Beekeeping yields sweet rewards

By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer,

Dressed in a white canvas suit – complete with gloves and a netted veil – David Brown approaches a little stack of white wooden boxes and removes the top floor of his beehive. Dozens of buzzing insects emerge, and hundreds more cling to the rack he pries loose for inspection. The surface of the rack gleams with shining amber honey, lovingly tucked into perfect hexagons.

“This is looking pretty good,” Brown observes, touching some of the cells which are filled and sealed shut with wax. “They’ve already started capping a lot, here. They’ve been busy.”

Tucked between cotton fields in the Mechanicsville community, Brown’s beehive is a source of relaxation, amusement, and last but not least, some rather delicious honey. Though he’s only been beekeeping for three years, Brown says the hobby has proven educational and rewarding.

“I enjoy it. I love it,” he says. “I like to watch the bees, and it’s good for the environment. They’re pollinators and they’re good for the crops.”

Brown began with two hives and added two more the following year, but he scaled back after a winter storm destroyed one hive and another was lost to “over-robbing,” which occurs when the beekeeper mistakenly takes too much honey out and the bees don’t have enough to sustain themselves over the winter.

To survive, bees need plenty of clean water to dissolve sugar crystals in stored honey and to produce “bee bread” to feed the youngsters. They also require copious amounts of pollen and nectar. An average bee colony will consume 55 to 110 pounds of pollen each year, and since each little bee can only carry about 23 milligrams of pollen per flight, this means the bees will make at least 2.5 million foraging flights per year.

That’s a lot of work, by any measure, and it requires constant replenishment of the bee workforce.

“A hive is a bee-making machine. If it’s a good queen and hive, they can make upwards of 2,000 bees a day, and if they don’t have enough bees to do all the jobs, it won’t survive,” says Brown, noting that bee employment opportunities are strictly regulated by gender, age, and rank.

A beehive is a matriarchal society with a queen running the show – and much like “Game of Thrones,” there can be only one queen at a time. Introducing multiple queens within one hive will result in a rather violent end for all but the strongest contender. A queen bee usually lives from two to five years, with her highest birthing production in the first and second seasons. Most beekeepers will replace the queen after two or three years, if nature doesn’t handle the succession rites first.

“When a new queen is born, the first thing she does is kill all the other queens,” Brown says, shaking his head. “We think the human world is tough, but the bee world is really something else.”

A hive may have up to a few thousand drones (males) whose only duty is to mate with the queen. Drones live 45 to 90 days (from early summer to the onset of fall), eat ravenously their whole lives, they don’t have stingers, and they die immediately after mating. The surviving drones are banished when the weather cools and hive resources (honey) must be conserved.

Worker bees or foragers are infertile females who begin life working for a couple of weeks as nurses for the queen’s offspring, then they head out into the world and literally work themselves to death after about three weeks of gathering pollen and nectar.

Understanding hive dynamics is important, as is tending to the bee’s health. Brown says that South Carolina’s mild climate removes some of the challenges posed by harsh winters in other regions, but our local bees face threats from mites, fungus, insecticides, and small hive beetles.

“Those beetles are little black bugs about the size of a BB,” says Brown. “But you can put traps in the bottom of the hive with holes in the top, and the bees will chase the beetles into the holes and they fall into mineral oil and die. It’s crazy to watch them chase the beetles all over, but they will run them into the traps and get rid of them.”

While some commercial beekeeping operations market their honey as “sourwood” or “orange blossom” or countless other things based on their bee’s presumed pollen/nectar diet, Brown says he has no idea what his bees are eating. He only knows that the honey they produce has gotten “very good reviews” from taste testers, and the hive is wildly productive.

“This hive is going crazy making honey. I took four and a half gallons out of it just a couple of weeks ago, and that’s about as much as I got all of last year from one hive and part of another,” says Brown.
And since the honey-making season isn’t quite done yet, it’s possible Brown may see enough yield to rob the hive once more and still leave its larder full for the long winter’s nap. As this hive continues to thrive and he learns more about how to keep the bees healthy and happy, Brown says he plans to add two more hives in the spring.

Oh, and if you (like me) were wondering why bees choose to build their honeycombs with hexagons, the answer is simple: pure efficiency. Building circles would require extra wax and extra work to patch them together in a grid, and there are only three geometrical figures with equal sides that fit snugly together on a flat surface with no gaps: equilateral triangles, squares and hexagons. The bees know what they’re doing, y’all.

If you’re interested in learning more about beekeeping, visit or check out the Clemson Extension’s beekeeping page at

Author: mrollins

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