Summertime means that bees are out and about pollinating our crops and private gardens and the untamed lots where wildflowers grow. They work hard to collect pollen and nectar, they communicate by dance, and they feed from the honey stored in their delicately crafted honeycomb. As they go about this routine, they can provoke a variety of reactions from people. When some people see bees, their shoulders tense up and they shoo them away, and if they’ve seen My Girl too many times they might even burst into an exaggerated panic. Others may not mind bees so much and let them go about their very busy business without considerable attention. And then there are also those who not only don’t mind bees but welcome their presence and choose to keep them around.
It is the first week of June, and it’s beginning to heat up. In a rural area of Jackson, amid growing crops and kudzu-shaded woods, the Jackson Area Beekeepers Association (JABA) comes together at the Browns Ruritan Community Centre for a field day and lunch. Two men have already fired up a grill, and I can smell the charcoal as I step out of my car. People carry bags of groceries and prepared dishes inside for the meal later, children run around, and others gather inside the air conditioned meeting hall where a table is already filled with desserts, including cupcakes with big dollops of bright yellow icing and fondant bumblebees on top.
It is here that I meet Barry Puckett, who is kind enough to introduce me to some of the other members as well as share his knowledge. He tells me what we’ll be looking for when we go to inspect the beehives. He explains to me that the queen bee is the only female capable of populating the colony. She produces worker bees, which are infertile females, and drones, which are fertile males.
“But the male bees don’t do any work,” Barry says, “so without a queen you’re out of business. So this is what I look for. When I look at a hive I make sure I see larvae. In the hive she actually lays the eggs in a football-shaped circle, so when I pull a frame out I’m looking for a circle, the bigger the better. . . . So that’s what I’m looking for to make sure I’ve got a queen. You’re also looking for mites, and there are all kinds of viruses and things you’re checking for, too, to make sure they’re healthy.”
Before long a woman calls for those who want to tour the hives to gather outside. We break into groups, and the group I’m with goes to inspect Harold Puckett’s hives. Harold is Barry’s dad and one of four founding members of JABA, which has been active since 1991. Barry says he imagines Harold has been beekeeping since he was a boy.
“I’ve been wearing this for thirty years,” Harold says to me, holding up his bee suit. We’ve arrived at his home and walk around back to a large garden. Cicadas throb in the trees surrounding the property.
“Everyone come gather around here,” Harold calls from under the shade of a tree. “We’ve got about five hives here, and we’re going to go through all of them or part of them—whatever you want to do. They’re in various stages. The first hive two swarms have come out of, and then we caught them. One of them four weeks ago, so if you’ve just started beekeeping, we’ll look at it first and see how they’ve done. And then we’ll move around and look at the rest of them. He’s in charge of smoke.” He gestures to Barry, who’s holding a bee smoker filled with smoldering hay to help pacify the bees.
I zip up the bee jacket Barry has lent me, tighten the wrists so bees can’t fly inside, and pull over and zip up my veiled hood. About ten or so of us gather around a hive that Harold, Barry, and JABA President Darrell Carter are dismantling. The hives are made of rectangular stackable bodies which each hold frames that provide a foundation for the bees to construct their honeycomb.
“They’ve been collecting honey already in these,” Harold says as he pulls out frames for us to examine. “See these light brown cappings? That’s bees fixing to hatch out. Right here. This is honey. This is where [the queen] will lay. These are bees fixing to hatch out. Same on the other side.”
As we proceed to inspect more hives, I realize how at ease I feel. I didn’t quite know what to expect before attending JABA’s field day. I didn’t know what type of bee person I am—if I would feel calm or if I would discover that I am one of those who are haunted by images of a young Macaulay Culkin. But as our guides open up more hives, which can house up to 50,000 bees, I find myself leaning in close, and even as a couple of bees crawl across my veil, I watch the sprawling colony with the calm of a removed and omniscient observer.
After inspecting the five hives in Harold’s garden, I strike up a conversation with Donna Moore on the way back to our cars.
“I am excited to say that I believe more people are getting into beekeeping,” she tells me. “It has lots of rewards to it. They’re actually very gentle. They don’t want to sting you because if they sting you they die. So they really don’t want to sting you. It’s just a defense. You have to be really slow and careful with them. . . . They’re neat little jewels. We call them ‘the Girls.’ Last year was my first year, and we actually got honey last year.”
Back at the community centre as we’re waiting in line for our lunch, Darrell tells me that he got into beekeeping to improve his garden. “The garden looked beautiful—green, producing flowers, but no fruit. A friend of mine is actually a master gardener, she goes to the farmers market to sell, and I asked her, ‘What am I doing wrong? It can’t be fertilizer. It’s too good.’ She looked at me and said, ‘I can tell you right now without even stepping in your garden, there’s no bees. There’s nothing there pollinating your crops.’ I asked if that was a big deal, and she said, ‘You’ve got to have something pollinating.’” Darrell says he already knew of Harold, so he called him up to learn how to get bees in his garden. “He kind of mentored me and taught me basically everything I know.” It’s been ten years since, and Darrell is still beekeeping.
Novice beekeepers who join JABA are paired with a mentor to help them get established. Additionally, JABA hosts monthly meetings to give everyone a chance to stay connected, holds a daylong course every February to teach beginners and new members everything they need to know to get started, and meets for an annual Christmas dinner. Darrell says that there are about 120 current members. He says something about how busy life is and that all of JABA’s members are not always able make it to the meetings, but they usually average about thirty to forty people. I think of how busy we all are, and how special it is to find time, despite our many obligations, to build community through the nurturing of shared interests and passions with others. I look around at the forty-or-so people seated at two long tables enjoying the good Southern food that has been prepared for us and engaging in all kinds of conversation.
“If it’s a pretty day you can see them coming in and out, and when it gets close to dark you can see them all going back home,” Donna told me earlier. “They keep their hives at ninety-five—the temp inside. Sometimes if it gets too hot outside in the summertime some of the worker bees will line up at the front door and flap their wings to help ventilate. Also, they will do that to protect from predators, like other bees trying to rob their hive of honey. . . . They take care of each other.”
I think of how bees maintain a temperature of ninety-five degrees in their hives even in the wintertime. I picture them as Barry described them to me, clustered in a ball around the queen, heating the hive with the vibration of their wings, and rotating from the outside in to keep warm. I think of an atom and how there’s something at the center holding matter together. Donna is sitting across from me at the lunch table and says, “I just think nature tells the story; it really does. It tells its own story.” And I think about what it is that we’re all circling, what story it is that we’re telling, and what we keep at the center of all our motion.
I get up for a cupcake even though I’m full, and back at the table we remark on what a shame it is to bite into something so pretty.
The Jackson Area Beekeepers Association meets the first Tuesday of every month at 7p.m. at the Jackson Chamber of Commerce. Upcoming meetings are scheduled for July 7, Aug. 4, Sept. 1, and Oct. 6. Annual membership is $15 for individuals and $20 for families. If you’re interested in learning more about JABA, you can contact President Darrell Carter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Josh Garcia is a commercial photographer who landed in Jackson in 2008. With a B.A. in English from Union University in his back pocket, he’s abandoned other adjectives for “home” when describing this city. He enjoys reading, writing, photography, and cultivating community around the dinner table. #INFJ
Photography by Josh Garcia.