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beekeeping in Mississippi.
beekeeping in Mississippi

Spell hears the buzz about beekeeping in Mississippi

By Harry Fulton

“We need help! We are losing beekeepers.”

These were the first words spoken by beekeeper John Pennington to State Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell on a visit to Pennington’s apiary in Pearl. Spell, who was accompanied by Bureau of Plant Industry Director Mike Tagert, wanted to see how honey is gathered and processed into a food commodity.

“Beekeeping is vital to our economy because honey bees pollinate many crops used for our food and plants that wildlife depend upon for their food,” said Spell. “As Commissioner of Agriculture, I need to learn all I can to help our state maintain a healthy beekeeping industry.”

More than one-third of the diet of the average American is composed of foods pollinated by honey bees. A recent study by Cornell University determined the annual economic value of honey bee pollination to be $14.7 billion. In Mississippi, the annual pollination value is estimated to be over $250 million.

Mississippi currently produces from 1.1 million to 1.5 million pounds of honey each year, with an economic wholesale value of $1 million. State beekeepers also produce queens and packaged bees worth more than $750,000 annually. Among states, Mississippi ranks from 23rd to 25th in honey production.

During Spell’s visit, Pennington and his wife Flora demonstrated how a beekeeper removes honey from a hive and then extracts it from honeycombs. They also explained how honey is processed and bottled for sale. The Penningtons produce raw honey and sell it locally in the Jackson and Brandon area. (Raw honey is unheated and nonfiltered.)

Spell and Tagert both expressed amazement to see how calm the bees were during the demonstration. Pennington explained that his bees are “Siberian” because they are bred from queens imported from Russia. The breeders are worth $500 each. Known in beekeeping circles as “the Russians,” the bees produced by these breeders are a gentle race that were imported and developed at the USDA Bee Breeding and Stock Center in Baton Rouge, La. The Russians, along with other newly developed honey bee “breeds and lines” are known for their tolerance and resistance to parasites such as varroa and tracheal mites.

These mites have decimated Mississippi’s commercial and wild honey bee colonies for 15 years. The research effort has proven to be worth its weight in gold (“gold” as in honey) because the beekeeping industry is rebounding and reports of wild bee swarms are becoming prevalent once more.

Pennington became involved in beekeeping after his allergy doctor told him to try local honey as a supplement. But, as Pennington says, “I couldn’t find any, so I decided to raise my own.” Some 40 years later, Pennington is still hooked on raising bees. He has been a leader with the Central Mississippi Beekeepers Association in Jackson and the Mississippi Beekeepers Association (MBA). In 1988, John and Flora Pennington received the “Master Beekeeper of the Year” award from MBA.

During the spring, the Penningtons actively raise queen bees for sale and start new hives (called “nucs”) to replace the ones that did not survive the winter. The sale of nucs to first time buyers brings many questions. The numbers of beekeepers that the Penningtons have patiently coached through the years are no doubt in the hundreds. During Spell’s visit, one such beekeeper dropped by for assistance and advice.

For the past 15 years, the Penningtons have graciously allowed more than 100 bee enthusiasts access to their apiary for hands-on training during the annual beekeeping short course in May. Many participants have praised the Penningtons for maintaining a well-kept facility that enhances their educational experience.

Pennington claims that beekeeping is just a hobby but he works at it with the energy of a 40-year-old in the middle of his career. Being 72 years old, Pennington says he and Flora must soon retire. He is looking for an industrious person to buy his hives and equipment.

“Beekeeping is hard, hot work and it takes a special person to do it,” Pennington said. “In today’s younger generation, that person is hard to find.”

When the Penningtons retire, the industry will suffer and struggle to find a person to fill the place the couple occupied in the minds, hearts and souls of beekeepers throughout the state. They will truly deserve recognition in the form of the “Silver Beekeeping Award” for more than 25 years of faithful service to Mississippi’s beekeeping industry.