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Franklin County beekeepers motivated by love for bees

Written by Vicky Taylor, Public Opinion Online | Sep 8, 2015 6:30 PM
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Honey bees are busy at work Friday in a hive in the Waynesboro area. Humble Beeginnings, Chambersburg, maintains hives at several properties in Franklin County. (Photo by Markell DeLoatch, Public Opinion Online)

(Franklin County) -- Keeping honey-producing bees is an uphill battle, but one that between 250 to 280 families in Franklin County who keep hives feel is worthwhile.

Robert "Bob" Cox and Melissa "Missy" Etter, owners of Humble Beeginnings Honey House, Chambersburg, joined the ranks of county beekeepers three years ago and this year were able to harvest and market their first honey "crop."

Along the way they have learned a lot about bees and their importance not just as pollinators and producers of an almost perfect food, but about the little insect's personalities and work habits.

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Robert Cox, left, and Melissa Etter are beekeepers at Humble Beeginnings, Chambersburg. They checked some hives Friday at a farm on Scott Road, Waynesboro. (Photo by Markell DeLoatch, Public Opinion)

Beekeeping is a science, Cox said, and mastering that science has been a fascinating journey for the two friends, as well as the property owners who host some of their hives.

"If you want to keep bees, either for your own use or to eventually be able to sell your honey to friends and neighbors, you need patience," Etter said. "There is just a lot to learn."

She points those who are interested in beekeeping toward the Franklin County Beekeepers Association (http://franklincountybeekeepersassociation.blogspot.com/), which has 70 active members who are eager to share their knowledge and experience through a series of workshops throughout the year.

Etter and Cox started with the association's beginning beekeeping course before they bought their first hive, something they say cemented their decision to try to keep bees and to perhaps eventually turn that venture into a business.

Randy King, current president of the county beekeepers group, praises Humble Beeginnings' work to establish healthy, viable hives and their willingness to mentor others looking to follow in their footsteps.

"The club really is a big help (in getting started)," Etter said. "We got a lot of help from other, longtime beekeepers."

A lot of local beekeepers don't see beekeeping as a business, but rather a hobby that makes their corner of the world a better place to live, and the Cox-Etter team says those beekeepers are as important, perhaps more important, than small operations like theirs or big commercial beekeeping operations like some local orchards run in connection with their fruit growing businesses.

Cox and Etter's early effort at beekeeping weren't particularly successful that first year.

They started with four hives and lost all four that first winter.

The second year, they added new hives, and by the beginning of winter they had 11. Six hives survived the winter.

This year they have 16 hives.

That's a lot of bees, since a hive typically has between 20,000 and 60,000 bees, perhaps even more depending on the quality of the queen and hive conditions.

Once a hive becomes too crowded, the old queen will take about 60 percent of the bees and leave, leaving the rest in the care of a new queen.

The queen and her followers that leave the hive are called "swarms."

Humble Beeginnings has one swarm in a swarm catcher they plan to add to existing hives that might need a little man(bee)power boost in the next few weeks. They have caught several swarms this year that helped to increase the number of hives they now have as they prepare those hives for winter.

Etter even got her husband Frank involved at that time too, having him climb 20 feet up a tree, unprotected, to collect one of the swarms.

Once in the tree, he cut the branch that the swarm had landed on and carried it down a ladder to Missy, who was waiting fully suited, with a hive box for the bees.

"With hundreds of bees buzzing around him, he was only stung once on the leg," Missy Etter said.

During their journey as beekeepers, Etter and Cox -- who started their beekeeping adventure with hives at Missy and Frank Etter's Mont Alto Road home -- have enlisted the help of several local property owners who now host a few Humble Beeginnings hives each, including Jason and Priscilla Young, Rick and Julie Shindle, Michelle and Dave Lushbaugh and Julia and Andy Klein, all of the Waynesboro area.

They are all friends who asked that hives be put on their property for pollination benefits and because they also want to help the bees.

"They want to help the bees too, so we couldn't turn them down," Etter said. "They understand the dwindling bee population and want to help."

