A cloud of honeybees swirled and hummed around the head of Elliot Huffman as he strained to pry the top off his backyard beehive.
“They’ve glued it shut,” he said. “I’ve never had them glue shut before.”
Guarded by white protective suit and hood, the 16-year-old beekeeper wasn’t too concerned about the thousands of stinging insects that waited underneath the lid. His goal was to get to the golden prize inside.
“Elliot was fascinated by the idea of having limitless honey,” said his mother, Melissa Huffman, explaining how the family began keeping honeybees at home.
The Huffman family, along with several friends, gathered on a recent Saturday morning to harvest honey from one of their two hives, which sit about 100 feet from their back door in Augusta’s Montclair neighborhood. After assisting her son with his hive, which he acquired about three years ago, Huffman said she started thinking adding one of her own.
The Huffmans are among a growing trend of backyard beekeepers starting hives in neighborhoods around the area, said Gary Mathison, an Aiken beekeeper and owner of C&T Bee Supply.
Mathison, said he started his beekeeping supply business in 2009 to help local beekeepers get their hands on equipment that they would normally have to get through mail order.
He said his closest competition is in North Carolina and in Moultrie, Ga.
“I started this thing to save beekeepers shipping costs,” he said. “My business has basically doubled since then.”
Mathison said he sees more novice beekeepers seeking equipment and information each year. The growing demand has led the Aiken Beekeepers Association to begin offering classes to help new beekeepers get started.
Many are interested in getting a homemade supply of honey, Mathison said.
“Some have heard the bee population is dwindling, and they want to do what they can to keep the population up,” he said. “Once you get into it, it gets to be addictive. Bees are fascinating creatures.”
Like many young beekeepers, Elliot Huffman got his start through the Columbia County 4-H program,
said Charles Phillips, a retired Cooperative Extension Service agent who
coordinates the program and is president of the Clarks Hill Beekeepers Association.
Phillips said his daughter Kate, a rising junior at Greenbrier High School, has three hives of her own. Phillips has almost 20 hives spread among locations in Appling, Evans and Martinez.
“We got a lot more people coming in who are thinking about starting a hive,” he said. “This has been a trend that has been going on about five or six years.”
Phillips said reports of colony collapse disorder – the sudden loss of honeybee hives around the U.S. that has been linked in part to the use of pesticides – is driving a lot of the interest in beekeeping.
People also are interested in providing pollinators for their vegetable gardens.
It can cost about $500 to get started in beekeeping, said Mathison, which includes all the initial equipment and the bees. Mathison sells bees starting in January
each year. A 4-pound package includes a queen and about 18,000 worker bees, he said.
A healthy hive can include about 50,000 bees and yield as much as 100 pounds of honey in a good year, he said.
Mathison said people shouldn’t worry about seeing a beehive in a neighbor’s backyard.
“Bees are not like wasps or yellow jacket bees. They won’t bother you unless you bother them,” he said. “You can sit down within two or three feet of a beehive all day long, and they will never bother you.”
Phillips said the only complaints he ever hears about are from people with swimming pools. Bees need water, and it is important for backyard beekeepers to have a ready source for their bees so they won’t swarm nearby pools for a drink.
Neighbors of the Huffmans watched from a safe distance while the honey harvest proceeded. Usually they try to offer a little gift jar to their friends and neighbors, depending on the yield, Melissa Huffman said.
“I’ve always been intrigued by insects,” she said. “I’m not interested in the honey myself, so I guess I just like the bugs.”