HICKORY – A swarm thousands of bees strong migrated from Georgia to Western Pennsylvania in April, hitchhiking on the back of a truck. While it may sound like the tale of an invasive species that would haunt an entomologist’s dreams, the trip north was actually a labor of love for one Hickory man whose dream it is to help place beehives in as many yards throughout the area as possible.
“The more people there are keeping bees, the better we are,” said Mark Bedillion, owner of Bedillion Honey Farm in Hickory. “We need more people into this. We’re just trying to get more people involved.”
It was a sunny, late April afternoon known as “Bee Pickup Day” at the local farm and market as beekeepers from as far away as Indiana County, West Virginia and Ohio came to pick up containers filled with hundreds of buzzing insects that will act as colonies back at home.
Earlier, Mark and his wife, Sara, traveled to Brunswick, Ga., where they filled up a trailer truck with hundreds of boxes filled with bees. Each package contained roughly 300 bees, a queen and sugary feed that would be distributed to the dozens of amateur and professional beekeepers.
This year proved to be the biggest haul of the five years Bedillion has been selling spring colonies. In addition to the Georgian bees, he also sold nucleus colonies from his surplus stock of winter survivors. He said he was thrilled every time he helped a new beekeeper.
“People can do it,” Bedillion said. “They just have to learn how to do it.”
In order to teach them, Bedillion had broken the day up into hourly blocks in which he offered classes to newcomers and veteran keepers alike.
“Ideally, I want to see two beehives in every yard,” Bedillion said. “That would be a dream come true.”
So far, Bedillion is off to a good start.
Walt Slomski of Marion Center in Indiana County came to Bedillion Farm with his wife, Vickie. The recent retiree said he was looking for a new hobby to keep him busy.
“This is a retirement venture for me,” Slomski said. “This has been a lifelong passion for me, so he’s setting me up with two packages of bees that I’m going to set in my backyard next to my garden.
“Gonna see how it goes.”
Like many of the people gathered at the farm, Slomski was worried about colony collapse disorder, a relatively recent cause for concern for beekeepers and entomologists the world over.
“We’ve noticed the death of bees on our property,” Slomski said. “It’s been really noticeable the last couple years that there’s been fewer and fewer bees.
“They’re not pollinating the cucumbers and squash the way they should. These bees will help that situation and hopefully we’ll get more crops.”
Colony collapse disorder is a term scientists use to describe a phenomenon in which drones rapidly die off in large numbers or are unable to find their way back to the hive. The syndrome has plagued beekeepers in recent years and while there is a lack of consensus as to the cause, many scientists link the recent developments to pesticides called neonicotinoids. A form of antibiotic-resistant mite is compounding the problem, leading to larger winter losses in colonies.
Bedillion said the main goal for most beekeepers is the production of natural honey. He said there are multiple ways to extract the golden substance from the hive. Basically, the goal is to break the wax cap from hive cells allowing honey to drain into a receptacle.
“The most primitive way is to crush and strain,” Bedillion said. “It’s the way cavemen did it way back when. Many people are still doing this if they don’t want to buy an extruder.”
Although his basement honey processing facility may resemble a cave, it is far from prehistoric. After using a hot knife and capping plane to break the wax seal, thousands of dollars worth of equipment works to separate honey from comb and strain out the bits of wood, pollen and bee parts that come out of the hive.
Bedillion pulled a lever and the rich, golden liquid flowed through a clear plastic tube that snakes through the ceiling from a centrifuge extruder to a tap on the other side of the room. He filled a plastic bear-shaped jar with honey still warm from the machinery.
“That’s as close to the hive as you can get,” he said.
Out by a barn being used for a bee staging area, third-generation beekeeper Jim Cole of Waynesburg said he was reviving a family tradition.
“My dad’s dad did it and when he died, he left a bunch of hives,” Cole said. “We wanted to see if they could still make honey.”
After years of neglect Cole recently found that the colonies were still producing. For the past two years, Cole has been attempting to recapture what had been a lost family art.
“I’ve lost one hive this winter,” Cole said. “I’m not sure what the problem was. I’ve just been learning as I go along.”
He said he uses the honey extracted from the hives in place of granulated sugar.
“It’s a lot better than sugar,” Cole said. “Especially local honey. It imparts a nice flavor on coffee that is very pleasant, especially a nice, nutty coffee.”
Cole recommended a rich Sumatran coffee for a special treat.
Vickie Slomski, a dental hygienist, said the new venture she and her husband were undertaking was a bit like bringing home a new baby.
“Beekeeping is like having children,” she said. “Ask five people for advice and you get five different answers.”
Bedillion reassured the Slomskis, saying good intentions went a long way if keepers did their best to show the insects a little love.
“The bees know what’s going on,” Bedillion said. “Mother Nature takes care of most of it. Everything is a cycle in nature. Once you know the cycle you can just help them and manipulate them to do what you want them to do.”