By Jill Penley
After an entire day of working in an office and enduing the Boone, NC traffic and drive time, one would think Mary Shull would retreat to a recliner, but that’s just not Mary. Growing up on a farm that has been in the family for eight generations, she has milked cows, bottle-fed calves, and raised pigs and chickens. While the Grade A dairy ceased in 1996, there’s still plenty to do on the Shull farm in the Neva community including Mary’s latest passion – apiculture, also known as beekeeping.
“I recall helping my dad with the few hives we had growing up,” said Shull, who got really serious about beekeeping in 2014 after taking a class on expanding her honeybee population.
When starting out, she chose a six-acre field that was lying dormant after having been previously used for tobacco and wheat production. “I initially had some trouble with weeds, deer, and weather,” she recalls, “but despite those setbacks, I was able to provide some additional food for my bees and keep them healthy.” Shull continues to care for her bees in the most natural way possible, avoiding harmful chemicals and practices that may hurt
the bees or the natural environment. “Originally I had mixed -flowers and clovers,” said Shull. “After a year or so, I just went to a three-clover mix as the flower annuals were not cost-effective.”
Shull, who currently serves as president of the Johnson County Beekeepers Association, enjoys sharing her knowledge, expertise, successes, and challenges, particularly since that, is what will keep the bees humming in East Tennessee.
“It really is like a big science project,” said Shull. “Bees are so fascinating – how complex their society is, all the little intricacies of how a hive functions, the relationship between the queen and the workers – it’s really, really interesting.”
Apiculture, also known as beekeeping, is maintaining colonies of honey
bees in hives – an enclosed area where honeybee
raise their young ones – by humans to collect honey and other products. As Shull began considering beekeeping, she thought the process seemed relatively easy. “It’s not easy at all,” she said,
noting the northeast Tennessee climate as well as impacts on flower bloom, depleting bees’ food resources, and parasites and diseases for which bees have no natural immunity.
Shull explains the process in layman’s terms. Bees go from flower to flower to gather pollen and nectar, which they break down into simple sugars and store inside honeycombs. They fan their wings constantly, causing the golden, sweet goo.
“Frames fit inside each super, and the bees produce wax comb and fill with the nectar,” explains Shull, “then they cap it off with more wax.” The frames are removed and uncapped, then placed into an extractor that removes the honey. The honey is strained to remove any debris before being bottled and labeled to sell.
Shull, who now maintains several colonies, sells her honey as Neva Valley Apiary. Locally made honey is purported to have special health benefits, including preventing seasonal allergies since the bees use pollen from local plants that eventually end up in the honey.
Even though beekeepers are hands-off in the winter, it doesn’t mean that they stop their beekeeping activities. To the contrary, there are plenty of activities for beekeepers that keep them busy during the next few months such as building new hive bodies and supers, getting them painted and installing foundation in frames.
Bees have been producing honey for thousands of years, and beekeeping can be an interesting and rewarding pursuit, and the rewards are sweet, literally.