Clacy Vogt — The Beeman
For those of us not acquainted with Latin-derived phobias, Apiphobia is the fear of bees. I admit to having bouts of apiphobia occasionally, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you have succumbed to apiphobia during an outdoor foray. Bee stings are not pleasurable. The acute pain, swelling, skin irritation, and anaphylaxic reactions tend to be memorable circumstances that are not fondly remembered. Thus, an expected instinctual response to these imminent conditions would be fight-or-flight (I prefer flight).
However, I would argue that apiphobia is one terminus of a spectrum. The other end, “apiphphilic” I suppose, is populated by a select few who ignore the pain, and understand the role of the bee in ecosystems and the human economy. It is easy to demonize a bee for its self-defense behaviors, but its other habits should not be scornfully overlooked. For Clacy Vogt, the sting is a minor nuisance compared to the benefits of his profession: a profitable career in the outdoors, pollination services for domesticated and wild flora, and salable honey.
His current operation began as a hobby with assistance from a friend, and some luck. Another bee keeper was retiring from the trade, creating an available market for cheap equipment. The business has flourished since.“I’ve done it for a living since I was fifty seven years old, and I’m seventy-two now,” Clacy reflected. “I retired early from construction work. All I did was keep bees…I don’t have any complaints….I’ve got four hundred hives of bees. Brought up a lot of them to Yates County, Ontario County….I have probably 100 hives [in Chili]….We got a lot of bees in Wheatland too.”
Since his hives are scattered across the Genesee Valley region, hours of his day are spent in his maroon Toyota pick-up (If you live in South Chili, I am willing to bet that you have witnessed his daily passage). The season typically begins in May, around the time overnight temperatures begin to stabilize. At that time, Clacy begins to tend to his hives, insuring that the queens are alive, and the worker bees are taking care of them. With four hundred hives segregated by distance, his days are long and physically taxing. “I don’t go out pushing honey because I’m too busy. I get busy out there….I was working six or seven days a week for awhile. It’s hard to get them going after the winter….There are a lot of headaches in the spring until you get them going. It’s a lot of frustration. The biggest problem we have is getting queens. I pay for the queens and never get them on time. It is devastating if you don’t get them on time….Time means everything.”
Clacy is sensitive to the health of his bees. He knows when to apply medicines for mites, when to split the hive in two, and when to remove frames for honey extraction. His shrewd understanding of honey bees resulted from years of keen observation. “Bees are very intelligent. If there is a flower over here, the bees will go over there and they will come back to the hive, and they’ll do a little dance [to] tell the other bees that there is nectar over there. And they go over there and get it, and they bring it back to the hive. Then, once they put it in the hive, it’s like water. They start fanning it until they get all the moisture out of it. That’s what makes it turn into honey….Once the combs get all filled up, they will wax it over. And when they wax it over, the honey is ripe….It is like an apple or a tomato.”
On July 13th, a day of intense sun and scant wind, I climbed into the maroon Toyota pickup at eight in the morning, and became Clacy’s apprentice for the day. We began the day at his honey processing facility on Brook road; a modest barn with a permanent aroma of raw honey and wax. I followed Clacy to a white moving truck parked beside the barn, which, as he explained to me, contained the wooden supers he collected from Penn Yan the previous day (a super is a stack-able wooden crate used to store honey frames). I was told to stand back; the back door slid open, releasing a furious wave of peeved honey bees into the sunlight. For a brief moment, the swarm was a life form of its own; a shimmering, amorphous body with a vibratory growl. A moment later, the consuming buzz ceased as the bees dispersed and beset the truck in confused flight. Meanwhile, Clacy had ignored the spectacle, and acquired an industrial dolly to transport the supers into his “honey house.”
Don’t let the supers fool you. Although they are merely wooden boxes with frames inside, honey is remarkably dense. For instance, water weighs 8.3 pounds a gallon, while honey reaches a weight of roughly twelve pounds a gallon. Figures aside, the supers are difficult to manage by hand. One super weighs about sixty pounds apiece – box, frame, honey, wax, and bees included. Clacy would walk into his moving truck, and emerge with five supers stacked on his dolly, a payload of roughly three hundred pounds.
“The most honey I ever produced in one year was 84,000 pounds,” Clacy stated as we sat in his house on Paul Road a month prior to my ‘apprenticeship’. “We had 130 fifty-five gallon barrels that year. That is [from] around 400 hives. [The bees] made honey that year, and we could hardly keep the boxes on.”
Even though eighty-four thousand pounds is a personal record for Clacy, his typical seasonal average is still the envy of other bee keepers. “On a good year we used to make 80 barrels of honey in a year…but the last two years, we have made only 60 barrels….You gotta have the right kind of weather conditions. We haven’t had it the last two years.” Neglecting the last two years, the figures are still impressive. Since a gallon of honey tops the scales at twelve pounds, a fifty five gallon barrel of honey will weigh roughly 660 pounds. And if we extend this math lesson a little further, Clacy usually processes 52,000 pounds of honey in one season. In today’s market, honey is sold for $1.80 a pound. You can do the math.
