Staff Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith ---- David Shipp examines a few of the beehives he maintains on the property of his Conyers business.
CONYERS -- The honeybee buzzing from flower to flower in your backyard might look solitary but when she is done gathering her nectar and pollen, she'll return home to a family of thousands.
A hive, which can support 50,000 bees, operates more like one organism than a group of individual insects, local beekeeper David Shipp said. Like internal organs allow a human body to function, the bees share responsibilities for keeping the hive healthy.
Some clean the hive. Some feed the larvae and queen. Some excrete wax from their abdomens to build the combs. Some empty the hive of dead bees. Some fan the hive to keep it cool or warm.
Those who go out to gather food have the most dangerous job, said Shipp, as one sting in self-defense brings quick death to the insect. Still the honeybee makes the daily trek out into the open, risking her life. She also tells other bees the direction and distance of a food source, using a combination of a waggle and a flying pattern.
"They are the most fascinating creatures," Shipp said.
Shipp is a member of the recently established Rockdale County Beekeeper Club. Operated under the guidance of the Rockdale County Cooperative Extension Office, the club meets at 6:30 p.m. the fourth Tuesday of each month at the Extension Office, 1400 Parker Road, Lobby A.
Club members talk about how to establish beehives and maintain them and discuss the general biology and behavior of the honeybee. The club is geared toward experienced beehive keepers and novices alike.
"Most don't keep bees but they're interested in learning about them, and the club is a good way to find out if this is a hobby that is right for them," said club President David Bigham, a fourth-generation beekeeper.
Particular interest has been paid to the honeybee over the last several years because of the threat to the population. Honeybees are dying at an increasing rate, due primarily to colony collapse disorder, caused by a combination of factors such as pesticides, viruses or attack by other insects.
"The truth of the matter is we simply don't know what is happening and the losses are pretty tremendous. This past year it was in the 50 percent range," Bigham said.
Declining honeybee numbers could cause problems for the human population. Consumers will see the price of honey increase, said Bigham. The food supply could also be affected because the insects pollinate a significant portion of fruits and vegetables, such as squash, cucumbers, watermelons, pumpkins, apples and pears.
"In 10 years, if a person wants a backyard garden, he'll have to maintain a hive," said Rockdale County Cooperative Extension Office Coordinator Jule-Lynne Macie.
Bigham said that while individuals keeping hives most likely won't prevent colony collapse, it can generate more honeybees out into the wild to pollinate.
"We just critically need more beekeepers," Bigham said.
Beekeeping requires an initial investment of about $500 for the beehive box -- containing honeycomb, honey, a queen, workers, larvae and eggs -- and a smoker, gloves, suit and hive tools.
In the summer, hives should be monitored at least a few times a month, and more boxes added when the existing ones get full. In the winter, the bees must be fed a few times a week.
"Beekeeping used to be always something you did in a rural area but what we're finding now is that people who live in subdivisions can have bees. They can't have many, but they can have one or two hives," said Bigham.
Bigham operates Honey Creek Bee Farm, and maintains close to 100 hives throughout Rockdale and surrounding counties. He recently retired to devote himself full-time to the business, which sells several varieties of honey.
"I like the independence of it and I like when you're working with the hive. It's quiet and you're moving slowly and using your observation skills to deduce what's going on in the hive," he said.
To learn more about the Rockdale Beekeeper Club, visit the cooperative extension department through www.rockdalecounty.org or call 770-278-7373.