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Rollin Lauber, 74, guides Derek McClory, 14, through the process of checking bee hives. Collegian | Jo Kroeker

Hudson — When the amateur apiarists of the Lost Nations Beekeepers Association extracted honey from their hives in the Sugar Shack, they were too focused to lick their fingers.

And although it was his first extraction, 14-year-old Derek McClory was no exception.

September is extraction month, and Saturday was the last extraction day for members of the Hudson-based association before the winterization process begins. Members guided first-timer McClory through the process of extracting honey from bees that the group had bought for him as a scholarship. The club, one example of the general uptick in hobby beekeeping, is a response to the nationwide decline in bee populations.

McClory, who attends Center for Science and Industry in Hudson, said he first learned about the hobby in Mother Earth News magazine and decided he wanted in, too.

“He beat us over the head for one and a half years, wanting beehives,” said his father, Robert Geeting, adding that McClory surprised him with his knowledge of bees he had gleaned from “good ol’ fashioned YouTube and Google” as well as library books.

Over the winter, McClory assembled the hive he got for Christmas, again surprising Geeting for knowing how the pieces fit together. Although Geeting said he thought the bees could be left on their own once purchased, he learned from working with his son and the association that’s nowhere near the case.

“A beehive is a puppy,” said Steve Clark, the owner of Napoleon Bee Supply in Jackson. “You don’t buy a puppy, chain it to a tree, and walk away. Your beehive is the same way.”

Geeting said the association gave McClory guidance in addition to a scholarship.

“You can’t ever replace experience,” Geeting said. “They have made a huge difference, and all the people are great people.”

Rollin Lauber, 74, a veteran beekeeper of 40 years, founded the association in January 2017 after drumming up interest through word-of-mouth.

From start to finish, the extraction process took a full afternoon.

Lauber, his partner Lillian Warren, McClory, Geeting, and Lee Daugherty, a member of the board of directors, drove to their hives on Forester Road, situated on 40 acres of land owned by Hudson resident Pat Smith. Smith participates in a government program that pays him to let wildflowers grow, supporting bee populations. Lauber, Warren, and Daugherty pay him rent in honey.

There, they zipped into white, full-body suits with veils and sprayed smoke over the hives. The smoke neutralizes a hormone that alerts bees to potential threats to the hive, calming them enough so the keepers can get to work. One by one, members pulled frames out of the box-shaped hives on which bees make honey combs, store honey, and let larvae grow. They checked for mites and diseases.

Once that’s done, they set aside some frames for extraction, while leaving others so the bees have enough honey for the winter. Using a special blower, they gently blew the bees away from the frames, enough to cause a flurry of honey bees, but not enough to anger them.  

Along the way, Lauber shared his nearly encyclopedic knowledge of bee facts.

He said the rules of beehive society seem harsh — but it’s just nature.

After a queen dies, a female larvae less than 12 hours old is elected. Force-fed in a bigger comb, she’s ready 16 days later, whereas a normal bee needs 21 days. Lauber said any bee seen flying flower to flower is essentially a starved female that could have become queen.

Even harsher by human standards is the life of a drone: Male bees, or drones, just exist for reproduction. The queen knows how many drones are in her hive, and if she needs to make more, she produces them asexually. Since they don’t work in the hive, they also get kicked out to die in the winter.

“You gotta hand it to nature, she knows better than we do,” Lauber said.

They’re even sensitive to the electromagnetism of the earth, using negative ions to navigate to and from the hive. During electrical storms, Lauber said they essentially get a headache.

“I’m learning all the time,” Warren, 69, said, “and I have been with him a long time.”

In the ’70s, Lauber began beekeeping. Between then and the late ’80s, he kept 350 hives in Texas and tended 800 hives when he moved to the Midwest. This amounted to 40 locations, with 20 colonies to a location, from which he extracted 360 pounds of honey.

Warren reminisced about the sound she would murmur over the honey flowing through the 3-inch-wide tube of their honey house: “money, money, money.”

The winter of 1988, however, the parasite mites that plagued others’ hives hit Lauber’s too, depleting his hive count from 800 to 265.

Lauber stopped narrating. It was time for the caravan to drive to the home of vice president Gregg Durling and secretary Ariana Durling, with an adjacent “sugar shack.” Gregg, a 4th-generation maple-syrup maker, now lets the club use the space for honey, too.

It’s outfitted with a two-part contraption: The first, a manufactured wax melter that sits in a repurposed salad bar Lauber used for the frame, and the second, a specialized spinning vat.

The honey house felt like the inside of a hive: heated — to keep the honey liquid — and buzzing with bees, including yellow jackets that landed on hats, in hair, and almost in the coffee Ariana served. One yellow jacket bit McClory’s wrist.

“It burned,” he said. He lamented almost going the whole season without getting bit, but consoled himself with the fact it wasn’t a honey bee, so “it didn’t count.”

McClory’s box laden with honey weighed 28.4 pounds. Next, he ran all six sides across a heated edge, scraping off the excess wax that dripped into a bucket below (and gets saved for later). Taking a special brush, he gently scraped off the pollen caps that keep the honey in the comb from being too moist and fermenting. Honey exposed, Lauber helped him lock the frames into the spokes of a vat where the frames spun until the honey dripped down the sides, through a faucet, and into a bucket.

“Lots of people have come together strong to make it work,” Gregg said.

“It took a while, but it was pretty cool,” McClory said. Before this, he had wanted to build his own extractor from bicycle rims — a cheap Do-It-Yourself tutorial he had seen on Youtube.

While Geeting expressed disbelief that his son’s first extraction yielded 13 pounds of honey, McClory was ready for the next step: “Now, we need to buy jars.”

While it’s busy in the honey house, Lauber was multi-tasking enough to say a final word about people and politics today.

“Whether they’re protesting or fighting, I’d rather be in a bee’s world.”

It seems as though more people are entering the world of bees, too.

The Lost Nations Beekeepers Association has 32 memberships, said Ariana, a number that may grow after the Hillsdale County Fair.

At the fair, Warren said she noticed the group’s stall stayed busy, with people expressing interest in and thanking the club for the bee exhibit, which included an observation hive where onlookers could spot the queen.

With the club up and running, members are planning biannual workshops, scholarship opportunities with 4-H — a global organization that encourages children to lead projects, particularly in agriculture — mentorships between experienced and new beekeepers, and a bigger presence at the 2018 Hillsdale County Fair.

For Ariana, beekeeping is a peaceful activity, and it isn’t about the honey.

“I wanted beehives just for the bees,” she said. “I just want to make bees help in the ecosystem.”

Clark said he has sold bees and equipment to people from Traverse City to Toledo to Minneapolis. He said he sells 1,600 packages of bees a year: With 3,000 bees to a package, that’s 4.8 million bees.

He said his company provides classes and connects keepers to local educational opportunities, as well.

“Most of these people are hungry for information, and we try to do that education,” he said.

According to Clark, people get into beekeeping for two reasons: The hobby helps the environment, and it’s a way of getting local honey, which has innumerable health benefits.

Lauber said there may be a successful future raising bees for the bees rather than selling honey — if it’s done correctly. This involves learning how to catch local swarms rather than paying to have them shipped from elsewhere, a process that could kill the queen. It could also involve growing the population of a hive until it can be split into a second hive that gets another queen, and either repeating this process or selling these hives locally.

Clark said he doesn’t foresee a decline in interest unless the problem of dying bees worsens and researchers can’t find root causes.

“Either we’re going to get the problem fixed, or we’re going to lose the bees,” Clark said. “We’re trying to figure what the heck is happening.”