It’s Wednesday morning, and Imke Lass drives up to my house at around quarter ’til ten. It will take about 45 minutes to reach the home of Ron Weisburg in Hardeeville, South Carolina. Imke’s car is as recognizable as her tall stature would have been had she gotten out. What kind of car is it? “It’s an 84 Mercedes 300td turbo. Blue. With a golden door. And no grille, so it looks like somebody punched its teeth out,” Imke writes when I email her for its make and model. It runs on recycled vegetable oil. With the windows down, those inside catch a whiff of bowling alley snack bar. The ineffective or absent shocks make way for an enjoyable bounce on Highway 17. If Joan Jet had been singing “I Love Rock and Roll,” it would have been like the favorite of my elementary school bus experiences–the back seat and one pot hole after another.
Ron is married to Cynthia Dekon, and their home–in a new development off Tradition Drive–is a testament to her passion: gardening. While the partly built subdivision has that barren appearance offered by a conspicuous lack of vegetation and shade, we see that Cynthia is doing her best to remedy that. On either side of the couple’s driveway are raised planters containing herbs. Beyond that, we see trees and shrubs still too young to identify without getting up close and looking for a tag or familiar leaf structure. We don’t have time for that.
We have come to see the pollinators of those plants: honeybees that Ron keeps. He requested and received permission to put some on land owned by the local utility company. Remote locations and signs are Ron’s defense against any yahoo who might like to test his manhood by tipping a beehive instead of a cow. Gardening doesn’t interest Ron, but he started beekeeping in an effort to support Cynthia’s endeavors. Most of his beekeeping experience has been in Florida where there is a tight beekeeping community. Ron hasn’t found that same group of enthusiasts in South Carolina, but it’s on his list.
The fit senior citizen comes to the door with a smile and an eager explanation of the artwork he and Cynthia have recently put up in their new home. Photography of live oaks, water colors of tropical fish, and an open layout make me think of the Carribbean. After a few quick introductions and a dab of small talk, we’re following Ron in his pickup truck to another moving truck parked near undeveloped area where Ron keeps some of his hives. Beekeepers are known for there stacks of white, painted boxes: deeps and supers depending on their dimensions.
Ron’s moving truck is full, and he gives Imke the Reader’s Digest version of Beekeeping 101. I let them maneuver through the minimal walking area in the truck. Remaining on the ground, I watch buzzards soar above and kick my feet around in the dirt. It’s warm, but early enough in the year that it’s not humid. Ron shows Imke the smoker, the honey extractor and a plastic bag filled with wood scraps. “I use this to shim the hives,” Ron tells us. The bees, like humans, prefer a level living and working environment.
I decide to put on my hat and veil. I forgot a hat, so Ron is kind enough to loan me his hat. It’s warm, because it’s been on his head, and the bill is bent in a way that suggests it might be a favorite. I am also wearing a white dress shirt belonging to my husband. It is what I used when we had a hive. Ron only has two bee suits. He and Imke wait until we get to the hive location to put them on. Picture Ron ( at around 5′ 10″) in the driver’s seat, me (with my bee veil on at 5′ 5″) in the awkward middle, and Imke (coming in at 6′ 2″) in the passenger’s seat of the tiny truck’s cab. A well-used notebook with ragged edges is on the dashboard, a gear shift is jabbing my left thigh, and a seat belt buckle is making nice with my butt crack. Thank goodness Ron’s truck has better shocks than Imke’s car.
The first sight that we visit has a few hives, and Ron discovers something that, if left unfixed, could mean the death of a colony within a month’s time. There was no queen. A queen is vital for producing more bees, and her temperament determines the aggressiveness of the colony. Worker bees live to make her happy, and, without her, they feel lost. New queens cannot be purchased early enough in the season to benefit that colony, so the other option for Ron would be to include young brood from another colony. Young bees jerk the nurse bees into action. You see, how they feed larva depends on whether it will be a queen! A bee larvae that gets fed “royal jelly” will become royal herself. What’s royal jelly? It’s an appetizing mixture of nectar, pollen, and a glandular secretion that comes from a nurse bee’s head. You can buy a very effective moisturizer containing royal jelly from Savannah Bee Company. If you’re giving it as a gift, you might hold back on the glandular secretion business.
During the drive to the next set of hives, Ron says he doesn’t like that option for saving the colony. He’s got his eyes on honey production. He has made as much as $70,000 on it in a single year. Taking some bees from a healthy hive means less honey. It’s unclear what he’ll end up doing.
We head on to the next spot overlooking a reservoir. Bees love it when a hive’s entrance faces the rising sun. They also require a water source–a fact of which many people are unaware. Ron’s bees are Italian, and Italian bees are known for their gentle workability. They are not quick to go into defensive mode, and this makes them attractive for new beekeepers. Unfortunately, Imke still gets stung on the forehead through her veil. If you have the choice, purchase a stiff veil that rests away from your face. Ron explains that there are some more aggressive African genes in some of his hives. We suspect they are in the last one we open. Ron describes it as “hot.” The buzz of the bees in it quickly becomes higher pitched, a sign of annoyance. Soon, the bees start buzzing around our heads. Even with protective gear, it makes Imke and I a little nervous. We slowly walk about thirty feet from the row of hives to see if we can become less of a threat. Ron goes about his business, and we eventually return.
Ron has top feeders that he fills with sugar water. Recycled juice bottles of it are placed near each hive for refilling. Something has chewed one of the plastic tops, and closer examination reveals that a mouse previously climbed into the bottle and drown. Ron also lays pollen substitute (a single one looking like a thick, light-brown fruit roll-up) on top of the frames between sheets of wax paper. In Florida Ron didn’t have to feed his bees, and he lost over 15 hives when he moved to Hardeeville because of not doing so.
Our visit with Ron is just one of part of our investigation into beekeeping. While the experience was informative and most enjoyable, Ron is a part of a larger story. Finding a unique angle on a well covered topic is critical, and it takes time. We are grateful to Ron for allowing us to witness his work.