Courses in Beekeeping

Courses in beekeeping can lead to a hobby or vocation that generates income; this article includes tips for the amateur apiarist on getting started, equipment and bee hives.


| February/March 1992



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Tending to the beehive.


PHOTO: JOEL BOURNE

The ancient art of the apiarist is almost a religion in North Carolina, which boasts more beekeepers than any other state in the nation. Like many states, North Carolina offers courses in beekeeping, usually provided formally or informally by local beekeeping clubs. About 12,000 beekeepers, mostly hobbyists, practice the Zen-like craft that blends the practicality of pollination with a profitable sideline business. I say Zen because I believe it takes meditation and a certain purity of spirit to blithely work with something akin to a swarm of hypodermic needles. If you've got patience and determination, taking courses in beekeeping (or asking a beekeeping friend to show you the ropes) can put you on your way to becoming a master apiarist.

The rewards of beekeeping are hard to beat. The botanical payoffs of bees run the gamut from acerola to zigzag clover: Bees boost the production and quality of any garden or orchard. Many beekeepers rent their bee hives to farmers for the blooming season, and the resulting honey they produce in the process is pure gravy. A good bee hive, after all, can produce 100 pounds of honey a year. And then there are the spinoffs: beeswax candles, honey candy, mead or honey wine and bee pollen. No one knows this better than Irvin Rackley, an Edgecombe County, N.C., apiarist who sells honey.

The Rackley place isn’t that hard to find. It lies off a North Carolina blacktop that meanders past cotton fields, cattle and patches of sea-green collards. I was told to look for a big willow on the right just past a red-brick Baptist church and be on the lookout for two signs offering collards and honey for sale. Three dirt roads later, I pulled the truck into a yard as neat and spare as Quaker kitchen. Collards filled a garden nearby, their pungent aroma piercing the fall air while eight snow-white beehives stood like squat sentinels behind it.

I parked the truck next to a mobile home, and the door opened expectantly. Mr. Rackley emerged elegantly appointed in work books and white jumpsuit.

"I don't make a big show of it," Rackley says as we walk into his house. "Most of what I do is for hobby and for my strawberries. But I am hooked on it. I have never seen anything in my life quite as fascinating as working with bees." This is strong praise coming from a man who left his family's small farm in Wallace, N.C., in 1939 and never looked back. He was drafted by the army in World War II and sent to India. After the war, he went to work for the Atlantic Coastline Railroad. He spent the next 42 years directing freights and passenger trains throughout the South.

But the farm never really left him, and when he retired in 1983, he started growing a couple of acres of strawberries and collards on a small plot of land in Edgecombe County. That's when he got into bees. But it wasn't entirely new to him. "My grandmother kept a hive 25 feet outside her back door," Rackley says. "She used to go out with a bee veil and a smock — nothing on her hands — and with a smoker and a butcher knife, she'd open up that hive, slice out the comb, bring it in the kitchen and divide it up between the children. We'd put it on hot biscuits baked in a wood cookstove," Rackley says, smiling at the memory.





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