Bob Russell’s fascination with beekeeping can be traced all the way back to his childhood.
“I remember being a little kid and the Sears and Roebuck catalog had bees and beekeeping stuff in it, and I asked my dad if I could get some bees. Of course, he said no. He didn’t know anything about bees,” Russell said.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s, and after interest from his brother-in-law, Russell finally got his bees. He kept three to five hives as a hobby until six years ago, when he dove head first into beekeeping culture and practices. Roughly three years after that, he had become confident enough in his craft that he began selling honey, and Red Belly Bee Farms was born. He has since expanded his product line to include salves, lip balms, tinctures, face creams, barbecue sauce, sunblock and bug repellant. He also sells bees to other enthusiasts.
Behind Russell’s home are 50 to 60 hives in red wooden boxes, surrounded by hundreds of acres of farm land that have been in his family for generations. In total, he has approximately 120 hives spread across properties nearby. Many of the hives reside with people who don’t want to be full-time beekeepers, but recognize the benefit of having bees on their property.
“Bees are one of the only things that actually benefits what it uses for food,” Russell said. “They do no harm.”
They do sting if threatened, of course, and Russell admits even experienced beekeepers get stung often, and it hurts every time. According to him, “that’s just part of it.”
Russell’s beekeeping methods place emphasis on keeping the process as natural as possible. He does not use chemicals to protect the bees from predators like beetles or feed them sugar water to drive down costs. He keeps the bees as healthy as possible by leaving enough of their own honey for them to eat, and trusts that it will keep them strong enough to survive. Russell practices a lot of trial-and-error and documents most of it on his Facebook page, where other beekeepers join the conversation. It isn’t the easy way, and definitely isn’t the cheap way, but in his opinion, it is the correct way and yields the purest product. He has become an accidental expert on all things bees, although he admittedly prefers the hands-on work to the intellectual aspect.
His most recent experiment is “doubles” or hives with two queens. Russell has seen success with it and hopes for good survival rates through winter. He has also added a self-replenishing water bowl to the grounds to provide the bees with easy access to hydration on dry summer days.
Currently, Russell works during the day as a mechanic, but he plans to be a full-time beekeeper soon if production keeps up. As for the rumored endangerment of bees, Russell remains optimistic.
“They certainly have a lot more stresses on them now that they didn’t have in the past, but bees will be around long after people are gone,” he said. “The bees aren’t going to go extinct, but the population might get so low that people are put out because they can’t find things like almonds that they want.”
Russell’s honey-fed bees are self-sufficient for much of the year as long as he keeps a watchful eye to make sure they are thriving. When the honey is ready to be extracted from the combs, he places them in a large centrifuge in the “honey house.” Red Belly Bee Farm honeys range in colors and tastes, depending on a variety of conditions like the bee’s diet. The hives also produce honey by-products like propolis, which is the main ingredient in products like his antibacterial tincture; beeswax for the salves and balms; and royal jelly for cosmetic creams.
As for the name, the farm’s “red belly” is a 1949 Ford 8N tractor affectionately named Miss Gerry. These days, she is used only to haul honey and hives on occasion.
Story by Carmen Cristo // Photos by Lauren Wood