Honey bees mean business
By M. Scott Morris
There’s gold to be had in a beehive. The tough part is getting to it while stinging insects fly around your head.
It’s lucky for beekeepers that bees have an instinctive dislike for smoke.
“It calms the bees down. They think the hive is on fire and start eating honey,” said Carl Isbell, 56, of the Bissell Community.
Beekeepers use pine straw to fuel a hand-held smoker to produce a steady fog, making it easier to check on the hive or gather honey.
“No matter how much smoke you have, you’ve always got one bee that’s going to try to get you,” Isbell said.
After more than 30 years of handling the yellow and black creatures, Isbell is stoic about the prospect of getting stung.
“If you work with bees for any length of time, you’re going to get stung. That’s just the way it is,” Isbell said.
Even with a protective suit, veil and gloves, the little buggers find a way to get you. Holder Homan, a 64-year-old resident of the Brewer community, said the stings get easier to take after a while.
“I guess I’ve been getting stung since I was old enough to walk. I’ve been stung so much it doesn’t swell anymore,” Homan said. “It still hurts, though.”
Fun and profit
To Isbell’s way of thinking, a few stings are a small price to pay for the important job bees do.
“It’s real important to the farmer that he get his crops pollinated,” Isbell said. “These are very important insects.”
The wild bee population has not been strong in recent years, so farmers rely on beekeepers, Isbell said.
“Our bees pollinate their crops and we get the honey,” said Isbell, who runs Isbell Honey Farms. “We pay them honey rent.”
Isbell operates approximately 60 hives throughout North Mississippi, and each hive generates between 21 and 22 pounds of honey each year.
“We sell it wholesale by the barrel,” Isbell said.
Isbell filters his honey through cheesecloth and nylon mesh, but much of the pollen remains in the honey.
“We leave the pollen and most of the ingredients in there and it settles to the bottom,” Isbell said.
Steve Green, who sells his honey at flea markets, has been operating Bee Sweet Farms for about a year and a half. The Tupelo resident also works with Isbell in a beeswax candle business.
“We made a lot of mistakes at first,” Green said. “Making them perfectly round is the big thing. It’s just real hard to do.”
Green and Isbell collect beeswax from their bees and send it to a company in Kentucky. The company sends back sheets of beeswax in a variety of colors.
“We have the wax and the wicks and hand-roll the candles,” said Green, adding that it takes eight to 10 minutes to make a large candle.
The candles are a family affair at the Green house. Green’s wife, Vicki, helps roll them and takes charge when it’s time to sell the candles.
“She’s really the salesperson for the whole deal,” Green said. The candles sell at flea markets as well as florist shops in the area.
You could make a beeswax candle without ever coming into contact with a bee. That probably wouldn’t do for Holder Homan, whose family is synonymous with beekeeping in Northeast Mississippi.
“My dad was A.P. Homan. I guess he was one of the first people to raise bees around here,” Homan said.
The family raises and sells packages of bees to commercial beekeepers from the North.
“They come down in the spring because they lose most of their bees in the winter,” Homan said.
The bees are sold in two or three pound packages. Some buyers have been known to make the drive to Mississippi two or three times a year and purchase 200 to 500 packages of bees per visit.
It’s difficult to harvest much honey when raising bees because many of the worker bees are collected and sold.
Now that Homan has pretty much retired, his son, Tony, and son-in-law, John McMasters, keep track of the hives. They’ve lately shifted the focus of the business.
“The price of honey has doubled in the last couple of years,” Homan said. “You can sell a few packages of bees and still get some honey.”
Nature in action
If you’re raising bees for sale, collecting honey or using wax to make candles, the basics of beekeeping haven’t changed much through the years.
“I started out working with bees when I was 7 or 8 years old and we’re still following the same principals,” Homan said.
Isbell refers to himself as a hobbyist and as long as it stays that way, beekeeping will provide a way to relax and enjoy nature in action.
“I like the outdoors. You have to be an outdoors lover to keep bees,” Isbell said. “You’ve got to love to get out among the ticks and bugs and not mind getting stung.”