Feature: Bee Smart

June 2, 2015 in Featured, Summer 2015 Issue by oliviagrider


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David and Lynne Kelton of Lookout Mountain Honey Bees are passionate about teaching others beekeeping skills and appreciation for the vital role bees play in our ecosystem.

story and photos by OLIVIA GRIDER

I step closer to snap a photo as David Kelton holds out a frame he’s just removed from one of his 150 bee hives. He tilts the frame, covered with hundreds of honeybees busily working cells filled with young, so I can get a better view. “See that big one there?” he asks, pointing. “That’s the queen.”

Next he shows me a baby bee – lighter in color and furry looking – and a newborn just emerging through the wax cap over its cell.

Bees swarm around my head, and my camera lens is only inches from the mass of bees clinging to the frame. Somehow, I don’t think about what even one of the thousands of insects buzzing in the surrounding hives and air could do to me. I don’t recall being sick for days after a sting from a bee that slipped through an open window and into my first-grade reading circle. My mind doesn’t conjure images of my 10-year-old self throwing up in Birmingham’s East Lake Park after a giant red wasp flew down the sleeve of my T-shirt (unbeknownst to me) and was crushed when I lowered my arm.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]I’m so focused on the pictures I’m taking and the captivating knowledge David and his wife, Lynne, share about the bees and beekeeping that I forget to be afraid. Plus, it’s easy to adopt the Keltons’ carefree attitude. David isn’t even wearing beekeeper’s gear, and he and Lynne are obviously comfortable amongst the hives.

A short while later, I’m doing something even less expected: peering through a microscope at a bee vagina. David inseminates bees in order to generate queens that will produce a lot of brood and honey. “It looks just like a woman, doesn’t it?” he asks with a mix of awe and bashfulness. He is disturbingly right. I didn’t even know whether bees had vaginas. Despite the nebulous “birds and the bees” saying, it’s not something I – or most people, I feel confident conjecturing – have considered.

But this is all part of the Keltons’ world – a world they gladly share with others, from the mildly curious to those who want to become serious beekeepers.

And there seems to be no shortage of people on this spectrum. Despite the rural setting of Lookout Mountain Honey Bees, located near Gadsden, Ala., on 30 acres where the Keltons also live, three enthusiasts drop by during my two brief visits, and the Keltons take several calls to answer questions.
One visitor, Pat McCarty, attended Lookout Mountain Honey Bees’ Beginner Beekeeping Class, held one evening a week for eight weeks starting in January and culminating in a March field day in which the Keltons demonstrate how to set up a hive. A Michigan native, McCarty recently moved to Arab, Ala., after living in Alaska for 18 years. He became interested in beekeeping because his son keeps bees and because he’s had trouble with allergies since moving to Alabama. Eating local honey each day helps, he says.

Honey from within 50 miles of a person’s home is produced from flowering plants that can cause allergy problems in spring and fall, and eating this honey – so long as pollen isn’t fine-filtered from it – helps a person’s immune system adjust, David says.

McCarty says he recommends taking a class like the Keltons’ to anyone who wants to start keeping bees. All major points are covered in the class, he says, and participants receive a beekeeping book. “David’s got a neat setup,” McCarty says. “He’s got everything right here. He’s got a lot of experience. You can call him up and talk to him. He’s very helpful in that sense.”

The Beginner Beekeeper Class grew to almost 40 students this year, prompting the Keltons to split them into two groups and hold the class two nights a week.

“I have doctors and lawyers and bookkeepers come to these,” David says of the annual class, now in its seventh year. “I even had an Alabama Supreme Court justice and his wife come to one. I teach them every aspect of beekeeping I can.”

Last year, the Keltons started allowing people who couldn’t attend the eight-week class to attend only the field day, for a crash course in beekeeping. In addition to the beginners’ course, the Keltons hold a queen-rearing class a few times a year and also sell bees and almost every type of beekeeping supply and equipment imaginable. “We sell anything you would need as a beekeeper,” Lynne says. “Anything from bee jackets to extractors [used to remove honey from frames].” They sell honey as well.

