Lamar County native turns hobby into business

By BUSTER WOLFE,

The 14 sets of boxes stacked in three lines along Dr. Ed Hafer’s backyard hold some of the busiest creatures in his West Hattiesburg subdivision.

Literally, busy as bees.

Hafer, who teaches musicology at The University of Southern Mississippi, is the owner and operator of Ed’s Backyard Bees, a honey-making enterprise based in his backyard. For Hafer, the hobby-turned-passion has been a labor of love.

“I had a friend that was a beekeeper,” he said. “I got to see inside the hive and it was fascinating just to watch them work their little city there. Everything was so precise. I started to read about it and the more I read, the more fascinated I became. It’s just miraculous what they are able to accomplish.”

Of course, raising bees doesn’t come without its obvious drawbacks, Hafer said.

“You get stung, of course,” he said. “If you have bees, you are going to get stung; that’s the reality of it. I wear a jacket and a veil; I don’t want to go in there without face coverage. I’ve been doing it without gloves because I think it gives me a little more control and not squash bees. The more times you kill bees, the more likely you are to get stung.”

Hafer said the bees usually only sting when they feel threatened.

“Since bees are defensive, they typically only attack when they have something to defend,” he said. “When they don’t have a home, they are not going to defend. So they say about one swarm out of 30 is going to be nasty. Otherwise, the rest of them are just in transit.”

In addition to the amount of activity in each hive, what also amazes Hafer is the sheer production qualities of a bee.

“Ten bees weigh as much as one M&M,” he said. “A bee’s entire life’s work will produce one-12th of a teaspoon of honey. So you get 12 bees dedicating their lives to one teaspoon of honey that we’ll spill on the table while we’re eating. You think that in spite of all of that, a good hive in Mississippi can produce 100 pounds of surplus honey a year.”

Hafer said he doesn’t have to stand over each hive daily to monitor activity.

“They don’t need a lot of attention, but when they need attention, it’s kind of time-sensitive,” he said. “When they lay an egg, it’s going to last three days. When it hatches to a larva, 8½ days later it’s a bee. There are times that are more sensitive than others, but now there are no flowers blooming. Basically, they are chilling out until the goldenrods come in the middle of September. There’s not much going on, so there’s not much reason for me to be in there.”

Each hive has a queen, which lays about 1,500 eggs a day.

“The worker bees are all females,” Hafer said. “You have about 40,000-50,000 of those. The males are drones and you have very few of those in a hive. Bees will forage two miles in every direction. So they are covering 8,000 acres when they forage. They’ll go farther in times of crisis.”

Different bees have different temperaments, Hafer said.

“About 20,000 varieties of bees and the honeybee is the only bee that produces food that humans eat,” he said. “These bees are not carnivorous and tend to be a little milder, but that’s not always true. I bought these three hives from a man who was getting out of the business and those are the meanest bugs I have ever seen. They chased me around the yard; they were mean.”

Hafer said the recent rain showers has also cut down on prospects of foraging.

“They can’t go out in the rain,” he said. “Compare the raindrops to the size of the bee and trying to fly through that. It would be like us having motorcycles dropped on us while we were trying to get around. The rain slows them down and the rain washes the nectar out of the flowers, which will have to rebuild. So a lot of guys were way down in areas of production. It’s agriculture so you are at the mercy of the elements.”

The warmer weather in the southern states, however, is an advantage to local beekeepers.

“Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana are important for beekeepers because the big companies bring their bees down here in the winter,” Hafer said, noting that the bees only live five weeks. “They can build them up, make them strong and take them to California for the almonds. That’s only a two-week season out there and California doesn’t have any bees.”

Hafer said the boxes used in the hives resemble a filing system with hanging frames that hold the plastic foundations to start the honey-making process.

“Before the bees can do anything, they have to build wax,” he said. “They raise their babies in here, they put their honey in here; it’s all perfectly six-sided and it leans up so the honey doesn’t all run out. They think of everything.

“Every year, they have to start building that. Next year if I reuse it, they don’t have to build it. They say that the energy that it takes to build one pound of wax can be used to make eight pounds of honey. If I give them a head start in the spring, then they can just get down to business and not have to worry about that.”

Each box, whether deep or shallow, can hold nine to 10 frames.

“Every hive has two deep boxes at the bottom and that’s where the queen tends to stay, where she raises her brood,” Hafer said. “The boxes above the bottom two are called ‘supers,’ and anything that’s in the honey super we can take. One of these boxes will hold 30-35 pounds of honey.”

Anyone who is interested in learning more about beekeeping can contact Hafer at (601) 467-7567 or attend Thursday night’s meeting of the Lamar County Beekeepers at 7 p.m. at the Lamar County Extension Service office in Purvis.