Cary Norton spends most of his professional life behind the lens of his camera. When he’s not busy shooting for national publications like The New York Times, Mental Floss, and Southern Living, as well as local and regional mags like Birmingham magazine, you might find him tending his hives or harvesting honey for his hobby-business hybrid, We Three Beeks. I spent an afternoon sippin’ coffee with Cary and talking about his honey bees.
Q: Tell me about We Three Beeks.
CN: My wife, Stephanie Masters-Norton, our friend, Jillian Woodruff, and I got this idea to start keeping bees after we watched Queen of the Sun, a documentary about bees and Colony Collapse Disorder around the world.
My granddad, Charlie Cornelison, kept bees, but I didn’t pay much attention until I saw the film. In fact, some of my still shots of Granddad were used in Queen of the Sun. After seeing the film, Steph, Jill, and I realized that keeping bees is something we can do to improve the planet. We’re mostly hobbyists, but we kinda like the built-in bonus of great honey—some for us, and a bit to sell. Not a bad deal.
Q: Did you learn about beekeeping from your grandfather?
CN: He kept bees professionally from 1969 until he passed away. But sadly, I didn’t learn from him, although I do still have two of his hives. Here’s a still of Grandad taken from a home movie, that was used in the documentary:
Q: If I wanted to start keeping a hive, what would I do?
CN: We took a six-week class at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Jefferson County Beekeepers Association is another resource, and most towns have similar organizations available to help folks. You also need some basic equipment and bees, and the rest is on-the-job learning, so to speak. Every time we visit our bees, I’m more amazed and more in love. Below are a few photos:
Q: How do the bees make the honey?
CN: All of the bees have jobs. The queen—and there is only one queen per hive—mates and has babies. She can live for several years. The drones’ (or males’) only job is to mate, and they die soon after. The majority of the bees in the hive are worker bees, all females, with jobs ranging from protecting the hive and cleaning to collecting nectar and scouting for food and shelter when it’s time to swarm and relocate the hive.
Ideally the workers stay within a 2- to 3-mile radius of the hive and forage on blooming plants. The bees take nectar from the plants and store and carry it back to the hive, where they turn it into honey.
The workers also produce wax by converting sugar from the honey. Here’s a cool shot of a bee making wax:
Bees use the wax to create combs, which is where they store honey. Below is a better view of a frame and bees at work:
Q: Talk about when the bees swarm.
CN: Swarming happens for a several reasons, but it’s basically the bees’ natural way to reproduce. A swarm often forms when the queen is fertile and all the drones try to mate with her. But it also occurs when a hive outgrows their current space and they need more room to expand, so they create a new queen, and the hive divides. Or a swarm can happen when an old queen is no longer effective and a new queen is produced to replace her.
Relocating the hive is a process. When the bees swarm, they generally find a temporary spot outside their old hive to hang out while “scouts” search for long-term accommodations. When the bees return from the scouting mission, they communicate with the hive by directional movement (to indicate which direction the shelter is) and wing movement (indicating distance and quality of the new shelter).
Here’s a shot of the hive mid-swarm, collected in a tree waiting on their scout bees to report back. We caught the bees in this waiting stage and gave them a new home, adding the new hive to our brood.
By the end of 2013, we had gone from two hives to eight. Sadly, cold winter weather took two of our hives. Here’s a beautiful shot of the end of our backyard hive.
Unless something unexpected happens (and it usually does), we’ll head into spring with six hives. And with a year of experience under our belts, come next winter, we should have a wealth of honey and even more happy bees.