- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2005

Larry Kelley is in a sweet line of work. Mr. Kelley, 65, is a beekeeper. His bees pollinate crops, a crucial service for Virginia farmers, and produce honey that Mr. Kelley markets in North Carolina and Virginia.

“I love to sell honey because it is so pure and natural and wholesome,” says Mr. Kelley, owner of Kelley’s Apiaries based in Reston.

Mr. Kelley specializes in varietal honeys that get their singular taste and bouquet from specific types of flora, such as the Sourwood tree or wildflowers.

“Each plant has a unique nectar with a chemical composition that causes [the honey] to have a notable taste and color,” Mr. Kelley says, indicating the dark, rich hues of Sourwood or the lighter gold from clover.

Mr. Kelley has been a commercial beekeeper since the mid-1990s, when he retired from the Army Corps of Engineers. His knowledge of beekeeping extends from his childhood. He grew up on a farm in Pickens, S.C., where his family kept bees.

“The beekeeping I learned from my dad and grandfather was rudimentary. You got stung and it was sticky,” Mr. Kelley recalls.

Mr. Kelley runs a more sophisticated operation now, with about 500 hives he manages west of Washington near the Shenandoah Mountains and in Patrick County in southwest Virginia. These are European honey bees, not the Africanized or “killer” bees that captured public attention beginning in the 1980s. The more aggressive invaders have migrated into border states but not as far north as Virginia.

This week Mr. Kelley inspected hives at locations near Marshall, Markham and Winchester.

The hives are simple boxes, painted various colors, set on concrete blocks. The 70 or so boxes outside Marshall are protected by an electric fence — bears have ransacked them the past two seasons — and surrounded by tulip poplars, black locusts and wild blackberries.

Mr. Kelley expects the bees to start producing a light honey within a week, when the nearby trees and plants are in full bloom. To prepare the hives, he will attach “supers” — boxes already fitted with dividers so that honey and honeycomb can be easily harvested — to the top of each hive.

The boxes below the supers contain the bees’ year-round hive, and is left intact so that the queen bee is not disturbed, and so that enough honey remains for the bees to live through the winter. The supers are added, removed and harvested as different plants bloom, allowing specific varietal honeys to be produced.

Mr. Kelley dons a jacket and a mesh veil that completely encloses his head and approaches a hive. A smoker, a small contraption that burns burlap, is puffed on the bees to settle them. Then the top of the colony is pried off.

At close range the hive buzzes loudly, incessantly and almost hypnotically. Mr. Kelley is not concerned.

“These are quite gentle,” he says of the insects as he shakes the hive and watches hundreds of bees fall in clumps to the ground. Two supers are layered on and then the solid top is replaced. Mr. Kelley places a stick on the ground so that stunned bees can crawl back up into their sticky home.

Other bees go about their business, leaving Mr. Kelley unmolested. The beekeeper says that as long as he is patient, he can go a full day of work without getting stung. When they do strike, the honey bees leave a pulsing stinger in the skin, but that can be removed with little effort.

“If you scrape off the stinger, it’s no worse than a mosquito bite,” Mr. Kelley says. “The only places I don’t like to get stung is the eyes or nose — it makes me sneeze.”

Mr. Kelley this week also inspected hives he maintains at Hartland Orchard in Markham, a 65-acre farm that specializes in pick-your-own crops like cherries, blueberries, apples and peaches. The bees pollinate the crops, increasing the yield on each tree or plant. Pollination services are generally more lucrative and more integral to the farm economy than honey production. Virginia estimates that honey bee pollination adds about $23 million in value to the state apple industry, for example, through higher yields.

Mr. Kelley barters for his service to the orchard. He provides the pollinators and Hartland Orchard sells Kelley’s Apiaries honey to pick-your-own customers. “This is our biggest account,” says Mr. Kelley.

In a typical season Mr. Kelley’s bees will produce enough honey to get themselves through the winter, plus 30 to 50 drums, each 55 gallons, of honey and honeycomb that gets packaged and sold under the Kelley’s Apiaries and other labels.

It is a small niche in a market dominated by larger producers in the Dakotas, California, Texas and from overseas. There are roughly 2.6 million honey producing colonies nationwide responsible for 184 million pounds of honey in 2004, according to Agriculture Department figures. The harvest, valued at almost $202 million, is mostly sold for industrial and food service use.

Another 179 million pounds are imported, with Canada, Mexico, Argentina and China being the biggest sources. The imports depress prices, making the business less profitable, says Mr. Kelley, who also is president of the Virginia State Beekeepers Association and an alternate to the National Honey Board.

To confront the competition, Mr. Kelley emphasizes the unique character of special local varieties he produces. He also packages blocks of honeycomb inside some bottles, a labor-intensive task that most other producers avoid.

In addition to competition from other producers, beekeepers face a blight of mites that can kill off entire hives. Parasitic mites have contributed to a decline of 50 percent in managed hives and almost all wild honey bee colonies in Virginia since the late 1980s, said Richard Fell, a professor at Virginia Tech’s entomology department.

Virginia bees appear to be producing some resistance to the mites, but they remain the top challenge to beekeepers.

“Your biggest challenge is keeping your bees alive and keeping them healthy enough to produce honey,” Mr. Kelley says.

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