In the spring of 2017, Ethan Stone surprised his father with, “Dad, teach me about the bees.”
Ethan, now 13, may not have realized quite what he was in for.
“I never expected those words to come out of his mouth,” laughed his father, Doug Stone of Starkville. The certified forester and Internal Revenue Service officer thought his bee business days were behind him. He’d started Bee’s Best Honey in 1993, when he himself wasn’t much older than Ethan. It was a good side business, but Doug finally sold the enterprise in 2008, when his career required him to frequently be out of town.
“I sold it to Art Potter in Artesia, never dreaming I’d be buying it back one day,” Doug said. But buy back, he did.
Ethan’s interest had gotten Doug thinking. His two boys — son Russell, 11, has now gotten on board, too — would be looking for ways to earn some extra money before long. Why not bees?
“At their age, I knew they’d soon be doing something, whether it’s fast food or hauling feed sacks or fertilizer at the co-op,” Doug said. “Whether it’s honeybees, mowing yards, dog boarding, whatever, it’s about teaching work ethic. And starting your own small business is going to teach you the basics of work, income, expenses and finance.”
Ethan said, “I knew as I got older I’d want to find a job somewhere, and we’d always look through pictures of dad with the bees, and he was always telling me about the things he did when he was in bees … I thought, this looks like fun.”
Even Doug’s wife and the boys’ mom supported the idea of resurrecting the bee operation.
“It’s a great way for them to learn hands-on with their dad how hard work at something can achieve positive results,” said Jodi Stone, who homeschools the children. “Not all skills can be learned from a textbook. Jobs and responsibilities teach them about life.”
Like father, like son
Ethan’s enthusiasm to learn beekeeping reminded Doug of his own boyhood in Clinton. After earning his Eagle Scout rank, he had the time to pursue an interest in honeybees.
“I’d always been fascinated by them, and finally the right random interactions happened,” Doug said. The catalyst was a day he and his dad were in the little town of Bolton, in Hinds County.
“Actually, my dad was driving down the road and saw Russell Apiaries,” Doug said. “We made a U-turn, my dad knocked on the door and said, my son has always been interested in beekeeping.”
That’s how Doug met his mentor, J.N. Russell, who would go on to become almost like a grandfather. Russell has passed away now, but his willingness to teach a boy the wonders of honeybees helped inspire Doug to do the same for his own sons. Even if it meant pretty much starting over.
Putting things in motion
“It really takes about two years to get (a bee operation) up and running,” Doug said. But once they committed last spring, the Stone boys began cleaning up the old shop, building frames for bees and assembling and painting hive boxes.
Doug purchased 10 nucs from Harry Fulton’s BigBee Valley Apiaries in Brooksville. Nucs — nucleus colonies — are similar to starter hives. This spring, he added 15 more. As the hives expand, the Stones make splits, creating new hives and growing the operation.
“The Year One hives, we’re just nurturing them to be strong and healthy, letting them build up as fast as possible. We’re just trying to say, ‘Grow, bees.’ Year Two is where we get all the bang for the buck,” he said.
He and the boys expect to extract several hundred gallons of honey in September. That process will be a real test for the beekeepers-in-training.
“It’s hot and physical. It’s intense,” said Doug. “And it’s just like farming any other crop; there’s weather, rain, temperature and other variables. You have bumper crops some years, average other years and poor the next. You’re riding that roller coaster of ups and downs. … It’s very rewarding to make that dollar — but it’s not the easiest way to make a dollar.”
Even so, Ethan is looking forward to it. “It’s good to see how it all works,” he said. “It’s pretty similar to farming: You go out in the field, you farm the product, bring it back to the shop and then to whatever business it goes to.”
If Doug had early reservations, they were eased one day after he and Ethan finished an hour or more working in the deafening buzz of thousands of bees.
“The very first words Ethan said were, ‘Dad, that was cool. I believe I’m gonna be hearing bees buzz in my sleep,'” Doug said. “That really stuck out to me; they were the same words I’d said to J.N. Russell when I was young.”
As for 11-year-old Russell, he’s getting used to the bee suit. “I look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow man when I put it on,” he said with a grin. He already has a good eye for spotting the queen in a teeming hive. That’s usually a skill that takes lots of training.
“I like finding the queen and looking at all the bees — there’s tons of them, thousands!” said Russell, adding that he also likes the idea of raising money to take on vacations and for college.
All in the family
Today, father and sons are tending 62 hives in five bee yards in Lowndes County and expanding. They distribute the past season’s honey to wholesale customers including Starkville Cafe and Oktibbeha County Co-op, plus Brown’s Farm Supply, Glenn’s Barbecue and Baldwin Produce in Columbus, and restaurants in the Jackson area including Roosters and The Feathered Cow.
It’s all an exercise in teaching a couple of young men about work and life.
“That was my goal, to try to put a taste in their mouth and see if they wanted to run with it,” Doug said. His hope is to gradually turn Bee’s Best Honey over to the boys. “But I’ll always be in the background helping them. That’s the way my father was. I couldn’t have done my bee business without him helping me, and Jodi, too, especially at extracting time. You call in the family.”
Even the Stones’ daughter, Annelise, is catching the buzz. She’ll be 5 in August and has her own little bee suit.
“She’s been right there, looking at bees, just developing a level of comfort,” said her dad.
“Doug and I are honored with the gift of sharing in these experiences with all of them,” Jodi shared. “Our kids are a daily and lifelong Father’s Day — and Mother’s Day — gift.”
Even at 13 and 11, Ethan and Russell seem to understand there is something special about what is unfolding.
“My dad used to do it, and now I’m carrying on the family business,” said Russell.
His elder brother Ethan added, “When you get older, you can say we were in a family business. Not everybody these days can say that. I think that’s pretty cool.”
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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