On a muggy August morning, Elizabethton resident Joe Schultz donned some protective gear, grabbed a bee smoker and prepared to harvest the honey produced this season by the thousands of bees in his eight hives.
The honey, however, is simply a bonus. Schultz maintains his hives as part of his personal effort to preserve these valuable insects and ensure plenty of pollinators for Tennessee gardens.
Schultz invited a photographer and editor from the Elizabethton STAR to observe the harvest, and offered some reassurance when he detected some slight trepidation in his guests.
Honeybees are not typically aggressive, but Schultz said he can understand why his actions in harvesting the honey could upset them.
“If someone came and took the roof off my house, I’d become aggressive, too,” he joked.
He uses the hand-held smoker to produce wafts of smoke that have a calming effect on the bees.
Schultz knows his bees, and he’s enthusiastic when he shares information on bees and beekeeping with other people. The Elizabethton resident is also a member of the Washington County Beekeepers Association.
He marvels at the fact that these winged insects — a rarity among the world’s animals — produce a food that humans can eat.
The bee-human association dates back to the dawn of history.
“Archaeologists have found edible honey in King Tut’s tomb,” Schultz remarked.
Honey has also served some other purposes other than as a food source.
“Alexander the Great was embalmed in honey,” Schultz said.
After he removes sections called “supers” from his hive, he takes them into his garage and closes the door. He explained that the bees would come looking for their honey if he didn’t complete the process in the enclosed garage.
With a few stray bees buzzing around overhead light fixtures, Schultz gets down to business. He utilizes a pick to scrape the cells to release the honey. He also uses an electric uncapping knife, which is basically a hot blade used to slice the tops of honeybee cells in the honeycomb to release the honey.
“Harvesting is messy, hot work,” he said.
In his early years as a beekeeper, he wore a veil but not gloves while harvesting. Then, after developing a mild allergy to bee stings, he had to fully suit up to protect himself.
In 2012, Schultz harvested 300 pounds of honey from three hives.
That’s a lot of effort on the part of the bees, he said, noting that to make one pound of honey, worker bees fly about 55,000 miles.
He touts the merits of freshly-harvested honey over the product sold in supermarkets.
“That stuff is so hyper-filtrated that it removes too much of the good stuff,” he said.
A hive at its peak can house 60,000 to 80,000 bees, but each hive has only one queen that can lay 1,000 to 1,500 eggs each day.
“The queen mates one time with five or six drones,” Schultz said. These matings will keep the female fertile for the next five years.
After the mating, drones serve no other purpose in a hive.
“They don’t work. They don’t care for offspring,” Schultz said, “In the fall, the workers escort them out of the hive and won’t let them back in.”
Honeybees have existed for some 30 million years, and nature has perfected them for their purpose.
“A bee’s body is designed for honey-making and pollination,” Schultz said.
In Tennessee, the top sources of pollen bees use for making honey are clover, tulip-poplar and black locust, according to Schultz.
“In the mountains, you also get sour-wood,” he said.
Schultz harvests his honey only once a year, and he will not take honey from a weak hive.
So far, his hives have thrived, but beekeepers have faced some recent problems in maintaining healthy hives.
“There are a number of imported pests that can affect a hive,” Schultz said. “Varroa mites will sit on top of a bee and suck their blood out.”
The region has avoided the prospect of hybrization with Africanized bees. Schultz said East Tennessee has fortunately not provided a foothold for the Africanized honeybees known as “killer bees.”
Schultz said these bees are very aggressive in comparison with those typically kept in hives by beekeepers. If their space is violated, these bees are ready to “lock and load,” he added.
Climate has prevented the spread of these bees from their stronghold in the extreme Southern United States in such states as Texas, Louisiana and Florida.
“Colder weather doesn’t agree with them,” Schultz said.
The biggest danger to local hives is a phenomenon known as “hive collapse.” Schultz explained that in a hive collapse, larvae bees and honey are still present, but all the other bees — the queen, the workers, the drones — vanish.
A hungry bear can also pose a threat, and Schultz said that his neighbors have spotted the occasional bear.
The process of making honey starts with the bees gathering nectar from flowers that they then mix with enzymes produced by their own bodies. They store the honey in cells within the hive that they cap with honeycomb at the right stage.
Schultz has been keeping bees for about eight years.
It’s not all about the honey, however. Schultz is advocate for the importance of bees in the ecosystem.
“Honey is just a side benefit,” he said.
Schultz said the State of Tennessee recognizes that the future of agriculture in the Volunteer States depends on bees and beekeepers who maintain at least two or three hives. The state government even offer grants that will pay for as much of half of the expense of new hives and affiliated beekeeping equipment.
Schultz said such grants are wise investments in the future.
“If we lose the bees, we will be in big trouble,” he said.
Schultz and his wife, Patty, moved to Elizabethton from Nashville in 2002 after they both retired from work as registered nurses.
They are the parents of a son, Joseph T. Schultz III, who resides in California.
September is also recognized as National Honey Month in the United States. To celebrate, Schultz will be promoting bees when he presents a program on beekeeping on Saturday, Sept. 21, from 10 a.m. to noon for Build It Up East Tennessee. The organization’s mission is to improve the health of the community and economy and preserve the region’s cultural heritage through the promotion of local, sustainably grown food.
“It’s an organization that is very interested in self-sustaining lifestyles,” Schultz said.
Schultz’s workshop will be held at Shakti in the Mountains, a Johnson City-based organization devoted to offering a multitude of classes and workshops for integrating spirit, mind and body. The group’s headquarters are located at 409 E. Unaka Ave., Johnson City.
On top of teaching how to harvest delicious honey, Schultz will educate those attending the workshop about the importance of bees for ensuring that gardens gets properly pollinated. His workshop will cover the basics of safely maintaining your own backyard hive.
The workshop will be held in the office of Shakti in the Mountains at 409 E. Watauga Ave., Johnson City. For more information, email Schultz at Joe2patty2@comcast.net.