HICKORY – It’s an 81-degree summer day and Mark Bedillion is sweating inside his white beekeeper’s suit, which resembles a cross between a fencing uniform and a spacesuit.
With his bee smoker close by to subdue the bees, Bedillion pops the lid off a honeybee box, reaches an ungloved hand inside and delicately pulls out a frame from inside the hive.
He quickly spots the queen, a bright red dot differentiating her from the hundreds of buzzing bees crawling around the colony.
“There she is, there’s the girl,” says Bedillion. “We love bees around here. Basically, they support us and we support them. We need each other.”
Bedillion and his wife, Sara, own Bedillion Honey Farm & Farm Market, a roadside store on Route 18 in Mt. Pleasant Township that features their homemade honey.
The couple took up beekeeping about 10 years ago, after Sara attended a mother-daughter banquet with her mom and one of the women at the event handed out honey she had made.
“I thought, ‘Wow, she made her own honey, that’s really cool.’ We bought a hive from her and that’s how we started,” said Sara.
What began as a hobby ultimately turned into a full-time family business.
The Bedillions harvest between 5,000 and 10,000 pounds of honey each year from the more than 200 hives on their 30-acre farm and eight other locations, called out yards.
The couple and their four children, who range in age from 17 to 3, handle the entire honeybee operation, from harvesting the honey twice a year, extracting the sticky golden liquid, bottling and marketing. They also sell honeybee packages (in the spring, beekeepers travel to the Bedillions’ farm to purchase the containers, filled with thousands of bees that will act as colonies back at home), beekeeping supplies, and oxalic acid vaporizer, which kills the varroa mite that has ravaged the honeybee population in recent years.
Their honey products are available at more than 40 stores and restaurants throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania, and their i Internet business has drawn customers worldwide.
“My family and I can make a living farming and to me, that’s the ultimate,” said Bedillion. “We never planned this, but we’ve been doing this for 10 years and we love it.”
Right now, beekeeping is on the upswing in Pennsylvania, with about 3,500 registered beekeepers in the state, according to the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association. The association receives about 300 new registrations each year, said Charles Vorisek, president of the association.
The Bedillions operate one of the state’s nearly 20 commercial apiaries, while about 94 percent of beekeepers have 25 hives or fewer.
The efforts of Pennsylvania’s commercial and small-scale beekeepers are important as bee colonies continue to collapse worldwide in unprecedented numbers.
Since it was recognized in 2006, colony collapse disorder has destroyed colonies at a rate of about 30 percent a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The decline of honeybees – Pennsylvania lost approximately 50 percent of its colonies last year, Vorisek said – has an enormous impact on agriculture because honeybees account for about 33 percent of the food we eat. The loss of honeybees, experts fear, could turn the U.S. into a predominantly food-importing country instead of a food-exporting country.
“Roughly 80 percent of our fruits and vegetables – apples, peaches, pumpkins, cherries, the list goes on – are pollinated by honeybees. Almonds are pollinated solely by honeybees, and in California, where orchards provide a large chunk of the world’s almonds, 80 percent in fact, it has huge consequences. Without the honeybee, we take a hit,” said Steve Repasky, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association.
Bees pollinate $63 million worth of crops in Pennsylvania and more than $15 billion worth throughout the country.
Bedillion points to a combination of factors responsible for colony collapse disorder, including pesticide exposure, the varroa mite, loss of habitat, and a lack of diverse food sources that lead to poor nutrition.
Educating people about the value of bees and promoting beekeeping, Bedillion said, are important. He offers beekeeping lessons, which include how to set up a hive, proper use of tools and equipment, feeding and proper bee space.
“The more people there are who keep bees, the better off we are,” said Bedillion. “One of the things that people can do is make sure that people who are spraying their lawn quit doing that. All those chemicals that people spray on their lawn because they want the perfect yard are wiping bees out.”
When they aren’t tending to hives or harvesting honey, the Bedillions spend much of their time fielding phone calls and answering questions from visitors who drop by the farm for advice, even on holidays.
It’s turned into a 365-days-a-year job, said Sara, but the Bedillions – including 3-year-old Leopold, who recently got his first bee suit and couldn’t wait to head to the bee field with his dad – don’t mind.
“I genuinely love the bees,” said Sara. “They’re just lovely creatures. They take such good care of each other. They are tireless, they are workaholics. I truly admire them. This business has made me so much more aware of nature. We are constantly looking around the yard to see what is blooming, paying attention to the weather, checking on the bees. We live very organically, and we’re aware of how lucky we are to be able to do this. It’s a great life.”
For more information on Bedillion Honey Farm & Farm Market, visit their website at bedillionhoneyfarm.com.