Twenty years ago, Clover beekeeper Sally Adams was just looking for a way to ensure she had fresh, pure honey for her tea.
One beehive eventually turned into more than 80 hives and Adams’ backyard hobby evolved into a business.
She was recently named the South Carolina Beekeepers Association’s “beekeeper of the year” and was honored at a ceremony at Clemson University along with two other York County residents on the bee scene.
This year is likely the first time in the state organization’s history, Adams said, that three residents from one county took home the top honors.
Adams, the owner of Mama Beehive Honey Farm in Clover, sets herself apart from most other beekeepers, she said, by taking a “wholistic” approach to running and sharing her operation.
A majority of beekeepers sell their honey, she said, but few make 100 percent bee wax candles to sell and not many dedicate their time to educate young people about the industry and importance of honey bees.
She sells her products in various local retail stores and restaurants and every Thursday during the Old Market season in downtown Rock Hill.
Adams learned the beekeeping trade from an “old-timer” in Virginia, she said, where she was living when she went on the hunt for quality honey in the 1990s.
At the time, people were learning that some imported honey products were tainted with pesticides and mercury, she said, and Adams wanted to find something organic for her tea.
The 80-year-old Virginian became her mentor and the 100 hives on his farm became her classroom.
At Mama Beehive in Clover, Adams has had up to 86 hives at once.
A recent bout of disease killed off about 20 of her hives and this summer she was able to extract honey from 23 hives.
With nearly 60,000 bees calling a hive their home, Adams’ has more than 1 million honey bees.
Many of her hives are stationed at farms around York County where farmers rely on Adams’ bees to pollinate their crops.
Adams has been instrumental in educating those farmers, local gardeners and children about honey bees and how the insects impact food production worldwide, said Anita Lehew, a friend and executive committee member with the S.C. beekeepers association.
Lehew and Adams are known around York County as the “bee ladies” and have taught nearly 12,000 school-aged children about their trade and honey bees over the past three and a half years.
As a “hobbyist” beekeeper, Lehew said, she has had two beehives for about 11 years.
She and Adams have found a fool-proof way of capturing kids’ attention during their honey bee lessons: ice cream.
They tell the children that without bees, there would be no grass to feed cows and then no cows to produce milk for ice cream.
The thought of no ice cream “of course piques their interest,” Lehew said.
Adams and Lehew also inform gardeners and farmers about the problem of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides on plants.
“The worst thing (for bees) is Sevin dust,” Lehew said. “Bees will bring it back to the hive and it kills the hive.”
Sevin dust is similar in size to pollen grains which bees pick up and distribute through pollination, she said.
Honey bees pollinate a variety of plants including fruits and vegetables such as okra, pumpkins, peaches and squash.
If Sevin dust is absolutely necessary for a gardener, Lehew said the liquid form is better for the sake of the bees.
Spraying soapy water on plants is the best solution for protecting plants and bees at the same time, she said.
Adams lost some of her hives this year to pesticides, she said.
Sevin dust is “sublethal” to her bees, Adams said, killing them slowly after the pesticide infiltrates the hive.
Adams’ passion and knowledge about beekeeping and how to protect honey bees are two big reasons she received the state association’s top award this year, said friend and fellow beekeeper Cynthia Robinson.
Adding to York County's successful award year, Robinson won a beekeepers smokers competition last month by producing in front of judges the best puffs from a hand-held smoker which keepers use to calm down the bees before opening a hive.
Robinson works with Adams on her Clover honey farm and helps manage the business’ website and social media presence.
The two met at church after Robinson spent years looking for a beekeeping mentor.
Robinson wanted a female mentor in the trade, she said, because the field is dominated by men.
Adams is only the third woman to be named S.C.’s beekeeper of the year – it’s a designation she’s proud of, she said.
She is also one of only four people in the Palmetto State with the title of “master” beekeeper, which required nearly three years of studying and preparation.
Robinson hopes to follow in Adams’ footsteps and become a master-level beekeeper, she said.
With her business, the state award and achieving her master certification, Adams said she’s been busy.
“It’s kind of been a big year for me,” she said.