Lowcountry beekeepers buzzing with joy


Landscape architect David Arnal has been keeping bees since 1988, when he was given five hives while at Clemson University.

“I loved it,” he said. “You don’t just become a beekeeper; the bees pick you.”

Today, his five hives have grown to 40, and he is the president of the Beaufort-Jasper Beekeepers Association. He also is the beekeeper for hives at community gardens in Hilton Head Plantation and Port Royal Plantation, as well as at the Coastal Discovery Museum and St. Francis Catholic School.

The beekeepers club also sponsors a program at Ridgeland Correctional Institution, where three hives are managed by club member Bob Collins.

Most people don’t realize how much of an impact that bees have on our daily lives, Arnal said. Foods such as fruits, vegetables and nuts rely on pollination by honeybees, and bees also pollinate alfalfa and other crops that are used to feed cows and other animals that provide dairy products and meat.

And unfortunately, bee populations are declining worldwide. There are a variety of reasons, Arnal said: the use of pesticides containing neonicotinoids, or insecticides; the use of weed killers like Roundup; the destruction of bees’ habitats; and a parasite that carries a virus that can infect bees.


“Another big problem in Beaufort County is mosquito control,” Arnal said, noting that the chemicals used to spray for mosquitos can wipe out bee colonies. “But the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control works well with the club during spraying season so we can cover our hives.”

When faced with threatening conditions, bees often will simply abandon their hive, known as colony collapse disorder, Arnal said.    

But researchers are looking for ways to protect bees from viruses and diseases — for example, scientists in Finland are developing an experimental vaccine that will be administered to the queen bee via a sugar solution. Once she’s ingested it, she’ll pass along immunity to the microbial diseases as she lays eggs.

Other Lowcountry beekeepers say they would hate to see bee populations diminished — they say there’s a lot we can learn from the insects.

David McAllister, a local landscape architect, first became interested in beekeeping when he met someone in Bluffton who tended to hives. McAllister was fascinated by the complexity of bees and their connection to nature and plants.

“I’ve been keeping bees for five years and have three hives now,” McAllister said. “There’s so much going on outside the hive and so much to learn.”

And so much to savor — as the temperatures begin to rise, he looks forward to spring honey, a favorite due to its diversity and variations.

Jackie Currie has been a beekeeper for four years. She is a journeyman beekeeper, certified through the S.C. State Beekeepers Association. The next level is master beekeeper. She keeps several hives in Bluffton, and once captured a swarm from The Church of the Cross that she dubbed her “Resurrection Hive.”

“I wanted to learn more about them; I’ve always loved gardening and the environment,” she said of her interest in bees. “Many people don’t know this, but honeybees are gentle and aren’t native to the U.S. The majority were introduced from Italy.”

And the adage about bees being busy workers is true, she said: She has several hives in Bluffton, and each produces an average of about 35 pounds of honey — though sometimes as much as 50 pounds.

So what can you do with that much honey? Mike and Juliana Tripka have found a good use for it. As the owners of Bee-Town Mead & Cider in Bluffton, they ferment honey with water and then add various fruits, spices, grains or hops to produce mead, which is dry to off-dry in flavor — the honey doesn’t make it sweet. They source their honey from commercial beekeepers around the Southeast, and also offer hard cider, bee products, tastings and event space. 

The Savannah Bee Company also offers a variety of bee-related products. Founded in 1999 by Ted Dennard, the shop is known for its tupelo honey and other speciality honeys, as well as its philanthropy. Dennard founded the Bee Cause Project, sponsoring observation hives in 330 schools in 50 states and four foreign countries — a way to encourage future generations to be good stewards of the environment, he said.

Even though it’s sweet, most beekeepers would tell you they get more enjoyment out of their hives than just the sticky syrup.

“Bees are just remarkable,” Currie said.  “I’m trying to help the environment a little bit, and honey is the sweet reward. It’s a miracle.”