Tom Francis is a bee preacher.
“I never became a minister of people,” he says, “but now I’m a minister of bee hives.”
In 1983, Francis felt a calling to the ministry. At Baptist Bible College in Clark Summit, Pa., Francis learned that bee keeping was a traditional avocation of clergymen as a way to supplement their meager incomes. Francis would choose a different path away from the pulpit, pursuing a career in telecommunications. Still, Francis’ fascination with bees flowered.
In 2009, he retired from Verizon and mentioned his interest to a friend whose father happened to keep bees. The next day he was given his first hive.
“I believe God created those bees, and I believe I’m working together with nature to help these bees continue to live and also provide some delicious food for us that gives us energy and makes us healthy. I like working for an organization like that,” he says.
Francis is one of a growing number of beekeepers in the region. The Blackwater Beekeepers Association has grown from 20 members to 70 members since it formed in 2011, said Ben Powell, natural resources officer at the Clemson Extension in Conway.
Powell said the local bee population has stabilized after problems nationally with colony collapses. A wet spring has contributed to good plant and nectar growth, he said.
“In general, insect health is a measurement eco-system health,” Powell said.
Francis now tends his flock one hive at a time. When the owner of Bees By The Sea grew out his backyard operation in Surfside Beach, he found his bees a sanctuary in a secluded meadow at Brookgreen Gardens. There his honey bees have thousands of acres of flowering plants to pollinate.
Buzzing at Brookgreen
At Brookgreen, the beekeeper carefully pulls two vibrating wooden boxes from the bed of his pick-up, and gently places them in a line beside the five existing stacked hives. The teal painted boxes, like the honeycombed frames inside, Francis made by hand.
A loud droning from within the boxes indicates that the 20,000 bees inside are agitated after the half hour journey in the truck bed. Soon after opening their box, one of the guard bees manages to sink a stinger into Francis’ unprotected hand. The bee keeper quickly darts away from the hive, scraping out the stinger on the run. “It comes with the turf,” he said.
Francis is quick to point out that European honey bees are to be respected, not feared.
“People have a lot of fears about honey bees that are ill-conceived.” Francis says that the bees are generally content to go about their business of collecting nectar and building their colony unless they are threatened or their hive is invaded.
“The secret when you work with bees is to be gentle and deliberate.”
Just as Francis believes feeding the soul is vital, bees and their keeping is vital to our lives.
Jennifer Tsuruda, a beekeeping expert at Clemson University, says pollinators such as bees are responsible for about one third of the food residents eat and that local honey has proven health benefits.
Tsuruda says that raw local honey exposes humans to the lowest levels of the same pollen that is in the environment and is believed to help prevent allergies. Additionally, honey is full of carbohydrates that provide energy. She encourages those interested in beekeeping to get involved with the State Beekeepers Association or a local club that should provide introductions to mentors for a season.
Francis says he's fascinated with the social nature of bees, the way they each have specialized roles within the colony, how they contribute to the environment through pollination, and the production of honey. But for Francis, working with bees is a spiritual experience.
Francis had a busy spring collecting swarms from concerned home owners and removing nuisance hives from inconvenient places like church lofts. His colonies have grown exponentially and he now keeps 20 hives.
“I like the idea of giving the bees a place of refuge. Nobody wants them. They realize the importance but don’t want them next door,” he said.
Nita Smoot of Conway is one of the homeowners Francis has helped. She called Francis after she discovered bees in a tight basketball sized swarm on her holly bush. When new queen bees are hatched, the old queen leaves with about 40 percent of her workers and the swarm searches for a new home, often temporarily gathering around household plants.
Smoot said she was excited to witness the phenomenon but knew to call Francis to have them safely removed.
Francis gently shook the bees from the branches into a portable box coated with honey as Smoot and her husband, Jim Wilson, watched and photographed the spectacle.
“It looks easy but if you get tens of thousands of bees swarming around your head, it can be intimidating,” Francis says.
Keeping up with the beekeepers
WHAT | Blackwater Beekeepers Association regular meetings
WHEN | 7 p.m. the second Monday of every month
WHERE | 1949 Industrial Park Road, Conway
Three Casts of Bees in a Colony
Queen | Sexually developed female bee that can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day. The mother of all bees in the colony. Only one per colony.
Worker Bee | Sexually undeveloped female bee that does all the work in the hive. Foraging, feeding, cleaning, nursing, guarding, etc. If she uses her stinger, she dies soon thereafter. Life expectancy of a worker bee in summer is six weeks.
Drone | Male bees make up less than 1 percent of the colony. His only job is to fertilize the queen. When his job is complete, he dies. Drones have no stingers.
Source | Blackwater Beekeepers Association