Not everyone would be comfortable waking up every morning with a backyard full of bees, but for beekeeper Andy Marcus, it’s just part of his routine.
The Dahlonega resident and owner of Marcus Heating and Air has been keeping beehives in his backyard for the past eight years. With eight hives containing at least 30,000 honeybees apiece, Marcus’s yard is teeming with more than 100,000 bees he’s raised himself.
“I got into beekeeping because my wife wanted some honey. She wanted raw honey. She’s into eating organic so she wanted me to build her a hive,” Marcus said. “She got the plans, and I built her a hive and then I had to help her with the hive, do modifications. Next thing I know I was down by the hive by myself. I asked her what happened. She said ‘well you just kind of took it over.’”
For Marcus, his passion for honeybees was completely unexpected. He didn’t have any hobbies, primarily focusing on his family business. Suddenly, he’s constructing his own wooden hives, breeding his own queen bees and selling his raw honey at farmers’ markets.
“I didn’t know it was going to be a hobby,” Marcus said. “She wanted bees and I didn’t know why because I knew bees sting. I didn’t know anything about them. I grew up on a farm but that was the one thing we didn’t have.”
It didn’t take long for Marcus to learn that bees really aren’t all that bad because when a honeybee stings someone, it means the bee dies.
“They really don’t want to sting you,” Marcus said. “They only sting you in defense.”
As he cares for his bees throughout the seasons, Marcus says on average he only gets stung about once per year from his bees. Yellow jackets, however, are a different story.
“Bees catch a lot of flak from yellow jackets,” Marcus said. “You go have a picnic and yellow jackets will find your peanut butter and jelly sandwich and want to take it from you.”
Bees, on the other hand, are not aggressive like yellow jackets, and often leave Marcus alone while he completes yardwork.
“I can cut yard and mow through the clover with a lawnmower and the bees get out of the way. They don’t bother you,” Marcus said. “I can sit out and sometimes bees will find me if I’m sweaty, and they’ll get on my arms and lick the sweat because they want salt and stuff. They’re a lot more docile than what people think. Most people overreact and then they do get stung.”
Despite living in a neighborhood, Marcus says his neighbors haven’t minded his bee colonies. They’ve actually seen positive impacts from his bees visiting their yards.
“A lot of times I’ve had neighbors, when I first got my bees and they found out I had bees, they noticed that their trees did better because they didn’t have enough bees pollinating their fruit trees,” Marcus said.
Through his journey into the world of beekeeping, Marcus quickly discovered that bees are crucial to the development of fruits and flowers because sometimes when plants aren’t fully pollinated due to lack of pollinators, it can mean small harvests or underdeveloped crops.
“People who have large fields of something sometimes they need extra bees brought in to help make sure they get good pollination and produce a lot more fruit, pumpkins or apples or whatever,” Marcus said. “If you don’t get enough pollination, an apple either doesn’t get enough seeds or like a corn kernel - they don’t all turn into kernels.”
As spring approaches, both Marcus and his bees are preparing for a very busy season. Even as early as the beginning of February, the bees are getting ready for spring blooms.
“They’re actually getting active right now because we’ve had the weird weather. Usually mid-February the maples start blooming and that’s when they get pollen which is protein. That’s what they need to raise the baby bees,” Marcus explained. “They’re building up now and getting ready for spring because it takes 21 days for a bee to hatch and be born, and it takes another couple of weeks before it comes out of the hive and flies. They have to gear up for spring a month in advance to try to anticipate when spring comes so they’ll have a workforce ready to harvest whatever comes in.”
Throughout the spring and into July, Marcus’s bees pollinate nearby wildflowers and build their honeycombs inside his handmade top bar hives before they begin preparing for the colder months. In August, Marcus harvests the raw honey, approximately 10 gallons of it per year, and gets it ready to sell at farmers’ markets.
Seeing the important role bees play in the ecosystem, Marcus has expanded his hobby beyond just four honey-producing hives in his backyard. Six years ago he discovered the Amicalola Beekeepers Association and has served as its president for the past several years, working to organize guest speakers and networking opportunities for the club’s monthly meetings.
Marcus also teaches an introduction to beekeeping course in the spring and fall for the Continuing Education program at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega, and emphasizes the importance of bees to his students and the community.
“We’ve gotten away from things,” Marcus said. “When I grew up, you didn’t have manicured yards. My grandpa, he had clover and we played and blew the dandelion heads all over the yard and nobody got upset about it. Now all of these chemical companies have trained us to have a golf course yard and not to let the dandelions do anything.”
According to Marcus, dandelions are a very important source of pollen for bees because they are one of the first wildflowers to bloom when the bees begin hatching in the early spring. Because of the bees’ dependency on energy, Marcus has learned to let his yard go natural, with clover, dandelions and natural wildflowers blooming throughout the year.
“Everybody’s out to get rid of, they call them weeds. Everything’s been labeled a weed now, but they’re wildflowers. There’s just not enough forage for the bees,” Marcus said.
As the world worries about the collapse of bee colonies and what it means for the future of the environment, Marcus said they are simple things that people can do at home to help support beekeepers and local bee populations.
Marcus encourages people to be mindful of pesticides because anything that is sprayed inside blooming flowers will be picked up by local pollinators like bees and butterflies.
“We’re so used to just going to the store, buying a bottle of something, pouring it in a jug and spraying on what we don’t want, and we forget how it can affect other things,” Marcus said.
He also encourages people to buy local honey because it directly supports beekeepers in your community as well as planting flowering trees and wildflower patches to provide nourishment for bees.
If you have room to spare in your yard, offering a place for beekeepers to house some hives would be a big help because Marcus says there is always a need for more space.
But the easiest way to help local bees, Marcus says, is to keep the wildflowers and brush in your yards and allowing bees to stop by to pollinate.
“It’s a whole ecosystem just by not keeping everything so kempt,” Marcus said. “We could just learn how to get a little closer to nature and not be so awkward with it when we see it.”