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One sweet sideline

By Staff | Jun 11, 2010

Cecelia Patterson, left, has been an apiarist for 50 years, and her protege, Shiliah Spaulding, has been learning about bees for 10 years. The pair work together during fall harvesting of honey and sell all of their product locally.

DANBURY – While most rural kids were raised with memories of farm dogs or cats, Cecelia Patterson, 70, of rural Danbury, in southeastern Woodbury County, grew up with honeybees.

Like many farmhouses of the early 1900s, the family dwelling had a wall which was home to a colony of flying nectar-chasers. Around her birthday each year, Patterson would often sit on the porch roof just to watch the bees engage in their annual swarm.

After finishing high school in the late-1950s, Patterson built her first cottonwood hive and proceeded to catch her own swarm. To this day, she still hand-crafts her own hives.

Patterson’s knowledge of all things bee-related was based on simply being around honeybees from her earliest years.

Coming to understand and appreciate honeybees was Patterson’s personal calling, and a passion that she passes along to those who show a keen interest, like Shiliah Spaulding.

Spaulding, a lively 18-year-old from rural Battle Creek, just nine miles north of Danbury along Iowa Highway 175, has been a keeper of bees for over 10 years.

Spaulding said she became aware of beekeeping when her older brother was learning about bees as a 4-H project with Patterson. Spaulding admitted that it was her jealousy of her brother’s activities that sparked her initial interest in managing bees.

She didn’t like being left on the farm while her brother went to work with Patterson, she said. All of this didn’t escape Patterson’s attention; while Spaulding and her mother were cleaning a church in Danbury, Patterson ask for her help in securing a new swarm “as big as two basketballs,” Spaulding said, recalling the request.

This was an opportunity that most don’t get in a lifetime, Patterson told Spaulding, and one she gladly shared with the girl.

Spaulding said she learned “a great deal” about honeybees that day. Her first lesson? Don’t collect bees while wearing a skirt.

“I look back and I’m so embarrassed,” Spaulding recalled. “Bees fly in and out of the swarm and there I was, climbing a ladder in a skirt!” Now, Spaulding has the hat, veil, and suit, although she says she is so comfortable with the bees that she just as often wears a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops.

Patterson is quick to point out that Spaulding has been stung more often in her 10 years of beekeeping than she has in her 50 years. Spaulding confirmed, however, that the stings have not dampened her love for working with bees.

Both women estimate that they spend about two months together each year in their beekeeping activities. It’s not uncommon to see Spaulding’s orange truck parked outside the white, tin-roofed honey house that is only a few yards from the hives.

This is where she learned to use a hot knife to scrape off beeswax in preparation of placing the comb into a spinner. In the spinner, the honey is thrown out of the comb through centrifugal force for collection and bottling.

Spaulding said she harvests about 100 gallons of honey a year. Her 2008 honey harvest was sold out by Christmas; in 2009, her stock was sold out by Thanksgiving. She plans on using the profits to help with a college-degree in agriculture.

Patterson and Spaulding have developed a relationship as important as that shared by the bees in the colonies they tend. As the bees know their job from harvesting nectar to taking care of the hive, Patterson has taught Spaulding to seed the clover for their food and how to harvest clean honey.

Just as honeybees flawlessly perform their duties in the hive; both Patterson and Spaulding are similarly at ease in the honey house. Together they harvest the honey, box the honeycombs and make beeswax candles.

Worker bees clean house and take care of the hive; while the stickiness of honey production is evident, so is the attention to keeping the hives in a condition that allows for healthy, chemical-free bees and tasty honey.

Honey bees work for the survival of their community; both beekeepers stress how agriculture depends on their fervent pollination of crops.

Most importantly, as certain bee behavior is inherited, it is evident that the same passion Patterson grew up with has been passed on to Spaulding.

Spaulding said she is eager to acknowledge Patterson’s influence on her.

“Cecelia’s another grandma to me,” Spaulding said. “Not only has she been my teacher, she goes to my school and 4-H events. Even her sister will come to my basketball, track or volleyball games.

“She’s taught me so many things, including how to make pies.”

The relationship has not only promoted the benefits of bees, it also resulted in Spaulding spending 2009 as Iowa’s Honey Queen. The experience provided her the forum to promote beekeeping to a wider audience.

She has shared her knowledge at over 50 Iowa events this past year as reigning Iowa Honey Queen, including five days at the Clay County Fair, three days at the Iowa Honey Producers’ Convention in Marshalltown, and 11 days at the Iowa State Fair.

Yet in all these events, Spaulding was reluctant to have any focus placed on her. If anything, she’s quick to minimize her role, instead preferring to redirect the focus on what she’s learned from her mentor – “the buzz is not about the beekeeper, it’s all about the bees.”

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