RUTHERFORDTON, N.C. (AP) — Beekeeper Jackson Corbin has been stung hundreds of times.
"Once you've been doing this job for a while you don't even realize it," Corbin said. "The main times when you get stung is if you try to move the bees out of the way or smash them."
Corbin has been beekeeping for more than 10 years. He first started by keeping hives at his Rutherfordton home. When his bees reached a healthy threshold with a certain amount in one area, Corbin began creating localized strains of bees in various locations.
In addition to the hives he keeps at his home, Corbin also houses several hives at the nearby Earthperks Farm, an organic farm owned and operated by Rich Davis.
Davis has hosted Corbin's hives for years at his farm where the bees have plentiful sources of pollen. Davis left his broccoli and arugula crops to flower, supplying the bees with a source of food through the cold winter months.
"There's a saying that you feed the soil, not the plants. In turn, the plants will help the soil," Davis said. "It's the same with bees — if you let plants grow naturally, the bees will have a food source."
Davis knows how significant the balance between beekeeping and farming is.
"Bees are important for pollination, which helps us as farmers," Davis said. "It's a win-win situation for us."
According to the USDA, nearly 80 percent of insect-pollinated plants including fruits and vegetables rely on pollination by honeybees. These honeybees contribute $15 billion annually to the country's agricultural economy. Many beekeepers in Western North Carolina, like Corbin, are small-scale hobbyists and part-time beekeepers who have a large impact. About 95 percent of these beekeepers produce 40 percent of U.S. honey, according to the USDA.
Davis owns a few of the hives at Earthperks Farm, while Corbin keeps around 12 to 14 hives at the farm. The bees Corbin keeps are hybrids with a mixture of genetics, which he refers to as Italian mutt bees.
He periodically treks across the farm to tend to his hives, checking on the bees and recording their progress in a journal. Corbin carries his smoker, a device that emits smoke to calm the bees, as he carefully lifts each lid of the hives to inspect the colonies.
He explains that when a hive reaches a certain point, the bees will select a new queen and the colony will break apart to begin new swarms and establish new hives. Corbin closely monitors these young hives and feeds them sugar water. He also notes the honey production in the more mature hives.
The majority of the honey produced at Earthperks Farm is Tulip Poplar. Clover, Blackberry and Sourwood honeys are produced in smaller quantities as well. The honey made by the bees is sold at the farm's small store, and Corbin even has people approach him throughout the year and request more honey.
"I enjoy beekeeping because it puts you so much more in touch with nature — not just with bees, but with everything," Corbin said.
Corbin's bees have been thriving, unlike many beekeepers who have experienced a vast decline in their bee populations due to colony collapse disorder.
Carl Chesick, Executive Director at the Center for Honeybee Research, said losses have been steady at 30 percent across Western North Carolina and some beekeepers have reported a loss of two-thirds of their hives. Chesick attributes the higher death rate in part to pesticides and herbicides used for lawn care. Bees might fly as far as three miles for nectar and pollen, and when they pollinate plants that have been sprayed, they may not survive or they may bring the poison back to the hive.
For Corbin, an organic farm is so important for bees, as is the relationship between a beekeeper and a farmer.
"Rich and I talk about how to treat the crops and about what is sprayed. He doesn't use pesticides, insecticides or chemicals that will harm the bees," Corbin said.
Corbin is a member of the Rutherford County Beekeepers Association, a group that helps to educate the public about the importance of honeybees as well as getting beekeepers together to learn from one another. Beekeepers from the group, along with members from the Center for Honeybee Research and Asheville's Bee City USA, gathered at the 3rd Annual Buzz on Bees on April 27 at Chimney Rock State Park. Their goal was to educate the public on current problems facing honeybees, like colony collapse disorder and harmful pesticides, and teach people what to do to get involved and help the area's honeybee population.
"It's not easy to find a place to keep bees," Corbin said. "But I know the bees won't be poisoned by people or sprayed with Roundup on Davis' farm. I can sleep better knowing my bees are safe."