As Clacy unloaded his aromatic cargo, his son, Jeff, was processing the honey indoors. “I used to help my dad when I was young, real young…after awhile I got into some stuff, worked myself to death, didn’t get paid…it got ridiculous. I started out [and asked my father], ‘Hey man, do you need some help?’ That was five or six years ago, and it went from there.”
Although the equipment appeared complex, the process and principles were simple. Jeff would use a hive tool (a simple crowbar) to pry the frames apart in the super. Each frame was placed in a decapping machine, a simple motorized implement that passed each frame between two serrated, reciprocating knives. The knives cut the wax off the frame, exposing the ripened honey. Inevitably, the decapping process removed a small quantity of honey from the comb, which fell into a large heated pan with the wax. Both wax and honey would be heated to a liquid state, and a small spigot near the top of the pan released the molten wax. Jeff demonstrated by pouring a small amber pool into his hand. After a few seconds, it solidified. “The honey wouldn’t solidify, so were running straight wax, which I cannot believe it right about now. The honey will sink to the bottom, and the wax floats.” Since honey is denser than wax, the heated honey sank and drained into a storage tank, while the wax remained in the pan for collection. “They use beeswax in different styles of oil dispersants, can you believe that? [The wax] is worth more than the honey. [It is used] in everything from pharmaceutical companies to guys who run saws in wood shops. They all want a chunk of it.”
The frames, on the other hand, are processed differently. Instead of heat, Jeff applies physics; centripetal force to be exact. Once the frame passed through the decapping machine, Jeff loaded each frame into a large centrifuge contained in a large metal drum. Once the centrifuge was full of frames, Jeff would start the motor, engage the clutch, and initiate the spinning process. I peered into the drum and observed a steady stream of honey spill down the side of the drum into a basin for collection. The centrifuge spun for a half hour at least, and after all motion ceased, I noticed a few beleaguered honey bees crawl out of their dizzying carnival ride.
Eventually, all the honey makes its way into a large storage basin at the far side of the barn, and then poured into fifty-five gallon drums for wholesale. “The modern setup today can run eight barrels a day. [I can run] three barrels a day. And you know what, that honey is coming out of there good enough to bottle! You can bottle it right out of the tank. That is nice honey…it is white this year.” However, you may be asking, “who purchases a whole barrel of honey?” “Nut and Butter buys it down in Nunda, I can sell it to Wixson [Honey Inc.] down in Dundee, I can sell to Draper’s [Super Bee Apiaries Inc] in Pennsylvania, I can sell to Dutch Gold in Pennsylvania….I’ve sold to all of them.”
After observing the decapping-melting-spinning process for an hour, Clacy proffered an invitation to tend a few hives nearby. As soon as I entered the pick-up, Clacy handed me armor: a full body, white bee-suit with a mesh face screen and built in gloves. To be honest, I was looking forward to this moment; it was an opportunity to become invincible to the sting, and tangibly observe bee behavior. We travelled to a nearby farm, and drove within a hundred feet of the nearby hives. Clacy and I crawled into our suits and collected several tools from the back of the truck. Like I anticipated, the suit was akin to an astronaut’s, with a mesh screen instead of a fish bowl. However, I failed to anticipate the poor ventilation within the suit. Within minutes, our mesh face screens were saturated in sweat.
Clacy pried open each hive to observe the health and production of his bees. Every time a super was removed, a fury of bees would attempt to drive us away without success. They clustered angrily on my face shield and swarmed my breast pocket. I was slightly concerned about the suit’s efficaciousness for a few moments, but fortunately, every bee was thwarted. Clacy continued to pry open hives, remove supers, and stack them in his truck. I helped with a few, and even though I was forewarned, the excessive weight still surprised me. By the end of our exploits, my hands were covered in a sticky combination of honey and wax, as well as my camera.
Overall, bee keeping is physically demanding and time intensive. Additional variables such as weather, colony collapse syndrome, and mites increase the volatility of the profession. However, one important factor remains unspoken and underestimated– lack of support from the people. “They are not trying to help the bee keepers,” Clacy lamented. “[The bee keepers] are the ones that should be helped, because without the bees, it will be pretty hard to survive. If we lose all of the bees, which could happen, it would be a disaster….I think the Town should do more to help the bee keeper, instead of fighting with them.”
Like other small farmers in Chili, the odds are against them; the general public is often oblivious, practices are misunderstood or chastised (ever get caught behind a tractor while driving to work?), and their products have a limited market. As the stewards of open Places, these people are prophets in a sense, but the lessons tend to be muted by the rush of passing cars, the chatter on cell phones, and the mellow glow from computer and TV screen alike. As we keep “progressing,” we are slowly forgetting. The greatest danger to open Place is us.
However, we are also the potential stakeholders in open Place if we summon the volition. Instead of accepting the daily subservience the home-work-home grind, break the monotony and explore that open Place down the road. Take a few minutes in the library to observe old plat maps of our town, when open Place was copious. Meet that local farmer who sometimes slows your daily procession to the office. In this case, meet that beekeeper who runs around in an astronaut suit to care for stinging insects. The lessons are sweeter than raw honey.
“When you think of bees, people are terrified of them…but they have their place in the world.”