Managing bees: It’s more than a hobby

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McCormack Apiaries
Tom and Linda McCormack have been managing bees since 1977. Today they have 120 hives and host three bee schools. (Katy Mumaw photo)

Summer Bee People. That’s how Tom McCormack describes those who have jumped into bees as a hobby: Summer Bee People or “I had bees people.”

He doesn’t like to see the industry infiltrated by hobbyists who buy bees each spring and let them die in the winter, or let the mites take over in the summer.

He puts “flow hives” in the category of a gimmick as well. Flow hives allow one to instantly tap honey, but usually end up lacking management.

“It’s more money for a corporation — less likely the owner will sustain the bees all year,” he said.

McCormack Apiaries
McCormack uses a technique called “following the bloom” to keep his bees fed. Move his hives to where there are blooms, but staying away from orchards or places there could potentially be pesticides. (Katy Mumaw photos)

“‘Summer bee people’ are good for business, but not for bees,” McCormack said. “There are a lot of people getting into bees for a hobby. Oftentimes, they lose the bees, kill them and buy more the next spring,” he said.

“Poor bee management is a commercial bee gain.”

McCormack and his wife, Linda, sell bee nucs, or nucleus colonies, which include a queen. The name is derived from the fact that a nuc hive is centered on a queen, the nucleus of the honey bee colony.

This year, he has orders for 35 and will sell them for $150 each. In addition to the bees, the McCormacks sell honey and wax products.

Getting started

The McCormacks started beekeeping in 1977 when the Beaver County man bought two packages of bees. He grew to 300 colonies and is now down to 120.

“Bees are like rabbits, they expand. They swarm out and divide,” he said about how he expanded so quickly.

Honey bee facts

Honey bees are important pollinators for flowers, fruits and vegetables. Bees transfer pollen between the male and female parts, allowing plants to grow seeds and fruit.

Bees produce honey as food stores for the hive during winter. They produce 2 to 3 times more honey than they need, so we enjoy the rest.

If the queen bee dies, workers will create a new queen by selecting a young larva, the newly hatched baby insects, and feeding it a special food called “royal jelly.“ This enables the larva to develop into a fertile queen.

Bees fly at a speed of around 15.5 miles per hour and beat their wings 200 times per second!

Each bee has 170 odorant receptors. They use these to communicate within the hive and to recognize different types of flowers when looking for food.

The average worker bee lives for five to six weeks. During this time, she’ll produce around a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey.

The queen can live up to five years. She is busiest in the summer months, when she can lay up to 2,500 eggs a day.

Source: National Geographic Kids, www.natgeokids.com

McCormack uses a technique called “following the bloom” to feed his bees. He places his bee hives on a flat bed trailer and moves them from one private property to another — wherever flowers are blooming.

He stays close to state game lands and away from orchards. He doesn’t want his bees in contact with any pesticides.

“As a society, we try to get rid of every dandelion and spray for bugs while apple flowers are in full bloom. Sevin is harmful to bees,” he said about the disregard for the pollinators.

Packaging

As producer-packers, the McCormacks care about the entire process. They raise bees, package honey and buy honey from other producers to package and sell.

The honey comes in a tractor-trailer load and they use their commercial sized equipment to separate and package it.

They bottled 31,000 pounds in 1999, at their peak.

Linda is the primary bottler, spending time every day bottling the honey.

In their garage, they have a commercial-sized honey centrifuge extractor, a honey separator — which separates the honey from the wax — and other items he’s built over the years to ease the process.

McCormack is an innovator, always looking for ways to be more efficient and help others. An engineer by trade, he has created a pulley system to lift the 5-gallon buckets of honey, and dump them, saving their backs.

Bee school

They host three free bee schools each April, teaching 10 people at a time. Linda provides breakfast and lunch and Tom teaches the class the ins and outs of beekeeping.

“A school like this is $120 other places; we do it for free. We want people to know how to do it right,” said McCormack, an Eastern Apiculture Society Master Bee Keeper.

He is also involved in the Beaver Valley Area Beekeeping Association, where he works to educate association members and the public about bees.

