Beekeepers of Gilmer County
Brian Drebber described beekeeping as “the coolest thing” he has done in the second half of his life.
“When you pull a frame out covered with bees, if you’re not fascinated by that, you’re dead. Just go ahead and pull dirt over yourself ... I think they’ll find a cure for cancer before they find a cure for beekeeping,” added Drebber, the president of the nonprofit Beekeepers of Gilmer County.
Since its founding in 2014, the local group made up of pollinator enthusiasts has undertaken a wide range of projects, including hosting a honey show and sharing educational material at the community’s farmers market.
“We’re doing some things that are innovative,” member Jodi Beauregard said of the club.
One attribute that makes the group unique among its counterparts throughout the state is that it operates an apiary of seven hives on Howard Simmons Road near East Ellijay. The honey collected from the hives is sold at Mountain Valley Farms.
Club members also have helped to introduce a new hive design to the United States. Adapted from European constructions, the AZ hive eliminates the need to lift heavy boxes to manage the bee colony, thus simplifying the entire process and making it more accessible to a wider range of ages and people of varying physical abilities.
A beekeeper’s role
While traveling from flower to flower in search of nectar, bees transport pollen and help to fertilize the plants they visit. Many crops, including apples, blueberries and sunflowers, rely heavily on these busy insects to aid in the process of pollination.
A beekeeper’s job is to ensure the bees have a clean living space and stay free from disease so they can perform this vital role in agriculture. In return for providing a safe environment and access to food sources, beekeepers have the opportunity to harvest the hive’s excess honey.
“On average a hive will produce about 80 pounds of surplus each year,” according to The National Honey Board.
Beauregard admitted the process of beekeeping can be “intimidating” but said there are colleges and organizations that offer workshops and classes for those interested in learning more about the hobby.
“You have to let bees live a pretty independent life. You’re there to support them,” she said.
The benefits of beekeeping — more than just honey
In a publication titled “The Story of Honey” from the National Honey Board, Dick Paetzke described the sticky, sweet substance produced by honeybees as “the soul of a field of flowers.”
Members of the local beekeeping club also speak in glowing terms of the value and benefits of honey.
“It never spoils. It never goes bad. They found honey in the tomb of King Tut,” noted Drebber.
Beauregard, who is a trained dietician, also lauded the “nutritional impact” of the substance.
“Honey is medicinal,” she observed, before commenting on the historical importance of the substance. “Honey was thought of as gold. It was very valuable.”
Upon moving to Ellijay, she and her husband began pursuing organic gardening and that interest led them into beekeeping.
“We felt this went hand in hand. [The bees] are just fun. It’s been a neat hobby for my husband and me,” she said. “It’s not overwhelming. It’s a hobby. You can make it as big as you want.”
Drebber agreed beekeeping is a good project for families to work on together. In his own life, the activity has given him the opportunity to work alongside his 17-year-old granddaughter, Kylie Von Drebber.
“We’ve been doing this together since she was 11. This has kept us connected,” he said.
In addition to “learning all the weird stuff bees do” and extracting the honey, the high schooler shared working with her grandfather has given her the chance to learn useful life skills, such as designing brochures for their honey business, marketing the product and handling money at farmers markets.
“What it’s added to my life is a way to do business,” she said. “It’s giving me a setting to learn that.”
“She has a career already,” echoed Drebber.
“It’s cool to tell your friends,” the teen added. “I like interacting with bee people.”
John Tackett, former club president, also got an early start with his interest in beekeeping.
“Back in 1942, I started helping my dad ... I was hooked on it,” he recalled. “Once you do it, you never want to leave it … I’ve learned a lot of patience with bees, and they can really be a blessing, especially if you have a garden.”
Beekeeping also teaches responsibility, and for that reason, Tackett noted several state prisons have started teaching prisoners about how to care for bees and extract honey.
“It gives them something to do when they get out to keep them out of trouble,” he said.
As club member Mary Lou Blohm added, after World War II, the United States began a “very successful” beekeeping program for veterans who were having “a lot of psychological trouble” and difficulty readjusting to being back in society.
Drebber also noted the bees’ work ethic is noteworthy and worth imitating.
“They’re all doing something. Not one of them is having a smoke by the water cooler. They’re hauling it,” he said. “If the world worked like a beehive, we’d have no problems.”
‘It’s a struggle to keep the bees alive these days’
In spite of its many benefits, beekeeping is not without its challenges.
“I’m a gardener; that’s what got me started,” shared Blohm as she credited beekeeping with helping her become “more in tune” with the environment.
“I’m more connected, more conscious,” she said.
One of the things she has become more aware of is how things like pesticide sprays and soil depletion can adversely impact bee colonies.
“There is a decline in the bee population ... We try to do what we can. It’s not just the honeybees; it’s all pollinators,” she continued. “The nutrients that were once available in plants are not available.”
Last year was especially difficult for many area beekeepers, and Beauregard noted she lost both her hives.
“I think (the drought) was very stressful. We didn’t have the nectar flow, and the bees were going after each other’s honey,” she said.
“Local small beekeepers are struggling. It’s a struggle to keep the bees alive these days,” added Blohm.
Beauregard observed “there are many factors involved” in the decline of bee populations, but there is a growing appreciation about the importance of honeybees and the role they play in pollination.
While fewer people may be likely to spray a bee swarm directly with insecticides these days, Drebber noted many individuals still do not realize that applying chemicals to plants can have a negative impact on the health of bee colonies. He particularly emphasized that gardeners should not put insecticides on flowers that are in bloom since pollinators will then be directly exposed to the potentially harmful substances.
He also observed that thanks to systemic pesticides that are built into the tissue of some plants, “There’s no way to avoid (preventing exposure).”
Commonly used chemicals found in the garden section of most stores also can be dangerous to bees, and since the insects can travel as far as 3 miles from their hive in search of pollen, it is important for even nonbeekeepers to be aware of the risks.
Even if chemicals do not directly kill bees, they can cut down on the insects’ ability to defend their hive. While a healthy colony can protect itself from the occasional pest, such as mites, beetles or moths, ones weakened by harmful substances cannot respond effectively to more routine threats and end up dying out.
Tackett recalled that he has seen many changes in beekeeping since his childhood.
“Between the 1940s to 1970s, we didn’t have diseases. All of the diseases are young. They’re imported. We get more every year,” he said.
‘We all can participate in protecting them’
Blohm noted that when Tackett was growing up in the 1940s, “We were a nation of small farms. Everybody had a hive.”
Today, however, the art of beekeeping is going the way of the horse and buggy.
The importance of having pollinators, however, has not diminished.
“There are very few feral bees in the U.S. They need people,” said Beauregard. “We need more people, more hobbyists.”
To help people get started with the agricultural pastime, the Beekeepers of Gilmer County has a selection of books on beekeeping available for checkout at the University of Georgia Extension Office on Progress Road in Ellijay.
“If someone really wants to get into it, come to a meeting. See what we do, what we talk about,” Tackett also invited. The meetings are held at the Gilmer County Civic Center on Old Highway 5 the second Monday of each month at 7 p.m.
As Blohm pointed out, “You don’t have to be a beekeeper with an apiary” in order to participate in the club or to come see hive inspections.
In addition to providing information and tips for beekeeping, the club is committed to awareness and education about protecting pollinators.
“I feel we have an obligation to become involved in some way. Until we can create our own air and food, we have a responsibility … I think people’s intentions are good. It’s just a lack of education ... You only make changes when you’re aware,” said Blohm. “Not everybody is made to be a beekeeper, but we are all keepers of the bees. We all can participate in protecting them.”