Tennessee student beekeepers see themselves as protectors

Mark Kennedy
Chattanooga Times Free Press

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — In a clearing near the crest of Missionary Ridge, overlooking a striking vista of Chattanooga below, sits a solitary beehive.

For a group of 10 McCallie School students, the yellow box the size of a child’s wardrobe represents a calling. They lovingly tend the Western Honey Bee colony inside, ever watchful for signs of strain on the hive.

“It’s one of the most interesting sensations in the world to have a handful of squirmy bees,” said Henry Dobson, a McCallie School senior from Lookout Mountain and one of the founding members of the school’s beekeeper club.

“Beekeeping is kind of like livestock rearing,” Dobson explained. “The job of the beekeeper is mostly inspection. It’s checking the hive and being able to identify what’s wrong.”

Dobson has a photo saved on his smartphone of his badly swollen left foot. One day, some of the bees got agitated and stung him through his socks, he said. No biggie, he said, just a small hazard of the hobby.

Dobson is a leader among the McCallie beekeepers, a link to the original founders of the club who were seniors when he was a sophomore. One recent summer, Dobson completed an apprenticeship at a North Georgia apiary (also known as a bee yard) with 180 hives.

Several of the McCallie students were on track to get beekeeper certification by the University of Tennessee Agriculture Extension Service earlier this year when the coronavirus hit. That’s been put on hold.

Still, they slip on their round beekeeper veils about twice a month to check the hive, which has thrived and collapsed over time, proving how fragile an ecosystem can be.

In 2018, about 40 percent of the bee colonies in the United States died, according to researchers at the University of Maryland. The die-off has been linked to loss of bee habitats to farming and urban sprawl, along with environmental factors. Honey bees are responsible for pollinating food crops worth $15 billion yearly, according to the Associated Press.

“I think it’s interesting some of the problems they have and how we can work to fix it,” said Ryan Haun, a McCallie sophomore who is active in the club.

Beehives can fall victim to diseases and mite and beetle infestations, the boys explained. Earlier this year, one of their colonies lost its queen and collapsed. More recently, the remaining bees had a brush with European foulbrood, a treatable disease caused by bacteria.

For a short time, the students thought the colony had been infected with American foulbrood, a more dire, spore-based disease which requires burning the hive.

A beehive is really a harbinger for a host of issues in the greater world: climate change, pesticides, infectious diseases. It doesn’t take much to upset the finely-tuned ecosystem of a beehive, where social distancing is not an option.

The boys see themselves as protectors of the bees.

“It’s mainly letting them do what they do, and making sure that they do it right,” said James Bechtol, a McCallie sophomore from Rossville, Ga.

The McCallie beekeepers regularly inspect the broods, which include the bee eggs, larvae and pupae attached to wooden frames inside the hive.

“The brood — the cells that they pack with larva — you’ll notice if they begin to get unhealthy,” said Noah McFarland, a McCallie sophomore. “They may be sunken or swollen.’

About once a year, the students harvest honey. This year they have a new extractor which slings the honey off a frame using centrifugal force.

The beekeepers said they believe they are still building the ground floor of a McCallie legacy. They can envision bees on the Missionary Ridge for generations.

“I’d like to come back (some day) and see a more expanded beekeeping program,” Dobson said. “And maybe in a location further away from the dumpsters.”