“One thing you need to keep in mind,” Barry told me when I called him, “is that ninety-nine percent of the so-called beekeepers are hobby beekeepers. In North Carolina there are thousands of hobby beekeepers. And there are less than ten commercial beekeepers. There’s a public misconception that a beekeeper’s a beekeeper’s a beekeeper. But the difference between a hobby beekeeper and a commercial beekeeper is like the difference between someone with an aquarium in his living room and somebody that owns three oceangoing deep-sea vessels.” I had reached him in his truck. Earlier that morning, Jill had recommended I try him between three and five in the afternoon, when Barry would be on the road. When he’s not on the road, she said, he’s working, and he can’t talk then.
“Those universes are so separate,” Barry continued, “that you could go to a hobby bee-keeping meeting and mention commercial bee-keeping, and they’ll say, well, we just don’t have any commercial bee-keeping in North Carolina. They don’t even know those guys exist. They’re completely different worlds.” He paused. Then he added, “And they hate each other.”
Barry spoke in formidable gusts, so I had a hard time intervening with a question. He explained that there are three ways a commercial beekeeper can do business: pollination, honey production, or the sale of bees and equipment. Silver Spoon Apiaries mostly sells honey, though about a quarter of its revenue comes from selling to hobbyists.
“I have increasingly mixed emotions about selling bees to hobby beekeepers,” he announced wistfully. “I feel like I’m tossing an eight-year-old kid in Thailand when I watch the bees leave down the driveway, ’cause I know what’s gonna happen. I am increasingly of the opinion that if bees had hooves and fur, hobby beekeepers would be in prison. I mean, it’s just atrocious how bad their bees fare. And of course they blame it on Colony Collapse Disorder and this and that and the other, but mainly it’s just they don’t know what in the world they’re doing.” He sighed. “A lot of it is, it used to be the people who entered hobby bee-keeping were older people, who had some rural life experience. Now it’s a lot of young yuppies coming into it, and they think they know about nature, but they really don’t know anything about nature.” For one thing, he said, hobbyists don’t bother to control pests or mites. “The bottom line is, if you control those factors and make sure the bees have proper nutrition, everything’ll be okay. But they just are in complete denial about that. It used to be that before 1984, when the first mites got here, you could take a hive of bees, stick them in your backyard, and despite your best efforts they’d live. Go rob some honey from them, and talk about what a great beekeeper you were. It’s not that way anymore. You gotta know what you’re doing.”