Tom Bays is a man with a passion—for honeybees. Just mention his hives and the award-winning honey the bees produce and his face lights up. Bays, 71, and his wife of 50 years, Pauline—and the honeybees—live on three acres in Independence in northern Kentucky.
Bays, a member of the Northern Kentucky Beekeepers, has been around honeybees since he was a boy in Trosper, near Barbourville. His parents had hives on their farm and the young Bays helped as his older brother tended the bees. More than 10 years ago, after Bays retired from Ford Motor Company in Sharonville, Ohio, he and Pauline moved to Kentucky and he began beekeeping.
“Beekeeping is the most interesting thing you could do,” he says with a grin. “Bees take the pollen from the flowers by first taking it with their mouth. Then they transfer it from their mouth to their front legs, and then to the back legs. That’s because their back legs are stronger and they can carry more.
“I have good bees because I take good care of them,” he continues. “In the spring, I give my bees sugar water to boost them. I check on each queen to be sure she is laying eggs—about 1,500 to 2,000 per day.”
Bays says because he has good bees, he can mow right next to their hives without angering them. Although Pauline enjoys the honey, she doesn’t go near the hives since a bee stung her cheek when she once wore hairspray near the bees. But the Bayses have a young grandson, Michael Martin, who has his own beekeeper’s suit and helps his grandfather “sling” the honey to get it out of the honeycomb.
“Honey is as old as time,” he says. “It never spoils as long as there is no water in it. Honey will last for 50 years.”
Granddaughter Andrea Bays, who just completed her freshman year at Eastern Kentucky University, is the one who thought her grandfather’s honey should be entered in the Kenton County Fair. In 2002, Bays won four ribbons at the county fair. But he is most excited that his honey was judged to be the best in the state at the 2003 Kentucky State Fair. He has two display cases of ribbons that he shows to visitors.
Bays now has only seven hives since eight others were lost to the cold one winter. To prevent more losses, this winter he’s planning to try putting thick Styrofoam on top of the hives to protect the bees from the frigid air.
“Bees go into the top of the hive for the winter and they must have 45 or 50 pounds of honey in the hive to make it through the winter.”
And Bays finds his own ways to protect his bees from other dangers.
“(Varroa) mites have killed 97 percent of the wild honeybees,” Bays explains. “But we have come up with a solution to keep them away from our hives. In the spring and fall, we mix powdered sugar and garlic powder and then sprinkle it on top of the bees. It gets rid of the mites and doesn’t hurt the bees.”
Researchers at Kentucky State University are testing traps for the mites and have concluded from a long-term study that the traps reduce mites by 60 percent. But Bays is happy with the results that he has with his powdered mixture.
There are other predators to honeybees. Yellowjackets kill the larger honeybees. One year, European hornets killed two stands of Bays’ bees and then went into the hives to get the honey. Honeybees are important, not just for the honey they make, but because they are vital for crop pollination. Bees pollinate anything that has a bloom.
Although it may seem Bays is all about bees, another huge part of his life that’s never far from his conversation is his battle with brain cancer. More than 16 years ago he was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.
“The Lord healed me of brain cancer after I was having real bad headaches,” he says. “After my surgery, I only missed one Sunday at church (New Hope Church of God). The next Sunday the devil said, ‘If you go, they’ll make fun of you with that shaved head and that bandage.’ But I said, ‘Devil, they’ll have to make fun of me because I’m going.’”
After nine weeks of radiation, all the MRI showed was scar tissue. Bays’ doctor was amazed, but Bays gave all of the credit to God. Pauline says this is his witness and that Bays “goes to church every time the doors open” and he hasn’t had a headache since before his surgery.
So now he spends his energies tending to his bees and the contributions they make to our everyday lives, like the taste of honey and phrases such as “busy as a bee.”
Watching the worker bees gather pollen leaves no doubt of the source of the expression “busy as a bee.” Honeybees have four wings that move 11,400 times per minute, which creates their distinctive buzz, says Bays. The worker bees work so hard that they only live for about six weeks, while the drones (males) live most of a summer, and the queen bees live for six months up to two-plus years. Worker bees have stingers to defend their hive.
“If you get stung, don’t pull the stinger out,” Bays advises from experience. “Scrape over the place with a fingernail or a knife and it will get the stinger and most of the poison out. If you try to pull the stinger out, you squeeze the poison into your body.”
Though he says he doesn’t have hobbies because of the time he spends working with the bees, Bays is an avid gardener, according to Pauline.
“He plants cucumbers, white half-runner beans, ‘greasy’ beans, Silver Queen corn, and tomatoes,” Pauline says as she shows a photo of Tom on a ladder picking his pole beans. “We have peaches and apples and I can what we grow.”
Looking at the jars of honey for sale and ribbons from the fairs, Bays is proud of his honeybees and the smooth-tasting, award-winning honey they produce. Lovingly, he says he is their master.
“I read that bees know their master and if the master dies,” the beekeeper says, “someone has to go to the hives and tell the bees.”
“It won’t be me!” Pauline says with a laugh.
The Kentucky State Beekeepers Association has 300 members in 16 to 18 clubs in the state, according to Gerald Burchett, president-elect of the organization. Burchett began beekeeping with two hives when he was in high school. He now has 21 hives in Kentucky and is co-owner of 100 hives in Mississippi. He has traveled to Africa and Ukraine to work with beekeepers.
“We have informational meetings where professionals speak about beekeeping. Then there are three meetings per year of the state association—spring, summer, and fall,” explains Burchett, whose wife, Myrna, is the association treasurer. “Our newsletter comes out six times a year. One of the main functions of the association is to go to the Kentucky State Fair to sell honey to the public.”
Currently, the funds derived from the state’s share of the master tobacco settlement have provided a $100,000 grant to aid beekeepers in producing their own queen bees, instead of having to purchase them from warmer states further south that would have queen bees earlier than Kentucky. The money was awarded by the state Agricultural Development Board.
For more information about the Kentucky State Beekeepers Association, call Kent Williams, association secretary, at (270) 382-2348.
TOM BAYS’ HONEYBEE TRIVIA
1. How many flowers must honeybees tap to make one pound of honey?
2. How far does a hive of bees fly to bring you one pound of honey?
More than 55,000 miles.
3. How much honey does the average worker honeybee make in its lifetime?
One-twelfth of a teaspoon.
4. How fast does a honeybee fly?
About 15 miles per hour full speed and about 8 to 10 miles per hour when loaded with pollen.
5. How much honey would it take to fuel a bee’s flight around the world?
About one ounce, or two tablespoons.
6. How many sides does each honeycomb cell have?
Six. Studies by engineers determined that this six-sided, hexagonal shape is the strongest possible structure using a minimum of materials. Engineers now use hexagonal designs to strengthen their structures.
7. What is the U. S. per capita consumption of honey?
8. What state is known as the Beehive State?
9. How many beekeepers are there in the United States?
An estimated 211,600.
10. How many honey-producing colonies of bees are there in the United States?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that there are three
million producing colonies in the country.
11. How many flowers does a honeybee visit during one collection trip?
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