Honey, I’ll be Humming with the Bees

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by Kristina Domitrovich // photos by Lindsay Pace

Darrell Cunningham walks out of his home dressed in white beekeeper’s equipment. He waltzes over to his hives. He may use smoke to calm the hives, but his bees are so gentle that he may forgo this step. He starts singing, belting in his backyard, “I’d start walking your way, you’d start walking mine, we’d meet in the middle, ‘neath that old Georgia pine,” by Diamond Rio; or maybe singing one of his own singles, like his song, “Bee Man.” When he reaches for the lid on the hive, his voice softens as he greets his bees with a, “Hey, Babies! How y’all doin’?” before continuing his gentle work, chatting with the bees in a tone that can only be described as having been dipped in honey.


 

Growing up, Darrell Cunningham’s grandmother’s backyard was filled with fruit trees. When he bought his home that sits on two acres, he wanted to take a page from her book and plant fruit trees. 

“I didn’t want a tree growing in my yard if I can’t eat from it,” he said.

When a friend asked how he planned to pollinate the trees, he realized he hadn’t seen any bees on his property. After some research, he purchased two beehives to maintain in order to pollinate his fruit trees. Four years later, and those two hives have grown tenfold.

Cunningham’s first two hives were Russian and Italian bees. He chose the Russian bees because of their resistance to disease, plus their longer tongues for gathering nectar make them ideal; and the Italian variety because they are known to be more gentle, while still being good honey producers. Over the years, he’s added a few bee varieties to his backyard, including buckfast bees (bred by a monk in England, Brother Adam, to be all-around tougher bees), mite maulers (these bees will bite the legs off of mites on other bees, to prevent the mites from spreading, as they’re very harmful to hives) and saskatraz bees (which are disease, mite and fungal resistant). Aside from those, Cunningham also has “freebees,” as he likes to call them. These bees are collected in “swarm traps” he built, which are essentially smaller boxes mounted on tree trunks around his property. These are beneficial for two reasons: First, they will attract wild or feral bees, which he can then transfer to a beekeeping box as a new hive; secondly, when his beehives swarm (a process of a colony moving hives), the hope is they will move into one of these boxes, so Cunningham doesn’t lose any bees. He likes to joke that between all of his bee varieties and the feral bees he keeps (plus those around the area, too), after they’re done mating, he’s left with “pedigree bees” in return. And he rewards them as such.

“They take care of me, and I take care of them,” he said. “They’re really special creatures. If it weren’t for bees, we’d be dead for sure.”

Aside from the fruit trees, including plums, peaches and nectarines, he has set up the perfect little bee paradise: He plants clover in his grass for the bees in the springtime, but he also has elderberries, hibiscus flowers, a loquat tree that is the bee’s knees of trees for bees (not to mention its leaves make an amazingly beneficial herbal tea, according to Cunningham), and he even dug a pond on his property so the bees can stay hydrated. He laughed that on particularly hot days, he finds amusement in watching the bees “zoom zoom zoom” back and forth from the pond to bring water to the hives.

 The Nitty Gritty of Beekeeping

Cunningham became the first certified Black beekeeper in north Mississippi in 2017. In order for a beekeeper to become certified – which grants certain services, like breeding queens to sell over state lines – their hives must be inspected for diseases and pests, and bees have quite a few enemies. Aside from birds, bees face threats like mites and hive beetles (both of which can ruin a hive if they’re not caught in time), but also fungal and viral infections. One disease, foulbrood, is so dangerous and easily spread, that if one hive is infected, Cunningham said they will have to burn all the other hives as well.

“I pray to God that never happens,” he said. “Which is why I’m getting bees with good genetics, these pest- and disease-free, disease-resistant, pest-resistant – that’s always the best kind of bees, so that’s what I’m doing.”

Once a certified beekeeper reaches 50 hives, they are classified as a commercial beekeeper. This classification would bump the beekeeper up into a different tax bracket. Due to his work schedule being readjusted this season because of COVID-19, Cunningham said he was able to increase his beehives from eight to 22. 

Though the weekly upkeep is only about 10 hours for all of his hives, he said he finds himself spending time keeping his bees longer than that sometimes.

“You go into a whole new time zone. You just lose track of time,” he said. “It’s like a whole world just opens up, and you just enter.”

Cunningham collects honey about every three or four weeks, and he staggers the hives so he doesn’t strip his bees of all their honey all at once; he only collects four or five trays from all his bees at a time. He said there’s a balance that a beekeeper has to keep in the hive to make the bees most productive. His bees produce about 200 pounds of honey throughout the season, which, for him, runs from about March to October.

“They give me honey, and I give them a good house to live,” he said. “So they pay rent.”

Cunningham said there are about 80,000 bees per hive (which means he has over 1.5 million bees total). This figure includes the queen, the drones (male bees that mate with the queen and other hives’ queens) and worker bees whose sole job is to make honey. The hive boxes are built to allow collectable honeycomb structures to be on the upper extensions, as it gets more and more narrow the further up the bees go. This is to prevent the queen from going too far up into the hive, “because she’s fat and juicy,” and the beekeepers don’t want her laying eggs in collectable honeycombs. Instead, the hive is built to trap the queen toward the bottom, to lay eggs there. This is called the brood. In the brood, Cunningham said the worker bees will feed the larvae with royal jelly, a special secretion for the larvae to live off of. Every larva will receive the royal jelly, but those selected to become queens will be fed the royal jelly even longer. 

