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Honey Chile! The Life of a Black Beekeeper

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By Edward Henderson
Photos by London Becoats

For many people, hearing the sound of buzzing bees in the distance evokes a fear rooted in adolescent encounters – no one wants to get stung. However, beekeeper Richard Gillespie of J&R Farms welcomes the symphony with a passion that’s fueled his second career for the past five years.

Family Business
Gillespie, 70, hails from Cheraw, S.C., and grew up on a farm with his parents and two brothers. Bees were always present during Gillespie’s formative years, as he performed the arduous work required to maintain crops.

“It was one of those things where you say ‘I’m never going to do this again,’” Gillespie joked.Gillespie moved to Charlotte after serving in the Vietnam War and took a job with AT&T. After 37 years with the company, he retired as a computer network analyst. His brothers were also retired and decided to reach back to their roots and form J&R Farms as a post-retirement career. They started with basic crops such as watermelons and tomatoes; then bees came into the mix.

“We had no intention of being beekeepers … it was more to have bees pollinating the crops,” Gillespie said. “We bought three or four beehives and it exploded from there.”Today, Gillespie and his brothers manage 60 hives with anywhere between 40,000 and 80,000 bees per hive. Each hive produces 60 to 100 pounds of honey, which they sell year-round.

Bee-Keeping 101
Gillespie’s work in the hives begins around 10 a.m. Most of the bees are out collecting pollen at this time so he has less to worry about than he would at other times. Gillespie checks to see if the bees are healthy and removes threats from the hive, such as beetles and moths. He repeats this process every two weeks. When there is enough honey in the hive, honeycomb sheets are placed in a centrifuge encasement and the honey is spun against the walls. It is then drained out, to be placed in jars and taken to the market.

Bee products have become J&R Farms’ main source of income. The brothers also rent hives to farmers and sell bees to help other beekeepers get started.In case you were wondering, Gillespie gets stung an average of eight to 10 times while making his rounds. He’s become immune to any side effects, however, and is hardly bothered by the occurrence.Gillespie believes more African Americans haven’t gotten involved in the bee-keeping business due to the lack of tradition surrounding the profession in our community. He encourages others by citing bee-keeping as an excellent source of supplemental income.

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What we can learn from bees
Gillespie has developed a profound respect and admiration for how bees operate and believes the African-American community can learn a lot from their behavior.“They’re communal. If you have a colony of bees, they become a colony that takes care of each other.” Gillespie said. “It would be great if our communities were like that.”

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