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A Conversation With: Valerie Duever

Mid-Missouri woman explores the secret life of beekeeping

JOSHUA BOUCHER

Bees have played an important part in Valerie Duever’s life for 14 years. When she is not tending to her hives, she teaches beekeeping classes.

November 7, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Honorary queen of the hive Valerie Duever has been a beekeeper for about 14 years. Wearing enough layers of clothing to survive the Ice Age, Duever heads to the honeybee hive with husband, Jim, to harvest the liquid gold. “I don’t think I would be doing this if Val wasn’t interested in it,” Jim says. “My highlight is when she comes with me to help feed or do some work on the bees.”

Because beekeeping is central in Valerie’s life, people might be surprised to learn she is allergic to bees. She developed this allergy five years ago but continues to learn about honeybees’ interaction with nature. Valerie, vice president of the Boone Regional Beekeepers Association, knows her bees so well she can even tell what kind of day the insects are having by the rhythm of their buzzing. She puts her bee-whispering skills to use by teaching beginner beekeeping classes around Missouri.

It Figures: Honeybees

“Busy bee” isn’t just an expression. Making honey is a strenuous task accorinding to honey.com and Wired. Check out the numbers behind this sticky situation.

120,000 – Estimated number of beekeepers in the U.S.

300 – Average number of hives a commercial beekeeper owns

1/3 – The fraction of U.S. honeybee colonies that died last winter from reasons such as moisture, pesticides and malnutrition

9.2% - Increased percent of honeybee deaths since winter 2011

2.62 million - Number of hives that produced honey in 2012, for a total of 147 million pounds

80% - Of crops pollinated by insects, percent pollinated by honeybees

$1.95 – Average price of a pound of honey in 2012

55,000 – Miles that a hive of approximately 60,000 bees will travel to gather nectar to make one pound of honey

2 million - Number of flowers that will be visited to make 1 pound of honey

How did you get started working with bees?
My father-in-law kept bees when my husband was a kid. The first piece of property we purchased (together) he wanted to put a beehive on. I said, “Yeah, sure, knock yourself out, as long as I don’t have to do anything with it.” I had never tasted honey outside of the grocery store. The taste of fresh honey right out of the hive is spectacular. I absolutely fell in love with it. We took some classes on it and became fascinated with bees, their culture and what they do for the environment.

How would you describe your relationship with the honeybees?
I can walk up on a hive and have a sense of what is going on. It’s like when you walk into a room and can feel the tension. You can tell what’s going on with your bees if you pay attention to what the weather is doing. They absolutely follow weather patterns, and they follow flowering cycles. If it starts clouding up, and there is a cold front coming in, the girls are not going to be happy. If there are lots of flowers in bloom and lots of nectar for them to harvest, they are in wonderful moods, and you can walk up there with just a veil on and not even have any gloves on.

What issues have you faced as a beekeeper?
I have developed bee allergies, which is not uncommon for folks who beekeep part time. We joke around that (Jim) does the production and maintenance of the honey, and I do sales and marketing. I will go out and work with him in the early spring, when the bees are very gentle, and they aren’t protecting anything, and harvest honey.

How do you protect yourself from getting stung?
The stinging is nominal. It’s like if you are going to work with horses, you are probably going to get kicked. Chances are if you work with dogs you are probably going to get bitten or at least barked at. A bee stinger is actually a one-half inch to a one-fourth inch long. It’s very short. What you try to do is wear layers of clothing. The places that are most vulnerable are usually your face and your hands. You limit their availability, so they can’t get to you.

What do you do with all of the honey you harvest?
We harvest once a year, and it is usually after the Fourth of July, depending on how the nature cycle goes. The majority of the honey we sell through our local Future Farmers of America at North Callaway High School (Kingdom City). They do it as a fundraiser. We can get anywhere from 50 pounds to up to 200 pounds depending on our nectar flow. We have 30 to 40 operating hives at one time. And we make jalapeño-, blackberry- and cinnamon-flavored honey, and I think we are doing strawberry this year.

What would you tell future beekeepers?
Beekeeping is one of those things that crosses all levels of education, all ages and all socioeconomic levels. Anybody could learn about bees and be a beekeeper. It used to be considered an old man’s hobby, but it’s not anymore. I would say more than half of the members in our association are women. Probably 25 percent of the members we have are under 40. It’s an interesting change.

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