Wabash Valley youth finds small business is all the buzz
Lisa Trigg The Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE — For every third bite of food you take, thank a honey bee.
Zephaniah Bowen does.
The West Vigo High School sophomore is also thankful that honey from bees has helped reduce his asthma and allergy symptoms.
So thankful, in fact, that he has taken up beekeeping as a hobby, as a 4-H project, and as a small business to sell honey and bee-related products at Terre Haute’s Downtown Farmers’ Market on summer Saturdays.
Dressed in a white protective beekeeper’s suit and armed with a smoker to calm the bees, Zeph recently showed visitors how he tends nine wooden hives located around his parents’ rural Vigo County home.
“The top boxes are called supers and they are full of frames that bees build their combs in,” he explains. “The bees start building the comb out by making a wax. Then they fill out the frames with honey nectar from flowers. The moisture is fanned out by the bees’ wings and then they cap it over with wax so the moisture can’t get back into the honey and spoil.”
The honey made by bees as their food reserve is what Zeph takes out to be extracted and sold at the market. And that sweet, golden goodness has become almost as popular with market-goers as it is among the insects who make it.
Becoming familiar with the not-so-secret lives of bees has been a fascinating project for Zeph, his mother Tina and father Brad.
“I’ll just sit in the chair or golf cart and watch ’em,” Tina said as she pointed out a flight path of the yellow and black flying insects going to and from a hive. “It’s like watching an aquarium.”
Hive society is quite organized, with every bee performing its proper function to sustain the colony. The bees keep the hive clean by removing dead bees and by excreting their waste outside the hive boxes. Worker bees forage for nectar and pollen to take back to the hive for honey production.
The bees also make honey in the bottom-most hive box where they live, lay eggs and tend the young bees that will soon become honey-making workers. That hive box is where the colony will congregate in the winter months to generate a constant temperature while they survive on their reserves of honey.
The different types of nectar collected create different types of honey. For instance, setting a hive in a grove of black locust trees will help the bees to produce a different tasting honey than if the hive is located near an apple orchard.
“We were told that if you move a colony into an orchard or into a locust grove, that helps them build up faster because they don’t have to forage so far,” he said.
Zeph gained an interest in bee keeping after hearing a presentation from Aaron Warner, a science teacher at Terre Haute South Vigo High School, who has fostered his own love of beekeeping in recent years.
“He was a sponge, a magnet. He just soaked it up,” Warner said of Zeph as the teen bee-gan his apiary interest. “That’s great when you can affect someone positively like that.”
The Bowens have often called Warner and other beekeeping mentors in the area for advice as they progress in beekeeping, or apiculture.
They rented their first hive two years ago from a beekeeper in another county who came out periodically and gave Zeph lessons on how to get into the hive and collect the golden goodness. The teen also learned how to use a smoker, a device that generates smoke to calm the bees and mask the alarm pheromones released by guard bees, when he has to open the hive to pull out the honeycombs.
“They get a little aggravated and let you know they’re there,” he said of the bees’ reaction to him poking around in the hive. “But they’re not going to attack you unless you kill the queen.”
Still, it is always wise to wear the protective clothing and gloves.
Because beekeeping is not an active project in the Vigo County 4-H program, Zeph enters the Parke County 4-H Fair for beekeeping. Last year, he won grand champion for his step-by-step tutorial on how to hive a swarm of bees. His fair entry was an action demonstration because he was not able to collect enough honey to exhibit in time for the fair.
Indeed, just because a hive of bees is active does not mean there will be enough honey produced to extract for consumption or for sale. The recent rainy weather has slowed local honey production because the insects can’t get out in the dampness to gather nectar and pollen.
Last year’s increased precipitation contributed to the death of about one-third of the hive colonies in America during the past winter. While some people may think that means less summer pests to buzz around an open pop can, what it really means is that there are about one-third less honeybee pollinators in the food chain that Americans either gobble up or export.
Many plants rely upon pollinators such as honeybees to produce a crop.
For instance, cucumbers are dependent upon insects since there is no airborne pollination of cucumbers. While that may seem like no big deal — just one type of plant in the garden — it has a trickle-down impact in the supply side for the pickle production industry. It can carry over into higher costs in the restaurant industry — pickles on your hamburger or relish on the hotdogs, for example — which are then passed on to consumers.
Increased use of chemical pesticides and other human-caused changes in the environment have also been striking hard at the world’s bee populations.
“We don’t realize what we’re doing to the bees, how they’re suffering, and what we’re doing to the environment,” Tina Bowen said.
Honey bees are essential for production of more than 90 food crops, and bee pollination is responsible for $15 billion in added crop value. Those stinging statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture are one reason why National Honey Bee Awareness Day is being promoted among apiaries such as the Bowen family’s Busy Bee Apiary.
“In places where there are no bees, farmers have to pollinate by hand, and that is expensive,” Tina said. “Can you imagine not having cherries or blackberries?”
This year’s Hone Bee Awareness Day is set for Aug. 21, and the Bowens are organizing many local educational opportunities for the public at their booth in the Downtown Farmers’ Market.
“We will have a program and dignitaries,” Tina said. “Last year we had Mayor [Duke] Bennett. We will have crafts and activities for kids. And many of the vendors participated as well. They know how honey bees help them grow their produce.”
A big seller at the market last year, she said, were the honey cookies made by many volunteers who used a variety of recipes to show that honey is a great ingredient in baking and cooking.
Tina also shares information on three key properties of honey — antimicrobial, antioxidant and hygroscopic, which all make honey a popular food as well as medicine.
Since honey naturally absorbs moisture from the air, it can be used to hydrate skin in cosmetics and helps prevent wounds from drying out and scaring. It also has antimicrobial properties that prohibits the growth of bad bacteria and promotes healing. And honey has antioxidants that eliminate free radicals in the body and promote new tissue growth.
But what really attracted Zeph to honey was his asthma and allergies.
He has pollen allergies, and each spring he would be miserable as the tiny particles filled the air. He has found that eating honey is like taking allergy shots. It builds up his immunity to the pollen in the air.
He has gone from taking a weekly allergy shot to getting a monthly injection.
“I think the honey has helped,” Zeph said of his reaction to histamines that prompted allergy attacks.
Now that the Farmers’ Market is in full swing for the growing season, Zeph plans to spend his Saturdays immersed in the business side of beekeeping.
He is the assistant market master, meaning he does a lot of the tent delivery and helps vendors at the market. So even when his bees have not produced enough honey to sell, he will still be busy with marketing and promotions.
One small insect variety that many people consider an annoyance, or fear because of its sting potential, has become sort of a pet project for Zeph and his parents.