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West Virginia beekeepers put a sting to U.S. production

October 09, 2005

FORT GAY, W.Va.

Some of the equipment Wade Stiltner uses in his beekeeping business spills out onto his lawn in Wayne County. He simply doesn't have room for it in a nearby shed.

"I've gotten into something bigger than I am," jokes the 52-year-old former underground coal miner.

Bees buzz around what appear to be white dresser drawers stacked on his lawn. Those "drawers" are technically called "supers" and hold the key to what helps Stiltner make a living.

The supers stack on top of each other to make a hive, which holds 30,000 to 40,000 bees. Stiltner, a part-time state bee inspector and vice president of the Wayne-Cabell Bee Keepers Association, owns 250 hives.

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Aside from his space issues, he faces something more pressing: what to do with his business once he can no longer run it. He has noticed that younger people aren't really interested in keeping bees.

The state has more beekeepers now than 10 years ago. In 1995, there were around 200 registered beekeepers, said West Virginia Department of Agriculture's state apiarist George Clutter. Now, around 1,600 people keep bees.

That still might not be enough.

"More times, older people are getting into bees. Young people aren't into bees because it's hard work," said Paul Poling, an apiary specialist with the state Department of Agriculture.

The industry seems to hold promise for those who can deal with stings and tough labor. Beekeepers can make around $100 each year per hive in honey money and pollination fees, before paying their expenses. As the beekeeper gains more experience, that amount can increase to $150 to $175, Clutter said.

The industry comes back to supply and demand. There's a decreased supply of bees across the country because mites killed about 50 percent of the nation's bees last winter, said David Ellingson, president of the American Beekeeping Federation.

But the demand for bees to pollinate crops like almonds, blueberries, watermelon and apples hasn't gone away. California's almond-bearing land has increased by 132,000 acres in the past decade, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Stiltner and Poling will ship around 700 hives to California by tractor-trailer in early November to pollinate a farmer's almond crop. The bees will return to West Virginia in April. Poling estimates he'll make around $30,000 after expenses for his bees' work.

For the nation's bee industry to remain viable, it needs to find a natural or genetic way to control the bee-killing mites, control the importation of cheaper honey into the United States and increase the number of bees in the country, Ellingson said.

West Virginia Department of Agriculture instructors teach beekeeping classes around the state throughout the year. And there's a co-op in Weston where beekeepers can buy their supplies, instead of having to pay shipping costs as they did in the past.

Beekeeping is suited for West Virginia's mountainous, forested terrain because bees don't require flat, lush farmland or fertile soil. They just need flowers from which they gather their nectar and transport pollen.

"We're living in the middle of a flowering forest. Almost all trees have some sort of flowering bloom," Clutter said. "You go to other states and the majority of trees are conifers; there's no honey production there."

Last year, West Virginia's honey producers made 495,000 pounds of the sticky stuff. Stiltner harvested seven tons of honey last year and sold $11,000 worth of it to a Virginia honey company.

Honey prices were around $1.10 a pound last year, compared with around 55 cents a pound this year. Stiltner plans to hold on to his honey in hopes that the prices will rise.

Despite the promise of a potentially plump income, keeping bees isn't an easy job. Stiltner says he puts in 60 to 70 hours a week and admits to not having much of a life away from his bees in the summer.

"It's not easy. You may as well forget bass fishing or laying on the lake," he said. "But what business isn't like that?" ---

Distributed by The Associated Press

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