Written by Frank Stickney and photos by Stephen Savage and Frank Stickney
Sometimes fate just flies into your life, finds a hole in your house, and builds a hive in your walls. And by “fate” I mean bees, of course. Because that is exactly what happened to Becka and Brandon Hargraves, the hardworking duo whose livelihood is built on the backs of those very same bees (or their cousins, perhaps). B’s Bees LLC is the Hargraves’ family business, a holistic operation that provides honeybee removal and relocation services, which in turn generates the “raw materials” to operate a bustling apiary. Those two complementary elements are personified by Becka and Brandon, the origin of the B’s in the company name.
To document what life is like for a couple of bee entrepreneurs here on the Eastern Shore, I asked photographer Stephen Savage to join me on a steamy Friday afternoon to meet the Hargraves at B’s Bees headquarters in Loxley. Planning a mid-July photo shoot outdoors in Lower Alabama isn’t easy—you’re either melting in Deep South heat and humidity or dodging lightning bolts between monsoon showers.
I showed up early and was warmly received by Becka, whom I know by way of my wife, Maggie. We caught up for a bit, and soon Brandon pulled up in his work truck with a trailer in tow covered in wooden boxes filled with honey and buzzing with bees. The Hargraves’ friend and co-worker Ashley came out of the nearby building and helped Brandon unload the boxes, allowing me to ask Becka and Brandon to tell me their beekeeping origin story.
Many years ago, the Hargraves were minding their own beeswax on their two-acre gem of prime Alabama country, just a stone’s throw from I-10 and Highway 59. At the time, the two didn’t work in any bee-adjacent industries, but they were caught up in the homesteading movement and growing their own produce. To increase their garden’s yield, they planted a delicious buffet of plants specifically to roll out the red carpet for pollinators.
The Hargraves were a bit too successful, and before long an exterior wall of their kitchen became the new home of an active bee colony. The couple sought professional help to remove their unexpected housemates with an eye towards the bees’ wellbeing—after all, they were the ones who’d invited the bees in the first place. So rather than contact “pest exterminators,” they reached out to professional beekeepers willing to provide an “extraction,” the careful removal and relocation of the entire honeybee colony to a proper new hive. They learned that while some beekeepers will extract honeybees, they’ll also leave behind a big messy hole for the homeowners to patch and clean once they’re gone. Not interested in inviting someone to damage their home, Becka and Brandon switched gears and decided to DIY the extraction, a life-altering decision which was the genesis of their entrepreneurial partnership.
These days Brandon handles most of the bee extractions and making the rounds to their beehives scattered throughout the county. Becka focuses on their apiary, which not only processes honey and beeswax products for retail, but also the production and sale of “nucs” (rhymes with “nukes”) a.k.a. “nucleus colonies”—small boxes with all the crucial colony ingredients for newbie beekeepers.
Becka considers that first swarm of bees that entered their lives to have been a sign. Honeybees became her passion: she attended every seminar and lesson she could throughout the region, joined the Baldwin County Beekeepers Association in Summerdale and eventually served as its president for three years. And all along the way, Becka was gaining hands-on experience and expanding their apiary by providing local bee extractions.
But the physical and technical challenges of deconstructing buildings to remove unwanted hives meant Becka regularly tapped her husband for assistance, whose previous experience in construction was indispensable when offering homeowners the kind of minimal property destruction he and Becka sought and never found from other beekeepers. Repairing homes post-extraction sets B’s Bees apart from the competition. When it comes to standing on a ladder with power tools overhead, Brandon’s height and strength are clearly an advantage too. He eventually stopped working his other jobs and joined Becka beekeeping fulltime.
Becka’s love for the educational role beekeepers play led her to pursue and recently achieve the Alabama Beekeepers Associations’ ”Master Beekeeper” status. One of the primary responsibilities is speaking to all sorts of organizations and clubs throughout the area, sharing her knowledge and encouraging the appreciation for and protection of honeybees. But Becka’s favorite audience is children; she’ll take any opportunity she can get to speak to kids about bees. “They ask the best questions.”
Stephen and I followed Becka as she prepared to inspect some of the hives, donning mesh hoods to protect our heads and torsos from stings. She lit a handful of soft shredded pine straw and stuffed it into her smoker, a can with bellows that puff out clouds of bee-calming smoke.
“I use smoke when opening the hives,” Becka says. “The smoke helps mask the alarm pheromone, and it keeps them calm. They think their house is on fire! Their defense mechanism is to save the honey, so they start eating it—they’re really busy engorging themselves with honey and not paying that much attention to you.”
Removing the top off of one of the smaller “nuc” hives (short for “nucleus”), Becka whipped out her “hive tool”—a flat metal multi-tool used to pry apart the sticky frames that hold the combs, with a scraping end for removing excess wax, a material that bees produce called “propolis,” and the occasional black widow spider. She then pulled a few wooden frames out of the hive to show us the colony in action. A ”small hive beetle” scuttled away, a common pest whose larvae can take over in the comb, consuming brood, pollen, and honey while causing honey to ferment and “sliming out” the hive. But Becka explains that the greater risk to the bees is a much smaller foe: the Varroa destructor mite, a parasite frequently cited as the cause of “CCD,” or ”Colony Collapse Disorder,” in which most of a colony’s worker bees suddenly disappear, abandoning the queen and her brood.
Our hive tour was cut short by the arrival of another swarming event. Becka set up a ladder beneath the small oak tree where the bees were congregating, scurrying up to the top with a box. When collecting a swarm, beekeepers look closely for a queen bee, who they hope is buried inside the protective “ball” of worker bees. Illustrating how unaggressive the bees are, Becka slowly inserts her bare hand into the undulating clump, scooping away a handful of bees and casually shaking them off like liquid into the box. She says that if she can get enough bees into the box, the rest will follow. After a bit more collecting, Becka takes out a frame and identifies the queen, gently prodding at it with her index finger to make it easier for us newcomers to spot the subtle differences between the queen and the thousands of similar bees around us. Later on, I found Brandon at the extraction site already unloading gear from his truck and setting up shop in the little screened-in porch. Brandon used a thermal imaging camera to identify the precise spot in the wall where the bees resided, cut away the baseboard, and carefully pried off a full section of wallboard, revealing an impressive bee colony about five feet square. “Because right now there’s not that much food out there in nature for the bees, it’s difficult to get them to leave,” he explains. “They’ve gotta make it about another month. If they need more honey we’ll just take some frames from a big, strong established hive of ours and give it to them. It’s a little hive manipulation. It’s one of my favorite things to do—I feel like Robin Hood.”
After a brief transition pause to let the bees settle down, Brandon placed a couple frames on the ground to collect any honey that might spill out. He used a utility knife to methodically cut out sections of comb just the right size to fit within his frames, deliberately arranging the pieces to maintain the of colony layout. He then slowly wrapped rubber bands around the frame to hold the cut combs in place, weaving in and out of bees or nudging them aside. Later he captured the colony’s queen, the errant bees were evacuated, and the wall patched whole again.
Throughout the day I felt oddly at peace inside the swarm of bees churning around my (protected) head. There’s something hypnotic about the swirling and buzzing of tiny flying objects softly obscuring the details of reality. Maybe it was being so clearly outnumbered by a superorganism that, if it chose, could drop the full force of its collective venom upon me. Or it could just be the peace of being in the presence of experienced beekeepers exemplifying how to hold oneself in order to keep the bees (and therefore me) at ease. And having power in numbers is really helpful. I was reminded of our conversation earlier in the day when I was telling Becka and Brandon how cool it was that they fell into beekeeping together. Becka added, “Yes, we’re very blessed, we both love the bee.”