a group of about 25 students, and the next class starts in January.
The syllabus covers topics such as beekeeping history, bee biology and diseases, year-round hive-management techniques and, of course, how to harvest honey.
Outside of practical beekeeping skills, Hunt said, students learn to appreciate the important role pollinators play in the food chain.
“One third of all food crops require pollination,” he said.
If you’re considering becoming a beekeeper, Hunt says to plan on spending $500 to $1,000 in your first year. If you do a good job, the cost should halve in the second year, and by year three, the hives should be self-sufficient. Of course, a beekeeper can always find ways to spend more money on new tools, books and accessories for the hobby.
The key to beekeeping on a budget, Hunt said, is to get training and do research before investing in hives. Hunt likens the process to learning to drive a car: You can save a lot of money by investing in some education.
“Yes, you can get in a car and learn how to drive without anybody teaching you. But you will spend an awful lot of repairs for that car,” he said. “Experience can be a very expensive teacher.”
For more information on the Johnston County Beekeepers Association, visit JoCoBee.org.