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Greencastle beekeeper has a honety of a job

October 08, 2004|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

GREENCASTLE, PA. - Jonathan Showalter is a tough taskmaster.

He has millions of workers, but he works them so hard all summer that most die before autumn sets in.

Still, the countless bees in the 275 hives Showalter has set up in three counties across two states produced about 20,000 pounds of honey this year.

He sells the sweet syrupy stuff off his porch at 28 Milnor Road in Antrim Township, wholesales through area bulk food stores and, more recently, at the newly opened Waynesboro Old Thyme Farmers Market on Walnut Street.

Showalter, 36, learned the beekeeping craft from his uncle and grandfather. He gave up a 14-year teaching career three years ago to work full time in his bee business.

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He considers himself a farmer. "I take the same risks as farmers," he said. "I work with creatures that can get diseases and be affected by pests, and I have to deal with the weather."

The winter of 2003, one of the coldest in recent years, took its toll on Showalter's bees. He said he lost about half of his hives.

He replaced them by splitting the ones he had left. He took half the bees from the hives that remained after the winter and moved them to new hives. He then introduced a queen to each new hive.

A beehive is a simple wooden device consisting of a larger base or hive body topped by as many as eight or nine smaller sections called supers.

Each super contains rows of frames or foundations on which bees build small honeycomb-shaped cells from wax that they secrete. Honey is stored in the cells.

The queen bee resides in the base of the hive, trapped there by a screen that allows worker bees to pass through, but stops her bulkier body, Showalter said.

She spends her time laying eggs in the honeycomb cells. Worker bees feed and care for the larvae through the 21 days before the egg hatches into an adult honeybee, he said.

Only females are worker bees. The males, or drone bees, have one job, which is to mate with the queen.

Come August, Showalter removes the honey by removing all the supers except those needed to feed the hive through the winter.

Two men help Showalter collect the supers from hives in Franklin and Cumberland counties in Pennsylvania and Washington County. He hauls them to his basement where a half-dozen women, all relatives, load them into extractors which strip the honey from the combs.

Extracted honey is piped directly into a large stainless steel tank. From there, it is pumped into various size jars for retail sale, or into 55-gallon drums for the wholesale market.

Showalter uses few tools in the field, and most are designed to help him avoid being stung. He wears a white jumpsuit over his clothes, dons a veil or netted hat, boots and gloves. He also uses a device that creates smoke to scoot the bees away while he works on their hives, and a small flat iron bar to pry the supers apart.

Even so, he said he still gets stung a lot.

"Most beekeepers work slow around their hives so the bees don't get upset," he said. "I move. I try not to kill any because that stirs them up, but I don't have all day."

Beekeepers also can earn money by using the bees to pollinate trees in orchards. Each spring Showalter hauls his hives to area apple growers and leaves them so the bees can take nectar from the fruit blossoms while pollinating the tree at the same time.

Showalter makes and sells beehives in the winter to augment his income.

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