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The Sweet Impact of Community Involvement

Rutherford County Beekeepers Association focuses on educating community about honey production
Story and photos by: Morgan Graham 5/26/2020


Rutherford County Beekeepers Association encourages members of all ages to join and learn more about honey bees. Today, the club has over 135 paid members. Its members include, left to right, Luke Elrod, Ray Radford, Keith Elrod, Robbin Elrod, and Rachel Elrod.
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Rutherford County’s Keith Elrod purchased his first beehive in 1995 to help pollinate his newly planted apple trees. The pollinator novice looked forward to joining the local beekeeping association, but unfortunately, it no longer existed. The Stones River Beekeeping Association disbanded in the 1980s after the varroa mites destroyed the majority of local hives. 

That changed in 2000, when Keith and his wife, Robbin, decided to revive the organization.

“I really wanted a place where beekeepers could come together and share their knowledge and experiences with others around the area,” says Keith, a Rockvale native. 

The Elrods held the first meeting of the Rutherford County Beekeepers Association in May 2001. With the 10 founding members in attendance, Dr. John Skinner, the state’s apiculturist, served as the first guest speaker. For nearly 10 years, the club membership remained steady, but that spiked suddenly to more than 30 with beekeeping’s surge in popularity. Those numbers have continued to climb to its current 135 members. 

Today, the club focuses on educating others about honey bees and the honey process through community outreach and school involvement. Each spring the club participates in the county’s Adventures in Agriculture event, where they bring observation hives with live bees. They also educate the public about products made with honey by handing out samples. 

The club also holds a three-day Beginner Beekeeping Course each March, where they walk participants through the entire process from getting bees to collecting the honey. During this course, the attendees gain first-hand knowledge including how to set their hives up for maximum honey yields and dealing with pest problems. 

“This course is great for those who are thinking about getting bees,” says Robbin. “We try to have a well-rounded group of speakers covering everything from getting started with bees to dividing hives.” 

The club’s current project is donating 20 “teaching hives” to local schools in conjunction with the Rutherford County Soil Conservation District. The hives are created using authentic beekeeping boxes, but instead of being a home for colonized bees, the boxes have teaching frames showing the life cycle of the bee and each step in the honey-making process. 

“This is a touch-and-feel display that will sit in the libraries,” says Keith. “We want kids and youth to become familiar with beekeeping and learn how the honey they eat on their biscuit is part of agriculture.” 

When creating these “teaching hives,” the beekeepers learned that it wasn’t just the finished product that served as an educational tool. The process of making the boxes was just as much of a learning experience for both the association helpers and members of Girl Scout Troop 1773. Together they painted and prepared all 20 boxes for local students to enjoy. Two hives have been place at Overall Creek and Northfield elementary, schools and the other 18 hives will be placed when school starts in August. 

In addition to the placement of the teaching hives, volunteers from the association serve as guest speakers for the schools. As a part of their presentations, some members bring drone bees, or male bees without stingers, giving the students a hands-on, up-close experience with honey bees. Other association members, like Carol Reese, visit nursing homes and assisted-living homes and present programs for their residents. 

“They also have a talent for speaking,” says Robbin. “And a willingness to use that talent to educate others about the many uses of honey bees and honey.”

Honey is a healthy way to add sweetness to food, from topping a piping hot biscuit to sweetening freshly brewed iced tea.

“I like to use honey in baking sourdough bread,” says Robbin. “It gives it the perfect hint of sweetness. I also like to put a drop in my hot tea every morning. I think everyone should buy some local honey and experiment with it in some recipes.” 

The Rutherford County Beekeepers Association meets the first Monday of every month at Lane-Agri Park Community Center. Anyone interested in beekeeping is invited, and membership is not required to attend. 

In recognition of the many benefits bees provide for growing the world’s food supply, it’s fitting to include this article in the June issue, as we celebrate both planting season and National Pollinators Month.

How Farmers Can Help Pollinators

The National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offers many resources for those interested in helping sustain and increase our state’s pollinator population. On the NRCS website, the organization provides the following tips and advice. 

Native bees are valuable crop pollinators. The over 3,500 species of native bees, often called pollen bees, help increase crop yields and may serve as important insurance when cultivated European honey bees are hard to come by.

There are simple, inexpensive ways farmers can increase the number of native bees living on cropland. For example, those who would like to do more to increase the number of native bees pollinating their crops can plant hedgerows or windbreaks with the use of a variety of flowering plants and shrubs, reduce or eliminate your use of pesticides, and work with neighbors to protect natural areas around farmland.

Here are some specific tips for farmers:

Know the habitat of the farm. Look for areas on and around the farm that can support native bees. Most native bees are solitary or live in small colonies. Bumble, digger, and sweat bees make up the bulk of pollen bees in most parts of the country.

Protect flowering plants and nest sites. Once areas where bees are living and foraging has been identified, take measures to protect these resources from disturbance and pesticides.

Enhance habitat with flowering plants and additional nest sites. Most bees love sun and prefer to nest in dry places. Nests are created underground, in twigs and debris, and in dead trees or branches. To enhance those habitats, add flowers, leave some ground untilled, and provide bee blocks (tunnels drilled into wood). This will go a long way in increasing the number of native bees in those areas. 

Minimize tillage. Many of the best crop pollinators live underground for most of the year, sometimes at the base of the very plants they pollinate. To protect them, turn over soil only where you need to.

Allow crops to bolt. If possible, allow leafy crops like lettuce to flower if they need to be tilled right away. This gives bees additional food sources.

Exercise care with insecticides. If insecticides are used near these areas, choose ingredients targeted to specific species and the least harmful formulations, like granules or solutions. Spray on calm, dry evenings, soon after dark when bees are not active. Keep in mind that even when crops are not in bloom, some of the best pollinators are visiting nearby flowers, where they may be killed by drifting chemicals.

Any work farmers do on behalf of pollinators will support other beneficial insects and wildlife. Improvements to pollinator habitat may be eligible for financial support from government programs.

For more information, visit

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