One busy keeper

Jim Benware uses smoke to calm the bees as he checks the hives.
Jim Benware uses smoke to calm the bees as he checks the hives.

The cure for a deadly disorder wiping out bee colonies across the country may be resting near the shores of Lake Wylie.

While the widespread Colony Collapse Disorder is killing bees by the thousands, beekeeper Jim Benware, a Lake Wylie resident, operates a bee business that's blossoming.

Benware, 61, raises Russian Queens, a species not nearly as susceptible to the disorder as more common species of bees. He has produced honey for decades, but is beginning to breed and lease the Russian bees to farmers, who rely on bees spreading pollen for a successful crop, to combat the disorder.

"I didn't really plan it that way, but I guess it's a divine intervention," Benware said. "It played right into my game plan."

Scientists have intensely studied CCD since late 2006 when an alarming number of colonies suddenly began dying, putting a scare in honey producers and farmers who rely on pollination. So far, research is inconclusive. Many researchers believe the disorder is caused by pesticide buildup or mite infestations. Others have suggested cell phone emissions are to blame.

But for Benware's Russian Queens, it doesn't much matter. They've survived the scare. That's the reason he started raising Russians in the first place.

Benware, a New Hampshire native, said the species, bred from several varieties of bees in Russia and Eastern Europe, are able to withstand bee killing Verroa mites without the use of pesticides. They're one of the most hardy species in the world, and he believes that's the reason they're not affected by CCD.

"With the Russians, we don't have to use any chemicals," he said. "For some reason, they're not as susceptible (to disease)."

Benware said Russian bees were introduced into the United States in 1980. But most American beekeepers, raising Italian honey bees, were wary of their reputation for being aggressive and lazy honey producers. The species didn't catch on. Now, keepers are learning that reputation was unfounded.

"There was a learning curve to the Russian bees," said Benware, one of two Russian breeders in the state. "The more we studied them we figured out they were less susceptible to mites and they were just as gentle and good workers."

Farmers are starting to catch on, too.

Clover farmer Clint Boyd is one of the first clients to rent Benware's Russian colonies for pollinating his 6 acre fruit and vegetable garden. In addition to CCD wiping out large bee colonies, Boyd said he has noticed wild bees in York County are in severe decline as woodlands are replaced with neighborhoods.

"There's hardly any wild bees anymore. We're all eventually gonna have to move to this kind of pollination," Boyd said.

Benware is breeding his bees in hopes of renting out colonies to more local farmers in coming years. He said studies have shown strong bee pollination can drastically improve crop production.

"Farmers are going to have to start renting bees," he said. "They have realized it costs money to pollinate, but at the end of the year when they look at the bottom line they're making more money."

Boyd agrees, saying it's worth the money. "I'm real pleased with it," he said. "They are very active, hard workers."

Like all agricultural businesses, Benware still faces some challenges. The April cold snap that killed off York County's peaches also claimed most tulip poplar blossoms, a key flower for bees seeking nectar for producing honey. While CCD will be responsible for many honey production shortfalls, Benware expects his honey production will be down this summer, too, because of the blossom-killing freeze.

"There's gonna be somewhat a scarcity of honey," he said. "It hurt me considerably."

But Benware, with 30 years experience in the bee business, is confident the honey production will rebound. After teaching himself how to raise some of the busiest creatures on earth, he's hoping his latest lesson can breathe new life into a troubled industry.

"I just enjoy working with bees," he said. "I find it fascinating."

• Jim Benware has owned and operated Proverbs 24:13 Apiary in Lake Wylie since 1992.

• He produces honey sold at area shops, including Lake Wylie Hardware, Black's Peaches and Windy Hill Orchard, and rents Russian Queen bee colonies to area farmers.

• Benware has about 30 mature colonies and 50 starter colonies. Each colony houses 60,000 bees. "Figure that up, and it's a lot of zeros on your calculator," he quipped.

• Last year, Benware's bees produced 1,200 pounds of honey.