Brothers Kevin and Stephen Mixon have been off of work for an hour, but their mobile phones buzz with text messages every few minutes. The two men are nurse practitioners, but the messages aren’t about medicine; they’re about bees.
For the past five or six years, the brothers have kept honey bees as hobbyists, though this is much more than your average weekend pastime or every-now-and-then project. Stephen keeps about 30 hives, while Kevin tends 80 to 100. The hives are scattered on farms and friends’ land on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It seems whenever they’re not working their day jobs, they’re maintaining their hives or fielding phone calls and texts from less experienced hobbyists who have questions or need help.
“I do something with bees every day,” Kevin says. “Either put together a frame, put together boxes. It just keeps getting larger and larger.”
“The limiting factor is time,” Stephen adds.
The Mixons first started keeping bees with their father, who retired and acquired some hives from a friend.
“We ended up with four hives stuck on the edge of the property, and we didn’t really mess with them,” Stephen says. “The bees were doing their thing, and after six months it was time to go get some honey. There was honey everywhere.”
“That first year I turned those hives into either 13 or 14 by the next winter. It just hasn’t stopped since,” says Kevin, who also sells honey at the Covington Farmers Market.
It’s tough to pin down the number of amateur beekeepers in Louisiana, but there are eight local clubs registered with the larger Louisiana Beekeepers Association. At the Southeast Louisiana Beekeepers branch, where Kevin is president, there are 125 dues-paying members. But the brothers think there are more hobbyists not participating in clubs than there are in them. And there are professional beekeepers throughout the state, too.
Small-scale beekeeping requires little more than a backyard and a watchful eye. Hobbyists must examine their frames, looking for signs of healthy activity and productivity. They can learn to recognize the signs of disease and predators and to safely extract honey when it’s time. There can be a bit of a learning curve, which is why the Mixons’ expertise is in such high demand.
The beehive itself is a humming community of queens, workers and drones. Each hive has lone queen, whose job is to mate with the drones and create more bees. The worker bees shoulder the burden of gathering pollen and nectar to bring back to the hive. They also clean and build the hexagonal cells that make up the hive, nurture growing larva, control the hive’s temperature and protect it from invaders.
Honey bees – the Louisiana state insect – have complex communication methods. When foraging bees locate a food source, they return to the hive to tell the other bees. They do so by performing dances that relay to other bees where the food is; each dance move communicates the location and direction of the pollen source.
These creatures are capturing the attention of a growing populace, as the Mixons have attested. More and more aspiring hobbyists are showing up at association meetings, and more small-scale farmers and enthusiasts are offering land for apiaries. But all the while, there are growing challenges to keeping healthy bees – on any scale.
the birds and the bees
Honey bees are not native to the United States, though we’ve come to rely on them heavily – and for more than just honey. Europeans brought Apis mellifera to North America in the 17th century. Now, we use them to pollinate some $15 billion in crops annually, including okra, onion, cashew, celery, cabbage, chestnut, lemon, lime, cotton, apple and almond. Though there are other pollinators out there, including a long list of native species, it is the honey bee who does most of the work for these major crops. They are such efficient pollinators that industrial agriculture has become dependent on the insect.
Professional beekeepers transport their colonies from farm to farm, unleashing their bees. They buzz from flower to flower to collect nectar and pollen, but inadvertently drop some pollen – the male sex cells of a flower – onto the stigma – the female receptive organ. Without this delicate process, plants cannot set the fruits and vegetables and tree nuts we eat. One in every three bites of food consumed in this country is directly or indirectly pollinated by honey bees.
Honey bees have captured the nation’s attention in recent years because they face threats from the environment.
Viruses, parasites and big farms’ chemical fertilizers and fungicides have contributed to alarming numbers of bee die-offs in the past few years. In the winter of 2012-‘13, nearly one-third of commercial honey bee colonies in the United States died or disappeared. At that level, much of the country’s food supply is at risk. In fact, in March of this year, there were so few bees that the almond crop in California almost collapsed entirely.
The major attention-getting bee problem of late is called colony collapse disorder (CCD), a phenomenon first reported in 2006. With CCD, honey bees inexplicably vanish from the hive, never to return. CCD is actually on the decline, but the bees are still dying. Heavy pesticide use on big farms, malnutrition, parasitic infections and perhaps even the stress of being overworked, spread thin among so many farms that demand their services, the bees face many threats. And farmers lose money when their bees die; if there’s no profit, there are no beekeepers.
If bees are dying, other pollinators, like butterflies, moths, bumblebees and hummingbirds are certainly suffering similar fates. Honey bee die-offs are just more apparent because apiaries are huge colonies with high visibility. We have to work harder to see the effects on other species.
“The bees are the canary in the coal mine,” Stephen says. “The bees themselves are a barometer to environmental health.”
the hobbyists’ challenge
Louisiana hobbyists, who operate on a much smaller scale than their industrial counterparts, have their own, similar challenges.
For the Mixons, mosquito spraying is a big problem. Trucks and planes unleash the pesticide Resmethrin for mosquitoes, but the broad-spectrum pesticide kills bees, too. Last spring, more than half a million of the Mixons’ honey bees died in a single location after a Resmethrin spraying in Tangipahoa Parish.
But the bees are only the most visible victim, the canary in the coal mine.
“It’s killing everything. Every dragon fly, lighting bug, every type of insect, it’s killing it. If it’s a winged insect it’s dead. It’s my biggest soapbox,” says Kevin.
The brothers say colony collapse is no great mystery.
“Sure, there are mites, hive beetles, all these pests. There are diseases. But the colonies that collapse, they’re weakened by pesticides,” Kevin says.
“It’s pesticides,” Stephen echoes. “If you disrupt the hive, they will eventually just leave. If you mess with them enough, they’ll just fly away.”
There are other challenges, too, even for the expert. The Mixons will see hives fail on occasion, though not because of CCD. Sometimes, bees just get sick; other times, the beekeeper is at fault.
“The hives that I have that ‘fail’ are from manipulation error, pests or weak/old queens. If the hives have food – pollen and honey – and enough bees to efficiently operate, collect food and water, clean and guard thehive, they normally do not fail,” Stephen says. If he takes too much honey from the hive, the bees may run out of food. He can accidentally kill a queen while inspecting his apiary. Even if a beekeeper does everything right, there are still external problems like sick or aging queens, mite and hive beetle infestations, and robbing of pollen and honey by stronger hives.
Challenges aside, the Mixons have noticed a growing – and more diverse – populace at their bee club meetings.
“It’s a nice cross-section of inquisitive minds,” Stephen says. “People are just fascinated.”
The brothers say that anyone can learn to be a good beekeeper, as long as they’re observant and persistent. They recommend buying a book on beekeeping and joining a local bee club as the best ways to get started. And, of course, having a mentor like a Mixon certainly can’t hurt.