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Raising queen bees becomes business for Hartselle father-daughter duo

By Bayne Hughes

HARTSELLE — Raising bees isn’t about the honey for 15-year-old Marina Hawkins and her father, Kevin Hawkins.

Developing queen bees is the main objective for the pair. Honey is just an extra benefit.

With their apiculture business Bama Bees Co., the Hawkins sell 100 to 1,000 queens annually, along with boxes, to beekeepers from all over the country. They have nuc (nucleus hive) production out-yards on properties in Hartselle, Decatur, Priceville and Carbon Hill.

Ever the entrepreneur, Marina asked her father when she was still in elementary school to help her find or create a business. Five years later, they’ve progressed bee raising from a hobby to a sideline business.

“We’re taking it slow,” Kevin Hawkins said. “We don’t want to outpace ourselves with our experience and grow too quickly. But we are getting close to the highest step, and that’s commercial.”

With so many beehives on the multiple properties, the Hawkins regularly harvest 100 to 120 gallons of honey annually. Much of the honey goes back into the hives, particularly when the bees need it to feed on during the winter.

He said they do offer honey that Guice Pharmacy in Decatur sells.

“We probably sell 30 to 35 gallons,” Kevin Hawkins said. “When people found out we have bees, they start asking about our honey.”

While they each have responsibilities, Marina said they’re teaching each other daily about the aspects of apiculture.

Producing queens

Marina’s job is grafting the queens. Grafting is the action of transferring a larva from a brood cell into a manufactured cell cup. This technique takes patience and a steady hand.

When the bees produce a rice-sized larva, she picks out the smaller female with a grafting tool and puts it in a small queen cup that holds one bee per cup. The male members of the colony, the drones, are somewhat larger and make up only about 5% of the hive population. Females that don’t become queens also turn into drones.

Kevin Hawkins said a breeder queen is placed in a special hive that doesn’t produce honey. They typically pick out 48 larvae that are 12 to 18 hours old and each is placed in a special cup “that mimics a queen cell. The queen is then placed so she is facing downward because that’s her natural orientation.”

The queen is then put with a pack of bees who don’t have a queen. The queen is fed so much royal jelly that she grows bigger than the male and female drones. On Day 10, the queen is allowed to fly to an area where there are 15 to 20 drones. She mates with them and then flies back to the hive.

“This is the only time she flies during her life,” he said.

A laying queen is then placed with six or seven attendants in a nuc and a piece of candy is placed at the end of the nuc during transport.

While dad sometimes helps Marina with the bee production, he also builds beehive boxes and harvests honey, manages the business paperwork and handles sales. He said they mainly sell to hobbyists, but their sales to commercial companies, which stretch from Pennsylvania to Florida, are growing.

The pair attended an Alabama Cooperative Extension System bee symposium on Feb. 4-5 in Clanton. He said they sold a few nucs, but the main success was making contact with a pollinator beekeeper from Florida who said he would like to start ordering from Bama Bees.

“We have to iron out all of the details,” Kevin Hawkins said. “He wants a large number of queens per week from April to September.”

Hartselle High student

Kevin Hawkins is a massage therapist, and this gives him the flexibility to handle Bama Bees. He routinely checks the hives to make sure they’re still alive, especially in the winter, and adds leftover honey to the hives as winter food.

He said the biggest worry lately is the fluctuation of north Alabama’s temperatures where it gets warm enough that the bees become active and then drops dramatically, killing bees.

Kevin said most hives have five frames each. They do have some hives with 10 frames.

Marina Hawkins is a busy sophomore at Hartselle High School who takes dual enrollment classes that include welding, plays varsity basketball, is involved in Future Farmers of America and works at Southern Hickory Barbecue in Hartselle.

Marina has done so well that, with the combination of Bama Bees and her restaurant work, she said she earned enough to buy a pickup truck.

“She bought a truck before she even old enough to get a driver’s license,” Kevin Hawkins said.

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