By Kimberly Armstrong, Dare County Cooperative Extension
Don Babin is busy, as busy as the bees in the 25 beehives he keeps on the Outer Banks. From Manteo to Corolla and every seaside town in between, he oversees the care and maintenance of thousands of bees – 50,000 to 60,000 per hive.
When it comes to beekeeping, we dare say Don is the bee’s knees. With 60 years of experience, he knows the buzz about bees. An agricultural student at the University of New Hampshire and later at the University of Iowa, he helped research honeybees (while earning a whopping $1.50 an hour). After school, he set up a beehive business that provided honeybee pollination services for blueberries, apple orchards, and various vines in New Hampshire. Honeybees help maximize the pollination process, resulting in better crop yield and value. His reputation as a beekeeper grew with his business, leading to the establishment of 150 hives. He remained a beekeeper until he retired (for a while) and eventually settled on the Outer Banks where, unable to resist, he re-entered the wonderful world of bees.
Honeybees in the United States are a diverse mix of breeds introduced from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Most beekeepers choose from Italian, Carniolan or Russian bees. Don’s bees are Italian, preferred for their gentleness and manageability.
He houses his bees in vertically stacked modular boxes known as the Langstroth system. Here the bees have room to move and the colony is isolated from the weather and protected from predators. It’s the best there is after a hollow tree. The frames that support the comb blade on which the bees will do all their work fit neatly into the boxes.
Every 10 to 14 days, Don leaves in his pickup truck, picks up his friend Jimmy Daily, and they set out to conduct hive inspections, from town to town and hive to hive.
Don approaches a beehive neatly decked out in head-to-toe protective beekeeping clothing – a must-have to prevent stings. He pumps the bellows of the bee smoker and soft clouds of smoke float above the hive. The smoke calms the bees, making them less defensive, allowing them to do what they need to do safely.
Last spring he collected 276 pounds of honey. But the well-being of the bees always comes first. “In the fall I make sure they have enough honey for the winter. The worst thing you can do is not give the bees enough honey. As we get closer to winter I won’t be extracting the honey because I want to make sure they have enough.” And he’ll prepare his hives for colder temperatures by wrapping them in black landscape fabric, which is porous and absorbs the heat so his bees are warm and cozy.
He controls the bottom box, which contains the incubator or nursery, where the eggs, larvae and pupae develop as they feed on pollen, nectar or honey. During inspections, Don is always on the lookout for the dreaded Varroa mite – a parasitic mite that feeds and lives on a honeybee, as well as feeds and reproduces on the developing brood. He can detect the symptoms quite quickly and will safely medicate the hive to protect it from the mite. “If you wait too long to treat, it’s very hard to save them,” he says.
Don checks in with the Queen, careful not to disturb her Highness while the faithful worker bees buzz around, tending to her every need. They’ve had this behavior since she was a larva feeding on a diet of royal jelly (a protein-rich secretion from glands on the heads of young workers). We can’t say that this little lady doesn’t deserve it – the future of the colony depends on her. Laying up to 1,600 eggs a day is no small feat!
Visiting and inspecting all cabinets takes 2 to 3 days. Back at home, Don starts extracting honey from the frames he has taken out of the cupboards. He uses an electric, heated blade to remove the wax coating covering the honey. “It’s an art to run the knife through the wash like this,” he says. “You don’t want to lose honey.” He places four frames in the hand crank at a time and the honey harvest begins. Using centrifugal force, the frames are rotated and the honey is extracted from the combs, which collects at the bottom of the drum, where it can be released through a tap and into a bucket. The honey is filtered and bottled in one-pound jars with handmade labels.
“When you consider how many bees it takes to make one pound of honey and how much travel they have to make, it’s mind-boggling,” says Don. It is estimated that it takes two million flower visits and 55,000 miles of flights for bees to make one pound of honey.
Babin Apiary honey is available at several farm markets in Outer Banks, including Secotan (Roanoke Island), Dowdy (Nags Head), and Avon (Hatteras Island).
“I have a passion for beekeeping,” says Don with an enthusiasm and energy that belies his 85 years. “One of my greatest pleasures is just looking at them. I am so intrigued by them. They have their system and there doesn’t seem to be any bickering, they’re just doing their job.” He pauses for a moment and then speaks earnestly. “I tell people that if we could work and get along like bees, the world would be a much better place.”
What a wise observation and sweet sentiment. Sweet as honey.
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