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Emmett Snead operates Snead's Farm along Tidewater Trail in Caroline County.
IREMEMBER first meeting Mr. Buchanan in 1963. My dad and I were burning brush piles on a piece of land he had on the corner of Lee Drive and Lansdowne Road. He had bought the land to plant timothy hay on to help feed his 280 head of Golden Guernsey dairy cattle. Mr. Buchanan pulled up to where we were in his state trooper car. He and my dad had apparently known each other for some time. He told my dad that he had seen a big buck cross over Lansdowne Road the night before. That was significant in 1963 because it was rare to see a deer back then.
After Mr. Buchanan left, my dad told me Mr. Buchanan had served on PT boats in World War II. He seemed godlike to me.
One day in 1984, Mr. Buchanan pulled up to my roadside stand to buy some asparagus. He told me that he had recently moved into my neck of the woods (Moss Neck, that is) and that we were neighbors. I had heard he was an expert on honeybees. There were plenty of bees around at the time. I figured a few more wouldn't hurt.
So I asked him how much he would charge me to keep some bees on my farm. He said, "I'll supply you with whatever personal honey you need. I get to pick for free whatever fruit and vegetables I need. And I get to sell any extra honey." I said, "Deal!" It's been working like a charm ever since. During her high school years, Jessica (my daughter) helped him with the bees and extracting honey. She said he always smelled like honey.
My brother moved onto my farm several years ago. He and Mr. Buchanan really hit it off. George has become Mr. Buchanan's apprentice and helps him with the heavy lifting. If and when Mr. Buchanan retires from the bee business, George will take over. The goal would be to have plenty of bees and local honey for my CSA.
Mr. Buchanan learned beekeeping from his father and grandfather. His grandfather was known as the herb doctor. He doctored people, animals and bees. He kept little black Dutch bees. They were known for their meanness. He was so good with the bees that he never wore bee protection.
DEMISE OF BEES
Many articles written about the demise of honeybees and wild bees. I asked Mr. Buchanan what was the greatest threat to honeybees. He said, "Beekeepers."
From 1926 until about 10 years ago it was illegal to import bees because scientists were afraid of importing bee diseases and parasites along with the bees. They changed the law because almond growers in California did not have enough bees to get the trees pollinated. That's when all the diseases and parasites we have now were brought into the USA. Even before it became legal to import bees, he says some beekeepers would smuggle bees from overseas into this country.
Mr. Buchanan says all bees are substantially stronger at Snead Farm because of successive plantings of buckwheat, sunflowers, fall greens (plantings of turnips, kale, cress etc. flower at a time when other flowers are generally scarce, and they tend to be frostproof) and many different fruiting trees.
Buckwheat is the bees' favorite because of the volume of bee food it produces. It flowers 20 days after germination. It makes so much seed that it can supply songbirds with seed and reseed itself.
It's also the farmer's favorite. Buckwheat closes its flowers up at noon. Bees can get all the daily bee food (nectar and pollen) they need from buckwheat with just a half day's work. Bees are not like most people; they want to work all day. After the buckwheat closes up, they pollinate crops such as cucurbits, peaches and blackberries that are less desirable to the bees but essential to the farmer.
Sunflowers are the perfect crop to interplant with buckwheat because the buckwheat is already finished its life cycle by the time the sunflowers get going. The seed of sunflowers is also much desired by songbirds. When the life cycle of the sunflower is finished, the soil can be lightly tilled, and both crops reseed themselves. This can be repeated two or three times in a season.
Wild bees are just as important pollinators as tame bees. Plum trees are another favorite of honeybees, little wasps and wild bees. On one of my plum trees, George counted more than 15 different kinds of wild bees this spring. I have a hollow cedar tree on my property that Mr. Buchanan estimates has 20,000 to 30,000 wild honeybees in it.
Bees are good predictors of the weather. They started swarming a month earlier than normal this year, letting me know to plant some crops earlier and some crops later (such as pumpkins). There were 10 swarms this year that we know of from the five hives that Mr. Buchanan tends for me. One swarm was the largest Mr. Buchanan said he had ever seen in his lifetime. He estimated it to be more than 20,000 bees. It was quite a sight.
They were about 25 feet up in a tree. The limb they had amassed on had a "bee beard" that hung down 7 or 8 feet, causing the limb to sag. Mr. Buchanan placed a tarp on the ground underneath them and a large empty bee hive to the side. George took a pruning saw with a long handle and sawed off the limb.
This was real life folks--not a cartoon. Almost all of the bees fell on the tarp. Mr. Buchanan dug through them with his hands. Upon finding the queen and her buddies that surrounded her, he placed them in the empty hive. All the rest of the bees immediately went into the hive. It was like instant karma. We had a mega-hive of "free bees." Everyone had stopped work to watch at a safe distance.
Bees are on the decline for two main reasons--some beekeepers and some farmers who believe that they can take from bees without giving back. It's the same principle as trying to take a crop off of a farm every year without adding enough or any compost, fertilizer or lime. They are reaping exactly what they have sown. Or in layman's terms, it's like trying to get the milk for free without buying the cow. Farming was not made that way, and neither is beekeeping.