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Brown bag lunch abuzz with information

By Staff | Aug 28, 2015

Mike Austin was the special guest speaker at SAIL’s (Shepherdstown Area Independent Living) brown bag luncheon on Friday.

Austin, and his wife, Bonnie, are well-known in the Shepherdstown area for their involvement in the Garden Club, Community Club, Cafe Society and as the proprietors of Duchess Honey.

Austin was speaking to a gathering of around 30 SAIL members about a topic he is clearly passionate about–honeybees. Austin referred to his subject matter as a “marvelous, phenomenal topic.”

Raised on a farm in Washington state, Austin grew up with an appreciation for animals and wildlife.

Just after high school, he was working for the U.S. Forest Service near Mount Rainier as a fire lookout. He spent his summer months that year walking in the woods and observing wildlife and insects. When Austin wasn’t scanning long distances through binoculars, he would turn them upside down and admire nature up close, making sketches of what he saw. This grew into a life-long passion for him, which still occupies much of his time.

Austin later joined the Navy followed by years of employment with FEMA. In his many travels all over the world, he enjoyed looking at how other communities would keep bees.

“The beekeeping process reflects the different cultures in how they view things and their materials using what they have to work with,” Austin said.

In 2005, Austin started his own beekeeping journey by way of a free class offered in Boonsboro, Maryland.

Many people lump wasps, hornets, yellow jackets and others together with honeybees, and perceive them as a nuisance, but Austin reminded attendees that honeybees have always been a valuable part of our society providing food and means of income for people for centuries.

Honeybees have so many astounding features. Not only do their hives run like a spotless well-oiled machine with better job delineation than a large corporation, but the efficiency and elaborate communication of the hive, makes bees nature’s most economical builders.

“When things are going well, the hive hums,” said Austin. “It’s a harmonic you can hear.”

Honeybees have an exquisite navigational system. Able to recognize their routes to food sources, bees travel as far as two to three miles to obtain nectar and pollinate, and have the ability to distinguish fragrances, shapes and colors.

Everyone knows these amazing creatures create a powerhouse elixir. Honey has been the subject of literary works from the Bible to poetry, movies to childrens’ books. It’s unique chemistry makes it the only food that will never go bad if stored properly. In fact, honey has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, unspoiled. Honey is antibacterial and an antiseptic, used for medicinal purposes, like treating coughs, skin problems, wound care, gastric maladies and to lessen the effects of seasonal allergies.

Honey is anti-inflammatory and rich in antioxidants. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic note that honey may be an inexpensive way to counteract the loss of white blood cells due to chemotherapy in cancer patients.

It’s tasty too–just ask Winnie the Pooh.

The plight of the honeybee has been in the news lately, and people are paying a lot more attention to these beneficial insects.

A multitude of crops are at least partially dependent on honeybees, and when beekeepers noticed a 40 percent die-off in hives over the last year, the alarm over Colony Collapse Disorder was raised.

Over the past several years, scientists have been trying to pinpoint causes of the decline in the honeybee population. Austin cited their adulterated food sources, pesticides and Varroa mites from Asia as three prominent factors.

Consider the economic factor of $15-30 billion annually for the farming industry as well. Bees are sought-after pollinators for 100 crop species, and if the decline in bee population continues, a rise in prices for domestic fruits, vegetables and nuts is inevitable.

However, beekeepers like Austin encourage more people to learn about bees and consider having hives of their own to help sustain local bee populations for now.

As author, Henry David Thoreau said, “The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams.”

Planting flowers and vegetables without the use of pesticides, can attract bees and provide a good food source, while helping your own garden to thrive.

Local Duchess Honey can be purchased in many venues around Shepherdstown, or directly from the apiary located at 75 Howard Farm Road, Shepherdstown.

Call 304-876-0598 or email Mike Austin for more information at michael.austin@frontiernet.net.