Dave and Cindy Collins got into beekeeping 12 years ago because they were worried about what would happen if there were no more bees in the world.
Dave, a retired engineer, and Cindy, a physical therapist, heard about what is known as “Colony Collapse” disorder, when the number of worker bees drop dramatically because of pesticides or invading pests, such as the Varroa mite, which is spreading and wreaking havoc on hives in the U.S.
The threats to bees — honeybees in particular — motivated the couple.
“We read about (Colony Collapse) and thought, ‘You know, we can help. We’ve got four acres out here. We could put some bees out here,’” Dave Collins said. “Also we have a relatively large garden and we saw no honeybees in our garden ... so we said ‘Why don’t we start raising bees.’
“We started out with two hives and our garden significantly improved and we had bees on our flowers and our trees.”
Bees are now a major part of the Collins lives. The couple keeps honeybee hives at their Hoschton home. They even have one of Georgia’s new “Save the Honeybees” license plates.
The Collinses are also members of the Beekeepers Club of Gwinnett County — Dave Collins is the group’s president, although his term ends in November.
“We’re learning more about the native bees because they’re important as well,” Collins said. “They do pollination as well. The carpenter bees are all over our our flowers and we’ve had bumble bees and sweat bees — bees in general. If you create an environment for honeybees, it helps the other bees as well.”
A place for beekeeping enthusiasts to gatherThe Beekeepers Club of Gwinnett County is one of about 50 beekeeping clubs across Georgia that are associated with the Georgia Beekeeping Association.
The Gwinnett club, which turned 10 this summer, meets at 7 p.m. on the second Tuesday of the month in Module G at Hebron Baptist Church in Dacula. Its members are also involved in public education about bees.
“Probably our biggest educational opportunity is the Gwinnett County Fair, which is coming up,” Dave Collins said. “We have a large booth there ... and we have just unbelievable foot traffic coming through our booth.”
Despite its name, the group draws members from four or five counties depending on what programs the association is working on and as members in the area gain or lose beehives.
“We actually, through the Georgia Beekeepers Association, advertise with them as to what our next event is, so anyone who reads the newsletter can say ‘Well, that sounds interesting. I think I’ll go to Gwinnett beekeepers and check out that speaker,” Collins said. “At any given time, we might have people from Fulton County, Barrow, Gwinnett, Jackson, Forsyth, Athens, which is Clarke County.
“We have people all over the area.”
The group’s president said membership currently fluctuates between about 75 and 100 members.
Membership peaks in March when the group holds its annual Bee School at Hebron Baptist.
“By signing up for the Bee School, you’re automatically a member of the club so in March and April, our club is at its highest membership,” Collins said.
Beekeeping is a complex business
While beekeeping may be a hobby that evokes images of people in white protective suits keeping bees in boxes in their backyards, the business of beekeeping is not that simple.
It requires frequent attention to monitor the health of the hive.
“I’ll tell ya, beekeeping is getting more and more challenging every year,” Dave Collins said. “I’m sure people remember their grandparents that had bees in their backyard or somewhere and they just used to put them out there and collected the honey.
“But now there’s so many issues that we’re dealing with.”
Cindy Collins added, “It’s a lot of learning and it’s definitely a science.”
One of those issues is that beekeepers have to be vigilant and check for the presence of Varroa mites, which can destroy a hive if action isn’t taken to stop the invaders.
The mites latch onto bees when they are larvae and live off the pollinators’ fatty tissue as parasites but also bring disease into the hive.
“It used to be that you didn’t have to worry about them, but now if you don’t treat for mites, your hive will eventually die,” Dave Collins said. “And everybody has mites in their hives no matter what they say. It’s either they have mites, or they’re going to have mites.”
The couple tackles the mite issue by monitoring for the pests and treating the hive when needed.
There are two ways to check for mites. One involves placing a sticky board under the hive and waiting 24 hours to pull it out to count the number of mites that have fallen onto it. Three or more mites on the board means treatment is needed.
The other way is to scoop up a cup of bees and put them in rubbing alcohol.
“It kills the bees, but when you do that, the mites fall off and then you pour that into a strainer, get rid of the bees and count the remaining mites,” Collins said.
Treatment for mites involves using a vaporizer to distribute oxalic acid which, while harmless to the bees, is deadly to the mites. The couple removes the honey in the hive first, however.
Pesticides are also a constant threat that beekeepers have been wary of because the poisons can get on the bees when they are flying around — they can fly a few miles away from the hive before returning — and then be introduced to the hive.
Dealing with the queen — and the winter
Other issues beekeepers have to monitor include the number of bees in the hive and productivity of the hive’s queen.
The Collins, for example, lost one-third of their hives during the winter. In the winter, flowers and other plants that provide the nectar that bees use to make the honey they live off of are not producing nectar.
The couple has to plan ahead for that by leaving the honey in the brood boxes, where the eggs are located, untouched.
“We have to leave honey for the hive to eat during the winter time,” Dave Collins said.
If the stored honey levels start to get low in the winter, the Collins’ feed the bees sugar water, which the bees can convert to a honey that they can eat.
The bee numbers can quickly recover in the spring if the queen is productive. Dave Collins said a queen bee can lay as many as 2,000 eggs a day during the spring and summer. Still, the Dave and Cindy do split their hives and catch swarms to increase their bee population.
Splitting a hive means taking some of the frames in an existing hive with bees, including the queen, and using them to create a new hive.
The removal of a queen doesn’t bother the original hive because they have a method to accommodate for that.
“They actually make their own queen,” Collins said. “It’s a cool process. You take some frames with the existing queen and put them into a new hive and then you leave some eggs in the old hive and the bees will start feeding those very young eggs royal jelly and that royal jelly will produce a new queen for the hive.”
Similarly, the Collins will replace a queen if they feel the existing one — which can live for three to five years — is becoming inconsistent in her egg production.
That is, of course, unless the bees don’t sense their queen is off her game and decide to create a new one first.
“Eventually the old queen will get killed by the new queen,” Dave Collins said.
Why continue beekeeping?
The Collins currently have nine hives that they look after at their homes.
In exchange for the couple ensuring a local honeybee population continues to exist, the bees provide some benefits for the Collins.
The bees pollinate plants in the couple’s garden, and while the couple isn’t certified to sell products made from the fruits of the bees hard work in stores, they do sell some of the honey from their hives.
Cindy Collins also makes lip balm, lotion bars and candles from wax and other products collected from the bees.
“I’ve enjoyed the products of the hive, and what I can do with the honey, the beeswax,” she said. “There are products that are made from pollen and propolis. That’s been interesting to me.”
The couple sells the honey and products by word of mouth, a lot of times to friends, since they can’t sell the products in stores.
In all, Dave Collins said the environmental and food benefits that come from having the honeybees around balance out the effort that goes into maintaining the hives.
“It’s a passion,” he said. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s very rewarding.”