According to a 2017 USDA report, Georgia is home to around 100,000 honey bee colonies. These black and yellow striped fuzzy insects live together in a complex society within a hive. During the day, bees travel from flower to flower, collecting pollen as they brush up against the stamens and then bringing that pollen back to the hive where it is harvested as food for the colony. An average hive hosts between 10,000 to 80,000 bees and produces around 30 pounds of honey per year.
“Honey bees are the most powerful pollinators we have,” said Julia Mahood, master beekeeper and the president of the Metro Atlanta Beekeeping Association. In contrast to other insects that are considered to be accidental pollinators – such as butterflies – honey bees have evolved to the task, utilizing static electricity to collect pollen in a pocket called a pollen basket on their backs. Pollen is the honey bee’s primary source of protein and they process it along with nectar in the hive to create honey.
They are the single most efficient pollinator worldwide, contributing 75 percent of all pollination, according to the biologists at the University of California San Diego.
Additionally, they have a tendency to stick with only one type of plant in a foraging session, which increases the likelihood of the correct type of pollen being spread between plants. The financial impact of honey bees on agriculture is estimated to exceed $50 billion annually for the United States alone.
Unfortunately, there are many factors that put these crucial creatures at risk today. There has been a steady population decline in recent years due to mites, illnesses and the use of neonicotinoid (neonics) pesticides which are systemic to the plants and toxic to bees. The toxin is considered to be sub-lethal, meaning that the bees live while infected with the toxins and after generations they begin to suffer from genetic damage and compromised immune systems. A new type of honey bee disease known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was discovered around 2005, which causes hives to unexpectedly die in the winter months.
“Now it has gotten much much harder to keep bees alive, and it makes me sad,” said Mahood.
There are a number of ongoing efforts to maintain and grow the honey bee population, both commercially and in backyards. The Metro Atlanta Bee Association is one local organization whose intent is to educate, promote and facilitate backyard beekeeping. Classified as a nonprofit and completely run by volunteers, they offer classes, workshops, mentoring, services and certifications.
Mahood has been a beekeeper and a member of the Metro Atlanta Bee Association for 15 years, and recently became the association’s president. She’s very passionate about bees and is involved in a number of education efforts for kids, adults and even inmates at local prisons. One such program is a beekeeping course at Arrendale State Prison in Raoul, Georgia, where she has been teaching for the past three years. “That has been a very powerful program, giving these women not only something to take with them when they leave in terms of supplementing their income, but also something to learn,” she said.
Honey bees typically forage within two miles of their hive but sometimes go to twice or even three times that distance, and as such have the ability to affect a large amount of pollination for yourself and your neighbors. The inmates at Arrendale are not only learning a new skill and the science of honey bees, but they are also likely aiding nearby farms and gardens such as a neighboring orchard. The inmates’ interest in beekeeping is contagious, and they are known for talking to others in the facility about bees, helping to dispel unfounded fears of the creatures and encourage learning. “What has happened is that the guards have gotten interested and they are basically taking the class along with the inmates,” said Mahood.
Mahood lives with her family in a Sandy Springs ranch with a property of just about half an acre. In her backyard, she has maintained multiple hives for years. While the bees only live for about six weeks in the summer, she admits that she holds a certain irrational affinity for some of her colonies. Having grown up in a house full of girls who were squeamish about bugs, Mahood’s love for the fuzzy flying bugs is rather unexpected.
Despite her fears and anxieties regarding bugs, it was after seeing her two young sons bravely interacting with bees that she realized her fears were unfounded. These days, now that her sons have grown and moved out, she spends a lot of her time tending to her colonies and educating others about how to care for their own.
Those interested in beekeeping can attend the Metro Atlanta Beekeeper Association’s (metroatlantabeekeepers.org) or a local bee club like Little Bee Project (littlebeeproject.com), founded by Steve Esau in East Atlanta, which started with two hives and has now grown to 10 and is expanding to the backyards of other bee-lovers.