Beekeepers in Chatham prepare for honey harvesting season

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PITTSBORO — Cousins Mitchell Shivers and Erik Simon have spent the last few weeks working toward harvesting their own food.

Typical farmers they’re not.

Rather, the pair work about 60 beehives with thousands of bees in Pittsboro, harvesting honey and beeswax for their business, Three Dog Apiary off of Log Barn Road.

“Bees are the most efficient workers ever,” Shivers said. “Honey harvest makes all the work you’ve done that year worth it, and you actually get to see and enjoy the fruits of your labor.”

Shivers and Simon started beekeeping about a decade ago, and since then, they’ve worked to build up their business and spread awareness on the importance of bees to the environment and for pollinating flowering plants — a process which helps to create a lot of the fruits and vegetables seen on dining tables across the county.

Simon first started raising bees as a hobby about 10 years ago, which he hoped would become a second source of income for himself. However, he said the first three years he tried were “failures.”

“I failed hard for three years, even after I read every book out there I could find on the subject and taking classes until I found a local mentor and learned how to do it,” Simon said. “You have to be really willing to fail and learn from those failures, and it can be disheartening.”

Simon and Shivers have perfected their beekeeping processes after years of trial and error, as well as having new mentors help them along the way. They’re now churning out several hundred pounds of honey per year, but spend most of the year tending to their bees — from feeding them to treating them for diseases and mite infestations. That ensures they remain healthy and able to produce honey and wax for the summer harvest season, which starts in mid-June and can go until the first week of July.

“You spend the whole late winter and early spring building up your bees, feeding your bees, making sure they have the right equipment, the right space, making sure they don’t leave,” Shivers said. “They build for a couple of months and then it really isn’t until just about now, the first week of July, when the spring honey flows and then you can start pulling honey off.”

The Three Dog Apiary bees in Pittsboro produce honey twice a year, according to Shivers — once in the summer and once in the winter. Shivers said they only harvest in the summer to ensure the bees have enough honey stored in their combs to survive the winter.

That’s not the only thing the beekeeping duo does to protect their “workers.”

The two also use different treatments to help prevent bees from contracting diseases from mites, which could wipe out an entire year’s worth of work.

“They’re little bitty spiders that you can barely see crawl all over bees, and they eventually kill the hive,” Shivers said. “Most people don’t treat bees for that and that’s a big killer for these bees, and I treat for it, so I don’t lose my bees every year nearly as much as others.”

Simon said there are different methods to beekeeping, such as natural beekeeping — where no chemicals are used to treat the bees. However, the duo utilizes a mixture of approaches to treat their bees, including utilizing some chemicals to treat their colonies for diseases and mites.

“You’re gonna find out by talking to different beekeepers that everybody’s intentions are the same,” Simon said. “They want to keep their bees alive, and they want to keep them healthy. There’s different methods to go about doing that.”

Another goal in beekeeping is to ensure the bee population continues to rise after some bee species became listed as endangered in the last five years. While the honey bees Simon and Shivers keep are not on the endangered list, they are dedicated to protecting bees and the role they have in the ecosystem.

“Whether you realize it or not, the majority of your food is pollinated by honeybees, especially in the United States,” Simon said. “It’s important to keep our bees healthy so they can continue to do their job … our population here is not getting any smaller, and we’ve got to be able to produce enough food for them for those folks to be able to survive.”

Beekeeping is not an inexpensive endeavor, according to the cousins. Beekeeping equipment can cost upwards of a few hundred dollars per hive, and Shivers and Simon have 50 to 60. So far, they’ve not yet turned a profit.

“It’s not an easy thing to get into from a financial perspective,” Simon said. “The learning curve and the knowledge you have to have to be somewhat successful with it or even moderately successful — it takes a long time.”

The years of hard work have culminated into a medium-sized working apiary, which has produced years worth of honey and beeswax. Shivers said this is something he and Simon want to continue doing, whether it’s as a pastime or as a second job.

“I don’t think I’ll ever recuperate a lot of the money that I have put into this between the equipment and just how expensive it can be,” Shivers said. “I’m just purely doing it out of love, and it’s kind of a hobby, but it’s one that I’m definitely going to do for the rest of my life.”

Three Dog Apiary’s products will be available in a local retail store called Spinfiber in September, according to Simon. He said if people are interested in their products before September, they can call 910-429-5943.

Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at theeden@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HeedenTaylor.

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