David was 13 when he began beekeeping in 1963 after finding an abandoned hive in the woods during a Boy Scout campout and asking the property owner if he could have it. Soon afterward, he saw a man catching a swarm of bees gathered in a fruit tree across the street from his school, Alma Hinson Jr. High, in Attalla, Ala. The man’s name was Ray Martin, and he became a mentor to David, helping him start his first hives and learn how to manage bees. Within a month, David had 12 hives and was smitten with beekeeping.

“It just relaxes and calms you when you’re out there watching the bees,” he says. “You see them come and go, you see when they’re nervous. It’s like sitting down and reading a good book for some people. I like opening a hive and watching the bees, seeing what they’re doing.”
During the summers of 1964 to 1967, David taught beekeeping to Boy Scouts at Comer Boy Scout Reservation in Mentone, Ala., helping them earn their beekeeping merit badges.

His hobby fell to the wayside after he moved to Birmingham in 1974 and was occupied for decades by a career as an electrician and the owner of Dr. K’s Fuel Injection and Wiring, which manufactured wiring harnesses for street rods, kit cars and Ford, GM and Chrysler prototypes. In 2002, the Keltons bought a farm on Lookout Mountain, and David thought he might get a get a couple of beehives to care for as a pastime.

The idea has morphed considerably since then. During two weekends in late March, almost 700 people descended on Lookout Mountain Honey Bees to pick up 1,100 “bee packages,” boxes that include a queen and 3 pounds of bees each. Typical customers are new beekeepers or those who have been beekeeping for awhile and have lost hives or want to add new ones, Lynne says.

The Keltons pick up packages in Baxley, Ga., from a company that specializes in supplying packaged bees, and bring them to northeast Alabama every spring as part of their efforts to encourage beekeeping in the area. The bees are Italian, Lynne says, because they are a gentler bee compared to other types. “You don’t want a beginner beekeeper starting out with something like a Russian,” she says.

One person who purchased bee packages this year is Marlene Green, an accountant who lives in Hayden, Ala. She began beekeeping in 2012 and joined a beekeepers’ group, the Blount County Bee Association, after losing her first hive. Everyone in the group recommended getting bees from the Keltons, she says.

“We were so impressed with the operation when we came to get our bees last Saturday,” Green says, noting that all the boxes were tagged and ready to pick up. “They were so organized, and everything was so well done. There was no wait. They were just right on everything. Any questions you have, they’re happy to answer them.”

At times, the Keltons also sell their own bees and complete hives. David raises and sells 150 to 200 of Lookout Mountain Honey Bees’ line of queen bees called Tyker Queens. The Keltons have built a honey-processing facility, a store for selling beekeeping supplies and equipment and a lab where David tests for diseases that affect honeybees, inseminates queens and examines pollen samples to determine origin.

Green echoes David’s words when she explains what she likes about bees. “They are fascinating,” she says. “I have such a stressful job. I get home and go out there, and I’m not afraid of them. It’s relaxing.”

Part of the therapy of hive watching involves learning to read the story of what’s happening inside. David says it’s possible to tell what’s going on by observing how the bees fly in and out. For example, he knows how much pollen they’re bringing back by how they light on the hive’s landing board. If every fourth or fifth bee is carrying pollen, the queen is likely laying lots of eggs because pollen is needed to feed the brood.

In addition to helping new beekeepers, David uses his knowledge as director of the Alabama Master Beekeeping Program and as a member of the Alabama Beekeepers Association’s board of directors. He’s also past president of the Etowah County Beekeepers Association. Lynne is one of two Welsh Honey Judges in Alabama. “Welsh” refers to a judging method developed in Britain, and, according to the University of Georgia, Welsh training is the most stringent of its kind in the world for aspiring honey judges. Lynne teaches and speaks at bee clubs, giving members advice on preparing their honey.

David also speaks to various groups, and part of what makes him so passionate about educating people is the significant decline in the worldwide honeybee population that has occurred since the 1990s.