Sales

He’s not worried about helping others put him out of business, he just wants people to be educated.

McCormack Apiaries
McCormack Apiaries bottles honey every day. They sell from their home and from two farmers markets.

Much of his honey sales is through two farmers markets. He’s sold at the Beaver County and Ambridge markets for 35 years.

He now goes to the markets to sell honey, but also to make connections to get medical supplies donated for his foundation, which focus on the health of Panamanian people. (See more about his foundation) 

They also sell from their home, websites, and have some regular customers, who purchase it by the gallon. One such customer is a local bakery that uses only honey as a sweetener, buying honey from the McCormacks each week.

Tom credits Linda for documenting the weekly sales and doing all of the paper work.

“I couldn’t do it without her. With our small business, you wouldn’t believe the paperwork,” he said.

They are inspected by the FDA and USDA with a license to sell food, nucs and queens.

Bee killers

In addition to the paperwork, McCormack’s biggest challenge is mites.

Mites are killing the bees, but McCormack says it’s the beekeepers who are at fault.

“It’s the beekeeper that doesn’t know what is going on,” he said. “If you don’t know your mite count, you’re not managing your bees.”

His advice is to check for mites once a month. His pro tip: To check for mites, take a half a cup of bees, roughly 300, and cover them in alcohol, place a sieve over the opening, cover the cup with another cup and shake vigorously until all the mites have been dislodged.

Then, count the number of mites.

McCormack Apiaries
Tom McCormack analyses the color of his honey. The bee’s diet dictates the color and flavor.

“If you have three or four, you need to treat them,” Tom said. “If there are 50 or more, you are on your way to killing all your bees.”

These varroa mites can be treated by mite bait that can be placed inside the hive.

“A queen bee can lay 1,500 to 2,000 bees a day. So to sacrifice 300 to check for mites once a month is a small price to pay, compared to losing your whole hive,” McCormack said, who has done bee consulting in Panama, Kenya and Uganda.

“Pretty much everywhere they harvest honey has these pesky, imported mites, so now it’s about management,” he said.

He traveled to Panama for bees but returned with prosthetics

Tom McCormack is not only an expert in bees but also in prosthetics.

“It’s all about using this,” he said pointing to his head.

As a retired plane mechanic, McCormack uses his engineering skills and common sense to fit prosthetics. To date, he has fitted 610 people for prosthetic limbs.

McCormack Foundation
McCormack stands with a 12-year-old boy who lost his leg from a snake bite. McCormack has helped more than 600 people receive prosthetic limbs. (Submitted photo)

It all started in 1994 when McCormack participated in a Farmer to Farmer program. He was sent to Panama to help Panamanian beekeepers become more productive.

While working there, he visited the less-fortunate areas of western Panama and saw the need for items that are discarded in the United States.

Back home, McCormack began collecting used children’s clothing and was able to send and distribute over 3,000 pounds of clothing to people in need.

But while visiting with the locals, he also noticed one women never moved her arm from across her chest. He inquired about it and found out she had a mastectomy and was too embarrassed to put her arm down.

He learned many Panamanians had to travel nearly seven hours to get a prosthesis and many simply couldn’t afford it.

He returned to Panama with a breast prosthetic for the woman and has since returned many times, building and fitting limbs.

Since 2000, when he retired, he has spent six months each year in Panama.

The project continues to grow — with McCormack collecting wheelchairs, crutches, hospital beds, disposable medical supplies, bicycles and basic household items.

To facilitate the importing of the donations into Panama, he formed the Thomas L. & Linda J. McCormack Foundation. Through their networking in the U.S., they collect items and fill containers to ship to Panama to be distributed.

“It all started with the Farmer to Farmer program, opening my eyes to the needs,” Tom said.

To donate or find learn more about the foundation visit www.panamamccormackfoundation.com or email tlmccormack@hotmail.com.

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Katy Mumaw is a graduate of Ohio State University where she studied agricultural communications and Oklahoma State University earning her master's in agricultural leadership. She enjoys family time and sharing the stories of agriculture.

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