Honeybees are one of the most important members of our ecosystem. As pollinators, they play a vital role in the growth and health of countless types of flowers, trees and crops. And of course, many creatures enjoy the honey they produce, including us humans.
Beekeepers, or beekeepers as they are often called, spend much of their time managing their own colonies of these little wonders. A bubbly curiosity has led many locals to take up beekeeping as a hobby or even a profession, and a good number of those local bee enthusiasts can be traced back to The Heart of Virginia Beekeepers.
According to President Tommy Nelson, The Heart of Virginia Beekeepers is a local organization that aims to educate the public about honeybees to protect the local bee population and reduce the fear of honeybees. The club has an outreach program where members give presentations on honeybees and beekeeping, and members meet monthly at the local Prince Edward County Extension Office.
A resident of Charlotte County, Nelson has kept bees for about 15 years, but remembers working with bees all his childhood.
“Bees were in my life as a child,” Nelson said during an interview in early February. “My father had bees and in the early 1960s we found trees on the farm with bees and harvested honey from them.”
Of course, a lot has changed in beekeeping over the years. Today, Nelson has about 40 beehives in Charlotte County. He considers his bees a secondary business through his successful sale of honey, and he is also known locally as the person to call if someone wants to remove unattended bees from their property, a task he and other members of the group will do from the spring. working on it until midsummer.
Founded around 2003, the club serves as an excellent resource for both established beekeepers and “first-time” beekeepers. With a huge coverage area, members come from all over central Virginia, including counties such as Appomattox, Prince Edward, Buckingham, Cumberland, Charlotte, Dinwiddie, Lunenburg, Nottoway, and Powhatan.
“These people travel quite a distance to get to Farmville for a bee club,” Nelson said.
But the locals used to travel much further to get their beekeeping fix. According to Nelson, before the local group existed, beekeepers from the area went to Lynchburg to join the nearest beekeeping club. The founding members decided to break away from the Lynchburg group to form a local association, and The Heart of Virginia Beekeepers was born. The club itself is a member of a district of beekeeping groups, and those districts, in turn, are part of a statewide beekeepers’ association.
Beekeepers of all ages and backgrounds gather at the club’s monthly meeting to discuss agenda items and listen to programs and presentations about what’s going on in the current year’s bee calendar, a helpful resource members use to keep track of important dates. such as when to set out “bait baskets” to attract unattended bees or when honey must be harvested. This is especially helpful for newer beekeepers.
“They’re still learning as they go,” Nelson added.
One of the group’s biggest annual activities takes place from late January to late February, when the club hosts a beekeeping school. This is a crash course for those interested in beekeeping. Students will learn the ins and outs of beekeeping, and by April 1, they will have received their equipment and woodwork and are ready to welcome their first bees.
Nelson stressed that most members of the group are “backyard beekeepers” who generally start with about two hives. If successful, those amazing little honey bees will serve as a source of honey for themselves and their families.
So, what makes this such an exciting hobby for so many people? There are several reasons why someone would want to become a beekeeper. While Nelson is the first to admit it’s not a cheap hobby, beekeeping can bring great satisfaction to people, whether it’s getting in touch with nature or doing something good for the environment.
“I started with bees because I had a big garden, and I felt that bees and a garden went together,” he laughed. “I don’t have such a big garden now and I have more bees.”
Cumberland resident and club member Dale Pruitt said he became interested in honeybees after witnessing his father raising bees. Pruitt, who has had up to eight hives at a time, said he joined the group to stay on top of beekeeping strategies.
“It’s not an exact science, so every day it’s something different,” Pruitt said. “It’s amazing to see how a group of insects works for the benefit of the group.”
Club member Casey Fletcher, who lives on the Cumberland County side of Farmville, said she started beekeeping seven years ago when she lived in Springfield, Massachusetts.
“A beekeeper from South Hadley was looking for land to set up beehives, and I had 11 acres that I tended organically,” she recalls. “I’ve always wanted to get into beekeeping, so it was the perfect opportunity to learn it!”
After two years of mentorship, Fletcher purchased the beekeeper’s hives and began managing them under his direction.
A year and a half ago, Fletcher moved to Farmville and quickly realized that the change in climate meant she had to change the way she managed her bees. She was introduced to The Heart of Virginia Beekeepers when a tree with an unattended colony of honeybees fell during a storm.
“I was referred to Tommy Nelson for help in saving this colony,” she said. “He taught me about the ‘gum tree hive’, helped me save this colony and introduced me to the Heart of Virginia Beekeepers.”
Fletcher has managed up to six hives at a time, but currently she only has one after taking some time to learn how Virginia’s climate affects bees. She looks forward to rebuilding that number next season.
While spring is almost in the heart of Virginia, Nelson explained that for local beekeepers, bee season begins the day after the winter solstice in December.
“It’s a gradual build up,” he said. “At this time of year, beekeepers are reading and studying and trying to decide whether to do the same this year as they did last year.”
For Nelson, of course, the coming season means a growing list of customers needing bee removal services.
“We’re just waiting for spring to do that work.”
However, not all the work for successful beekeeping is done by humans. As the darkness of the evening shortens, the trees are preparing to bud. The bees are also looking forward to the coming months.
“The bees are connected to plant life,” Nelson added, “so they have to adjust their population so that when spring comes they get close to the peak population so they have the numbers to do the work in looking for the pollen and nectar they need.”
In late winter, beekeepers are busy checking their hives to see if there is enough food in the box so the bees don’t starve in mid-March.
Like crops, the honey produced by bees is heavily influenced by the weather. Beekeepers usually harvest their honey between mid-June and 1 July. If the season has been good, the club members get together in the autumn for a special honey tasting. Members showcase their best honey harvested that same year, and categories include light, medium, and dark honey. While some beekeepers take their honey to bigger competitions like the State Fair, the club’s honey tasting is just for fun.
For the likes of Fletcher, the club has served as a fantastic resource for all aspects of honeybee breeding.
“Being part of this group has already been invaluable,” she said. “I attended seminars on best practices for hives management, enrolled in a course and connected with a local community of beekeepers of all experience levels. When teaching bees, there is no greater resource than those who face the same environmental factors as you. Beekeeping is both a science and an art, and I love that the association provides a space where I can seek advice, skills building opportunities, equipment and livestock. And how many times can you hang out with a group of people and laugh at bee jokes?”
For beekeeping questions or more information about the Heart of Virginia Beekeepers, visit https://heartofvirginiabeekeepers.org/ or email Club Secretary Mary Jane Morgan at email@example.com.