By Ryan Cornell
WOODSTOCK -- Ten thousand: it's the number of bee stings Gordon Seibert said he believes he's endured over the 40 years he's worked as a commercial beekeeper and pollinator. And yet, for all his honey boo-boos, he's no longer able to taste the sweet stuff because of his severe diabetes, which requires him to take insulin five times a day.
Seibert, 87, whose Woodstock farm has produced literally tons of honey, will be hosting a honey extraction event for the next two Saturdays.
Anyone interested in seeing how honey is extracted -- that is, removed from the comb and bottled -- is invited to attend. Hobbyist beekeeper Scott Currie said they filled a 55-gallon barrel of honey last year, totaling about 640 pounds. And to answer the question on everyone's minds, there won't be any bees at the event.
The beekeepers use a hot knife to remove the wax caps containing the honey and place the frames in an extractor, which spins the frames and pushes the honey out of the cells using centrifugal force. When the honey and beeswax collects at the bottom of the extractor, they place the resulting mixture in a container that separates the two. The honey is filtered and collected in quart jars and five-gallon buckets the beekeepers bring along. Master beekeeper Dr. Brenda Kiessling said the beeswax could be used for anything from candles and furniture polish to soap and cosmetics.
Kiessling teaches an eight-week class for beginner beekeepers in Woodstock. For two hours in the evening each week, she covers topics such as bee biology, colony management and bee-friendly flowers. She said many couples attend her classes.
Currie is a mentor with the program and not only helps his students decide where and how to keep bees, but builds a relationship with a student. Kiessling said this mentoring is probably the most important thing the program provides. Honey extraction is not part of the class, she said, but it started last summer as a result of the class for students who don't have the equipment or the knowledge to extract honey.
When Billy Davis developed the program in Loudoun County 19 years ago, he noted: "Bees were the only constant thing in my life. Jobs come and go, wives come and go, but I've had the bees forever."
An apiarist's passion for bees is so strong that it might send him or her to the emergency room. Hobbyist beekeeper Tom Rea knows this firsthand. As part of the 1 percent of people who are truly allergic to bee stings, he recalled his first scare.
"A bee crawled in through my veil where my zipper was; I didn't have it quite closed," Rea said. "And so the bee was flying around in my veil and landed on the side of my head and I swatted it and it stung me. I was in a really angry hive, so the bees were all over my veil, bumping against it."
Rea, who now carries an EpiPen whenever he deals with bees, said he had felt tingling all over his body, which swelled up and turned red. He was in the hospital for five hours.
Seibert, whose staggering amount of stings can be credited to his years on the job, 500-600 hives he once owned and refusal to wear a beekeeper's suit, quickly changed his ways when he learned about the worst place a human could be stung.
"There's only two known cases, maybe internationally, of being stung in the eyeball," Seibert said. "You lose the eyeball after it swells up. After I heard that, I started wearing a veil."
Although Seibert used to sell his honey on the local Safeway shelves, he said pollination is a much more profitable business. He said he used to pollinate apple orchards from Afton Mountain to Winchester.
In California, where honeybees are the No.1 pollinator of almonds, Currie said almonds are so profitable that people are actually taking out grapevines and replacing them with almonds. Because of the high demand, beekeepers can charge $200 per hive as opposed to $50 to $60 for other crops.
"I've always heard that if it's a good year for farmers, it's a good year for honeybees," Seibert said.
Not all honey tastes the same. Kiessling said the Shenandoah Valley area produces a wildflower-type honey that is nearly white in color and comes from a combination of different plants. She said honey from black locust trees in May gives a light, wonderful flavor, while honey from buckwheat tastes like molasses. Her personal favorite is sourwood honey, which is produced mainly in Floyd and Patrick counties and has a licorice-like aftertaste.
"It's such a premium honey and people can get such high prices for it that they say there's a great deal more sourwood honey sold than produced," Kiessling said.
Seibert joked, "Well yeah, and then they say if the bee flies over the tree, they label it sourwood."
Unlike much of the honey imported to the U.S. from China and India, which has a bit of a murky reputation -- Currie said there have been reports of the producers cutting honey with corn syrup or slipping in heavy metals -- the honey extracted on the next two Saturdays will be raw and all-natural, coming straight from the source.
Known as "the Bee Man" to many of his neighbors, Seibert readjusts his glasses and said with a laugh, "I think I've been stung one too many times."
People interested in learning more about bees can sign up for Kiessling's "Practical Beekeeping for Beginners" class by emailing her at email@example.com.
Where: 635 Walton Farm Road, Woodstock / When: Saturday, July 20 and 27, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. / Cost: Free
Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org