Researchers coined the phrase Colony Collapse Disorder to describe the phenomena, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency leading the federal government’s response to CCD, defines as a mysterious problem resulting in a dead colony with no adult bees or dead bee bodies, but with a live queen and usually honey and immature bees still present. These bees eventually die because a hive cannot sustain itself without worker bees. The agency says no scientific cause for CCD has been proven, but David says he’s looked at the research and come up with a definitive, macro-level conclusion – one many beekeepers share.

“Man’s interference has caused 99.99 percent of it,” he says. “We’ve got pesticides and herbicides that are sprayed every day that affect all the insects.” During logging operations, for instance, after trees are clear-cut, herbicide is sprayed to kill vegetation on the ground, then pesticide is applied, killing all insects, including honeybees, David says.

Antibiotics and pesticides also are interfering with the digestive bacteria in bees, he adds. And commercial pollination practices are leading to tired, worn-out and stressed bees that are susceptible to viruses and pests.

In the past, farmers kept honeybee hives on their farms to pollinate crops. But in the age of mega-farms, they rely on large commercial beekeeping operations that are focused not on producing honey, but on transporting bees around the country to pollinate different crops when they flower. A truckload of bees might start out in Florida, for example, and travel four or five days through various climates to California, where they pollinate almond orchards for two months in early spring. They come back to Florida, then go to Maine for blueberry pollination in mid-May and on to Massachusetts to pollinate cranberries. They could head to Montana and the Dakotas to pollinate alfalfa and sunflowers in summer.

David says it’s common for beekeeping operations to receive $150 to $200 per hive per week to pollinate almonds. Providing 100 hives would equal $200,000 per week, with limited expenses, he says, making $1 million worth of work in a season feasible. “It’s all about the dollar,” he says.
Often, bees in transit are fed a sucrose syrup instead of honey, and this processed syrup has chemicals in it that adversely affect bees, David adds. The crops they pollinate are typically treated with pesticide. Polyurethane and other chemicals in hive boxes and frames made from plastic rather than wood also cause problems for bees, he says. “The humans are killing the bees,” he says. “The bees aren’t killing themselves. They’re doing what they can to survive.”

Researchers are investigating the potential CCD causes David mentions and more.

Honeybee health is everyone’s business, David says, and that’s why education is so important. “Pollinators affect every third bite of food you eat,” he says. “Without our pollinators, in four or five years, we won’t be able to feed all the people in the U.S.”

Experts say a part of the solution could lie in large numbers of individuals and small groups setting up hives to pollinate personal and community gardens. It’s the kind of relationship between humans and bees that the Keltons are promoting.

With a heart condition, arthritis and a back injury that was compounded by two auto accidents within eight months, David says he knows he should retire. And, technically, he has. The beekeeping operation is a hobby – albeit one that has him working almost every day. But he can’t seem to let go. With the help of his son, he’s building a modified hydraulic lift with scissor jaws that will allow him and others who are disabled to work honeybee hives without picking up heavy objects. He shows me a remote control he’ll use operate the machine.

“I enjoy helping people with beekeeping,” David says. “I feel like I’m contributing to man’s livelihood and survival.”

He believes bees themselves have valuable lessons to teach mankind as well. He says when he witnesses people being rude to one another, he wants to say: “Go look in a beehive. Those bees work together in a team; they provide a nice place to live. They produce food for themselves and for us. If we were half as smart as honeybees, we would be much better off.”


To Learn More About Honeybees…

}Visit Lookout Mountain Honey Bees at 1590 Tabor Cutoff Road, Gadsden, AL 35904. More info: lookoutmountainhoneybees.com; 256-523-4767

}Take the Beginner Beekeeping Class, held one evening a week for eight weeks beginning in January. Cost: $110 for individual; $160 for couple. Includes: dinner each night (Lynne Kelton cooks since many people come straight from work), handouts, a beekeeping book, field day attendance and the chance to win door prizes, including a complete hive.

}Participate in the Beginner Beekeeper Field Day, held on a Saturday in March each year,  9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

}attend national honeybee day events sponsored by the Keltons in Attalla, Ala., Aug. 22. See Events page for more info.[/s2If]