News

Nature’s pollinators: Honey bees on Ocracoke

Mary Dean and Darlene Styron check on one of their four bee hives.

Mary Dean and Darlene Styron check on one of their four bee hives. Photo: P. Vankevich

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By Peter Vankevich 

Imagine a world without fruits, vegetables and beautiful flowers.

These plants rely on pollination to thrive, and honey bees are one of the most important pollinators along with butterflies, moths, bats and birds.

Yet, all of these pollinators are in serious decline from a multitude of assaults that include invasive pests, diseases, viral and fungal pathogens, exposure to pesticides and other chemicals, loss of critical diverse floral habitat and changing climate.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of pollinators.

They are critical to feed a world population estimated today at 7.4 billion, and, according to the United Nations expected to increase to 11.2 billion by the year 2100.

Inside one of Dean and Styrons bee hives.

Inside one of Dean’s and Styron’s bee hives. Photo: P. Vankevich

The most important pollinator for agriculture are honey bees, and they have declined over the last couple of decades in frightening numbers. 

The situation is so dire that the White House established the Pollinator Health Task Force which includes calling for restoring 7 million acres of bee habitat with a variety of vegetation. The Pollinator Recovery Act of 2016, introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), is pending federal legislation.

Loss of honey bees includes Ocracoke where there is only one known feral hive and a few new cultivated hives.

Three islanders decided to do something about this by becoming beekeepers.

Mary Dean and Darlene Styron started two hives this spring.  John Bullard also has some hives here but was not interviewed for this story.

Dean and Styron got their bees and supplies from a business in Farmville, Pitt County.

Not only have these bees helped pollinate the island, they also have produced more than 45 pounds of honey from two extractions which the pair plans to sell.

A sign of their success is that one of the bee colonies recently swarmed.

Swarming is a colony’s natural way to reproduce: About half the population leaves with the queen in order to “set up shop” in a new location while the rest stay behind with a new, emerging queen.   

Swarming is a wonder of nature.

“I stepped out the back door and it was literally a roar and up in a tree was a cloud of bees,” said Dean.

The swarm chose an opening at the back of Ocracoke School’s vocational building and home to WOVV, Ocracoke’s community radio station, on Back Road.

Coming to the rescue was Denise Deacon, president of The Outer Banks BeeKeepers Guild. She and her husband John Brock brought a special, low-pressure vacuum to remove the bees (with their queen) into a wooden box outside.

A feral bee hive in the village. Photo: P. Vankevich

A feral bee hive in the village. Photo: P. Vankevich

After dark, when most of the foragers had found their way to the box, the hive was taken back to Styron and Dean’s cluster of hives.

Then, Frank Brown discovered that another colony had found ingress into his house on Winnie Blount Road through an opening around the dryer vent.  Those bees had already constructed a lot of honeycomb and had filled it with brood (baby bees), pollen and honey.

Deacon saved this colony, too, and now Dean and Styron are tending four hives.

The two complimented the efforts of Beaver Tillett, who is responsible for mosquito spraying in the village. 

“We have worked with Beaver, and he sprays so that (the chemical) doesn’t get into the hives,” said Styron.

The flavor of Ocracoke honey depends on what the bees forage.

For Dean and Styron’s two extractions this season, the taste and color varied owing to the type of flowers available.  Island bees have been spotted on yaupon, clover, crepe myrtles, pittosporum and pyracantha.

“We have gotten calls from islanders excited to report they were seeing honey bees on their plants,” said Styron.

Moreover, Carol Bullard, wife of John, said she has noticed bigger and juicier fruit on a few island pear trees and grape vines.

Styron said honey bees are not aggressive if no one disturbs them, though people allergic to bees should avoid them.

Styrons and Deans bee hives.

Styron’s and Dean’s bee hives. Photo: P. Vankevich

Since they started their business, Darlene has been stung three times; Mary twice.  How painful the sting was depended on the part of the body stung.

“One of my stings made my hand swell up for a while,” said Dean.

Wearing protective gear is recommended, though many beekeepers omit gloves since it makes a beekeeper’s work more difficult.

Deacon has a wealth of knowledge and suggestions for helping honey bees.

If a colony of honey bees gets inside a structure, contact her group, Outer Banks BeeKeepers’ Guild at    http://www.outerbanksbeekeepers.com/, to safely remove them and to learn more about bees.

Ocracoke bees in one of Deans and Styrons hives. . Photo: P. Vankevich

Ocracoke bees in one of Dean’s and Styron’s hives. Photo: P. Vankevich