Retired Harding professor spreads beekeeping skills

By Emily Van Zandt Originally Published January 13, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated January 11, 2013 at 11:05 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

Allan Isom of Searcy talks about taking care of a beehive and the benefits of keeping bees. By teaching a class on the topic in February, Isom hopes to encourage young people to begin beekeeping.

— “You’re scared, aren’t you?”

Allan Isom moved calmly to the back of one of his beehives, gingerly lifting off the lid and peering down to check moisture and food levels inside. It was a wet, chilly day, and few bees could be bothered to move. But that didn’t keep Isom from teasing the less bee-acquainted people around him.

Since the 1970s, Isom has been studying and caring for bees in backyard hives and harvesting honey. The retired Harding University Bible professor now keeps two hives in the back of an apartment complex and rental house he owns near the college campus. A third hive has taken up residence in a tree near his own house in Searcy, but Isom had little to do with the bees’ arrival.

“I built a box for squirrels up in a tree, and for three or four years, it had squirrels in it,” Isom said. “One day I came home, and there were a lot of dead bees on the ground near the tree. The bees had taken over the whole box. That squirrel didn’t know what he was coming home to.”

When Isom and his wife retired in 1999, he began to dedicate more time to studying the pests, mites and moths that can attack hives. The increase in pests over the years has caused the U.S. bee population to drop to around 40 percent of what it was in the ’70s, Isom said.

“The poisons they’re using, particularly around cotton fields, will definitely kill [bees],” Isom said. Another issue comes when mites from foreign countries ride into the U.S. on crop shipments and find their way into hives not used to the foreign pests.

To combat the decreasing bee population, Isom hopes more people in Searcy, including Harding students, will learn about the benefits of backyard beekeeping and take a hive on themselves.

In early February, Isom will help with a series of free public classes on Beginning Beekeeping, where people can learn about beehives and equipment, honeybee biology, seasonal colony management and how to manage pests and diseases. The classes are being organized as part of a community outreach effort by the biology department at Harding University and are sponsored by the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. Jon Zawislak of the extension office will serve as a presenter. Classes will be held from 6-9 p.m. Feb. 4, 11 and 18 in Room 123 of the Pryor-England Science Building at Harding.

If enough interest is shown during the classes, Isom eventually hopes to form a bee club in the Searcy area.

Fear of being stung, Isom said, is one reason people tend to shy away from the thought of buying or building a hive.

“A bee is a very clumsy thing,” Isom said. “If you get in its way, he’ll accidentally hit you and try to sting you.”

But unless they’re disturbed, bees are typically harmless. Near his own hives, Isom has placed artificial turf to keep from disturbing bees with a lawn mower. A low fence he constructed helps remind kids not to get too close.

“When our kids were growing up, our bees never stung my children,” Isom said. “They just learned not to get in their pathway.”

In addition to potentially providing plenty of honey to beekeepers, bees help pollinate flowers and plants for a mile or more around the hive. Hives are fairly low-maintenance, though Isom does check his every day to make sure the bees have enough food and that there isn’t too much moisture collecting in the hives while they’re full of bees huddling together to stay warm in the winter months.

Isom harvests honey in October or November, after the nectar season has ended but before the cold weather sets in. To harvest, Isom must put smoke in the hives to drive the bees out before taking out the honeycomb-covered frames. The top of the honeycombs are cut off with a hot knife, and the frames are then put in an extractor to harvest the honey, which is strained and put in jars.

Isom recommends that new beekeepers turn to the Internet to study and order supplies. Many companies have ready-made hives that can be shipped across the country.

For more information on the February beekeeping classes, contact the White County Cooperative Extension office at (501) 268-5394.

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com.

Staff Writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at 501-399-3688 or emily@syncweekly.com.

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