They all contribute to the cost of the hives, with no real guarantee of receiving honey, Etter said. She sees that as dedication to the cause of helping bees survive and thrive.

"As pollinators, bees are very, very beneficial (to have on a property)," Jason Young said.

He planted several apple trees in two different areas on the Young property a few years ago and this year the trees where Humble Beeginnings hives are located produced their first crop of apples. The Youngs are still waiting for apples from the second set of trees to produce, but they hope to host more hives next year, which should increase the chances of more and better apples.

For the Shindles, a fascination with bees and a concern about the state of the bee and problems the species is facing is also an important consideration.

One day last week, while sitting at a picnic table in her back yard, Julie Shindle talked about her fascination with the bees in the two hives on her property.

"I look in on (the bees) every day," she said. "I love to watch them, and to listen to them, and I can tell if something is wrong now just by listening to them."

She pointed to a water fountain in the middle of a flower garden at the side of her house.

"Look," she said. "There is probably a hundred bees at the fountain right now."

This summer Humble Beeginnings was able to extract its first batch of extra honey from the hives to use and sell.

The honey is extracted at the business' "honey house" on Bob and Tina Cox's property in Chambersburg.

It takes special equipment to do that, and Cox and Etter went to a lot of trouble and expense to get their honey house set up so it would pass inspection so their potential customers could be assured that the extraction process was clean and sanitary, meeting a set of standards that makes it possible to label their honey as "Pa Preferred."

They took 180 pounds of honey from five of their hives, but made sure they left plenty in the hive to feed the bee population throughout the winter when the worker bees can't go out and collect more pollen or make more honey.

Each hive needs about 40 to 60 pounds of honey to survive the winter until flowers and plants start blooming in the spring.

But for Cox and Etter, beekeeping is not about the honey they can sell but about the bees themselves.

"I love to watch a honey bee at work," Cox said. "My wife's grandparents were beekeepers, so that inspired me too."

He and his mother, Martha Cox, have often had conversations about how they once saw a lot of bees in their neighborhood and elsewhere but today that doesn't happen.

That was back when beekeepers didn't have to deal with disease and colony collapse in their hives, and many people kept a hive in their backyard either for the honey or to pollinate their plants and flowers.

Today a beekeeper's job is more complicated, but still worthwhile, Cox and Etter agree.

"The honey's great, but really it's about a fascination with the bees," Etter said. "It's also about being able to educate someone else, to inspire someone else to become a beekeeper too."

King praises the pair's devotion to their bees, but especially their eagerness to mentor others interested in keeping bees themselves.

Over the last three years Etter and Cox have learned a lot about establishing a bee hive and keeping those thousands of bees alive over the winter so they can thrive the next spring.

They have adjusted both the way they buy their bees, and the way they tend them.

For instance, Cox said the first year they bought only the less expensive packages of bees in which they got a swarm by mail in a box along with a queen in a separate little box, which they then combined in a hive.

The second year they switched to the more expensive "nuc" (short for a nuclear family of bees), in which they got an established colony and their queen.

The extra expense was worth it, Cox said.

They have also learned from their experience with loss of hives over the winter.

This winter they will move some of their more vulnerable hives to a pine tree grove on the Young property for the winter, where they will be a little more protected from some extreme weather changes.

Cox is also looking into ways of insulating the hives from the extreme cold the area experienced last winter.

They also are working to make sure each hive has plenty of honey to feed its occupants through the winter. In February they will put fondant in the hives if necessary to supplement the hive's honey and help the bees survive until spring when the workers can start foraging for pollen again.

While they know they could lose hives over the winter, the determined beekeepers will move forward next year and continue to grow their business, while promoting the cause of the honey bee.

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Honey can be seen at a bee hive Friday in the Waynesboro area. (Photo by Markell DeLoatch, Public Opinion)

Vicky Taylor can be reached at 717-262-4754


This article comes to us through a partnership between Public Opinion Online and WITF. 

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