They are the busiest workers at the Ag Center. They are tens of thousands of honey bees.
But there are a few men and women who run a close second. They are the Memphis Area Bee Keepers Association. Stuart Hooser says, "You are standing in the midst of some legendary honey men."
They come from all over the Mid South; Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas. And they come to Shelby Farms to trade secrets, talk business, and taste the fruits of their labor of love. Charles Force, the association's president, thinks this honey is the best you'll find anywhere.
"This is pure honey that we have in our bee club. We take it from the wild flowers here at the Ag Center."
Most of them are hobbyists. But Force says there are a few masters among them who have turned bees into big business. "A lot of the members in our club have a hundred or more hives. Some have 600. And it financially can turn into a good source of income".
This golden confection of the gods can bring up to $3 per pound on the wholesale market, and three to four times as much retail. The average hive can produce 60 to 80 pounds of honey per year. But the bee business isn't just in the honey. It's the work that the bees do "on the side" that humans benefit from most. The honey bee adds at least $15 billion in crop value through pollination alone in the United States. In fact, according to Robert Hodum, the grand master of this club, "Thirty-three percent of our food deals directly with pollination by the honey bee," meaning the honey bee is responsible for large part of everything you eat fruit and vegetables, to even the crops that feed live-stock.
But the bee is in trouble. A condition, called colony collapse disorder, is rapidly wiping out the wild, or feral honey bee population in the United States. It could be caused by any one, or combination of things, from pesticides, invading mites, or low food supply for the bee itself. Charles Force admits he's no researcher, but he, like so many others in the industry are looking for answers. "You know, we really don't know the reason that we are. A lot of researchers, a lot of scientists… even our politicians are looking into this. If it keeps going the way that it is, we are going to have some serious problems with food in the future. There's a lot of research going on now to find out how we can effectively deal with it."
While the wild bee struggles to survive, the domesticated bee seems to have a more stable situation. Bee keeping as a hobby, and even as an industry is on the rise across the nation, and right here in the Mid South. Charles Force and the others hope that's a trend that continues, for the sake of the bee, and all of us. "We've got about 250 members, which is a significant increase over the last 10 years. And more people are getting interested in bee keeping. Maintaining a hive at their home or in their garden. And that's going to make a big difference in the population of bees."