Professional photographer Cary Norton nurtures a drop of the $15 billion pollination value that hard working honeybees contribute to U.S. agriculture.
Beekeepers Cary Norton and wife Stephanie Masters-Norton were amazed to learn the complex and even democratic ways that bees do business.
Professional photographer Cary Norton earns his living by taking captivating pictures of what he sees through a camera lens, whether it is people, places or things. But nothing captivates Norton any more than what he sees in his sideline activity of beekeeping.
“I really enjoy photography and couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” the 36-year-old Norton says. “But I could talk for ages about beekeeping. It’s a fascinating hobby. Every time we go to the hives it seems like we learn something new, and the more we learn the more amazing the bees become.”
After graduating from Samford University in 2002, Norton headed to London and spent a year living what he calls the “early 20s dream of having a terrible job, living in a terrible place and traveling like there’s no tomorrow.” His travels took him through much of Europe, and a subsequent job took him to different parts of Iraq.
Upon his return to the States, Norton sold cameras for a year and honed his photography skills, slowly building his own business in Birmingham. His client list now includes various organizations and magazines, including Business Alabama.
Call it fate that, at some point along the way, Norton shot some 8mm footage of his grandfather working with honeybees. A segment of that footage was used in the 2010 movie “Queen of the Sun,” an acclaimed documentary about the enormous contributions honeybees make to the environment and agriculture.
Norton received a copy of the movie, and watching it was an immediate game changer for him, his wife, Stephanie, and a friend, Jillian Woodruff. “Before the movie was over, we were looking up classes to attend to see how we could start a hive and learn how to keep bees,” he says. “The Birmingham Botanical Gardens offers a class each year, and we were just in time for that. We took the class in early 2011 and got our first hive around April of that year.”
“Queen of the Sun” tells of the disappearance of millions of honeybee colonies in recent years. That’s a particularly disturbing development, since as much as 40 percent of the food we eat is pollinated by bees, mostly honeybees. That includes almonds, avocados, blueberries, blackberries, cantaloupes, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers, sunflowers, watermelons, apples, peaches, pears and other crops. The pollination is all in addition to the honey that they make.
Studies have estimated the direct value of honeybee pollination to U.S. agriculture at $15 billion annually.
Honeybee populations have been slowly building back up, but the Nortons and Woodruff are committed to their protection. “We are doing our part to protect honeybees,” Norton says. “It’s good for them and the environment around them.”
The trio is blown away with each visit to their honeybee hives, seeing first hand where the cliché “busy as a bee” comes from. A typical hive is home to anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 honeybees — creatures that weigh next to nothing, usually measure about a half-inch in length and are capable of beating their wings as many as 230 times a second.
They can travel about three miles from their hive in search of nectar on plants and flowers, from which they make honey. On their nectar-foraging forays, the bees pick up pollen from one plant and transfer it to the next plant they visit while picking up more nectar in a repeating process. They take some of the pollen back to the hive and use it, along with honey they make from the nectar, for food.
It takes roughly 2 million plant visits for honeybees to make one pound of honey. An average worker bee makes only a fraction of a tablespoon of honey during her lifetime. Virtually every bee in a colony is a female, and they do all the work. Male drones basically mate with the queen and then die.
“The males are essentially useless except for mating,” Norton says. “They can’t even feed themselves. The females have to feed them.”
Honeybees have a sort of democratic government, and they can vote to replace a queen bee if she is not performing to expectations. Or if they want to move to another location, they will send out scouts to find a new home and then vote on where to move. “They have a democratic process, for lack of a better term, on something like where they are going to live,” Norton says. “Are you kidding me?”
A typical honeybee hive is a study in group discipline, construction excellence and teamwork efficiency. And the individual capabilities are astonishing. The queen, for example, can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day, which is more than her body weight. “That’s insane,” Norton says. “It’s remarkable. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
The Nortons and Woodruff now have seven beehives, and they are bringing in more than peanuts from honey sales. That money has been used to buy additional beekeeping equipment and materials, “so it’s not like we’ve really made any money on it,” Norton says.
The three had a logo developed by Birmingham designer Winslow Taft when they first started selling honey, and they are in the process of setting up a limited liability corporation for their beekeeping activities. But, for now at least, it’s strictly a small sideline interest.
“We’re hobbyists,” Norton says. “We all have regular jobs that take up the majority of our time.”
Norton recalls that his grandfather loved working with bees and did it into his 90s. “I didn’t really get into it until my grandfather was fading,” he says. “But knowing him and knowing me, I would say there are probably two elements about beekeeping he and I would say are most rewarding.
“One, you really have a family bond with tens of thousands of bees, and you really care about taking care of them. There is something fascinating about working with them every time I see them — everything about them, it’s hard not to fall in love with them. They make their way into you.
“And, second, is that you’re always learning. It’s always interesting. People are scared of bees, and I wish they weren’t. Offhand, I can’t think of a profession or interest that beekeeping wouldn’t appeal to — architecture, painter, writer, anything. The way they build their stuff, the way they communicate, the beautiful honey they make, they are just amazing. If anyone has an interest in beekeeping at all, they should look into it.”
Charlie Ingram and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Birmingham.