Cunningham said bees will make a new queen when they are ready to swarm. Sometimes the colony will swarm because they are too crowded, the queen is too old, if the queen isn’t laying eggs properly or if the colony gets honey-bound, which means “they have no more space to put honey, and they start backfilling the brood area where the queen’s laying, so that stops her from laying and restricts them.” To move out, the queen, either the newly chosen queen or a preexisting queen, has to slim down in order to fly because she is too fat. Then, the bees will collect as much honey as they can (they have special honey sacs to hold it), and move to a new hive. This is when his swarm traps come in. Hopefully, they will swarm to a trap, so he can eventually move them into a new hive box, and continue to repeat the cycle. But once a colony moves out, they’re gone for good.

“It’s like going off to college,” he joked.

Aside from being the sole bee producing eggs, the queen adds drive to the colony, otherwise the bees become lazy.

“If they can’t make another queen, then the babies, they have no type of direction,” Cunningham said. “They will still do the normal stuff, gather honey, but they won’t do it as well as they did with the passion they did it with, and they don’t defend the hive with that passion.”

Misconceptions and Sweet Tips

Cunningham said one of the most common questions he gets is if he keeps killer bees. He quickly dispels this, as he says West Point is too far north for killer bees to survive, and those can mostly be found in Texas or Louisiana.

Another misconception he faces is people thinking bees die during the winter. He said there are a few ways beekeepers will go about it, but he prefers to leave the bees a whole box of honey connected to the hive.

“That’s why they gather honey,” he said. “They gather honey, so they can have something to eat during the winter.”

The honey’s sugar content keeps the bees going, which is good because bees vibrate a lot. Their vibration creates friction, which in turn creates heat, so the bees can heat the hive to a cozy 72 degrees during the winter. In fact, Cunningham says the bees can keep the hive around that temperature all year round, even during the hot summer months.

Then there’s the most frequently asked question, or rather most frequent presumption: If Cunningham gets stung regularly. He says he researched a lot to choose the most docile bee species, so he says his bees are actually very kind. In fact, sometimes he won’t even bother using a smoking device – which is used to trick the bees into thinking the hive is on fire, so they will get busy gathering honey to swarm, giving the beekeeper optimal conditions to work while the bees are distracted – when he’s checking on his bees. He said over his four years of beekeeping, he guesses he has only been stung about 14 times.

He did say that some bees’ venom is more potent than others, so if a sting hurts noticeably more, he will try to figure out what hive that bee came from, and be more cautious when handling those bees. His neighbors all know about his bees, and so far, he said none of them have faced any challenges with them. 

The medicinal benefits of honey are no question, as it’s proven to be packed full of antibacterial properties. But Cunningham says there are a few things people should never do to a jar of honey: Put it in the microwave or the refrigerator. Microwaving honey will kill off the good qualities honey is known for, and keeping it in the refrigerator will cause it to crystalize quickly. If it’s crystallized or needs to be warmed, he said to place the jar in a container of warm water.

Interestingly enough, the color of honey is a gradient throughout the season: It’s lighter in the spring, and darkens into fall, when its medicinal qualities are at an all-time high. The darker honey starts around the end of August, when the goldenrods are in bloom.

“(The) yellow flowers you see on the side of the road,” he said. “Yellow flowers like weeds popping up, that’s called Goldenrod. That’s where all the really strong medicine in the honey comes from, which is healthy; the darker honey has got in it a lot of medicine.”

Point B Naturals

Through learning the medicinal properties of honey for himself, Cunningham created a line of products that use honey. After suffering from razor burn for nearly his whole life, Cunningham’s doctor finally prescribed something that seemed to work. He looked at the ingredients, and saw they were all natural; so, he procured things like shea butter and apricot oil for himself, and started mixing things together with the honey to create a salve. When he did, he shared some with his mother, who gave feedback: It worked, but it was too stiff. Cunningham went back to the drawing board to adjust measurements, and created the ideal salve. 

Then, when he had carpal tunnel surgery, his physical therapist said he would have a gnarly scar. Cunningham decided to apply his own salves to the area, and watched as the wound practically faded away over time. Impressed, the director at Magnolia Rehab in West Point placed an order.

“He said, ‘Darrell, I want to buy something from you.’ So he got several cans from me and they use it,” he said. “They give it to their clients who come to have surgery scars and stuff.”

In addition to the salve, he also creates lotions and soaps, all containing honey. Cunningham says his mother has even had success lightening dark spots by using his products. Because he has his ServSafe certification, he can sell his honey products and baked goods, along with treats like jams, honey-teriyaki jerky and honey-pecan pies, to name just a few. He said he mostly uses local flea markets and farmers markets to get his products out there.

Eventually, Cunningham, 56, plans to retire from his job at Toyota in Blue Springs. He says he wants to go back to school to study natural medicine so he can grow Point B Naturals’ product line, and know how to help people if they come to him with a specific condition. Then, he also plans on increasing his hives to right under 50, staying just below the commercial classification set by the state. Until then, he can probably be found with his bees, singing, “I’d start walking your way, you’d start walking mine.”

 

5 Comments
  1. Mr. Cunningham is my nephew and I am so proud of the tedious work that he is doing for our environment. Keep up the good work Darrell & your Aunt Ruby is praising you from Georgia! ❤️❤️❤️❤️

  2. What a beautiful article, I really enjoyed reading the life of Cunningham and his relationship with his bees. I am impressed to read that he is also looking into items that will benefit peoples well-being. Thank you

  3. Of all the things I didn’t know about bee’s and honey I know now. This is amazing to see in my hometown. Needless to say Mr Cunningham is a very dear friend and I am proud to him doing what he loves. He is a jewel to our community whereas he is gifted in so many area’s. This Bee-Ologist is a jack of many trades. This is a really great article! Humming and hiving! The Bee Man!

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