On a recent afternoon, the beekeeper Buck Hildreth walked out the back door of his home and down his driveway to a white cabinet near the road that runs in front of his house.
Hildreth looked down at the eight Mason jars in a line across the top of the cabinet. He picked up one of the jars and held it up to the light.
The contents glowed golden amber, like some magic elixir. Honey. Pure honey.
After 30-plus years of keeping bees, Hildreth, 90, is hanging up his smoker.
At one time, Hildreth tended 48 colonies of honeybees. That number has dwindled to three. A bacterial infection that sent him to the hospital just before Thanksgiving has brought a reluctant end to a beloved pastime.
For those three decades (he’s not sure exactly when he began, sometime in the 80s), Hildreth has sold his honey from this modest stand. His marketing plan is spelled out in hardware-store adhesive letters on its front: “Pure Honey,” “Honor System,” “$10.”
When he started, Hildreth sold a quart of local honey for $4. At $10, he is well below market; a quart brings between $12 and $20 retail.
Hildreth’s initial foray into beekeeping was discouraging. After the flood of ’73 destroyed his home on Lincoln Road, Hildreth and his wife, Neola, built on family land off Highway 69 South. Soon after, he bought two hives.
There is a saying among beekeepers that the beekeeper doesn’t choose the bees; the bees choose the beekeeper.
Hildreth’s first bees chose to leave. He put the idea of beekeeping aside.
Then James Thomas, who worked with Hildreth at Gunter Funeral Home, called. He needed help extracting. Thomas sold his honey from a stand on the sidewalk along 13th Street North using the same “honest box” marketing technique Hildreth uses. In fact, the stand in front of Hildreth’s belonged to Thomas. Thomas helped Hildreth get back into beekeeping, eventually bequeathing his hives to him.
Beekeepers, in my experience, are a frugal lot. Bees can do unexpected things at inconvenient times. They swarm, which requires more hive boxes immediately, which can require improvisation.
For Hildreth that beekeeper frugality extends to his speech.
When I asked him what he liked best about beekeeping, he said, “All of it.”
With some prodding, Hildreth said, “I enjoyed every minute of it. Of course it’s been hard work — it’s not a one-day-a-week job.”
Not one to sugarcoat, Hildreth told a would-be beekeeper who called for advice, “If you want to work hard and spend money, do it.”
He never heard from the man again.
When I was a fledgling beekeeper, Hildreth was generous (as most beekeepers tend to be) with his time and knowledge, answering my questions and even showing me around his bee yard.
His relationship with the industrious insects hasn’t been all sweetness and light. A man called about bees in a log.
“Those bees were so mean. You just say ‘good morning’ and they were on you.”
Bees can be temperamental, Hildreth said.
“They know you. They do. You go down there sweaty with bad breath, that’s when trouble begins.”
We are sitting at the kitchen table in the house swapping beekeeping stories, Buck, Neola and me. On Dec. 22 they will have been married 63 years. Buck is wearing a plaid shirt and fresh overalls. He’s a veteran, 30 years in the Army and National Guard.
I ask how the honest box system has worked over the years.
“Pretty good,” he said. About every two to three months, someone steals honey.
“One Halloween night, they cleaned him out,” Neola said.
I ask if they eat much honey. Neola shakes her head.
“Every day,” says Buck, “on toast, biscuits and vanilla ice cream.”
People are fascinated by bees, beekeeping and honey, we agree.
“It’s an irresistible subject,” Hildreth said. “As long as you’re talking bees, they never quit.”
Like disappearing bees, Hildreth fears the same is happening with beekeepers.
“You know when McArthur told Congress old soldiers never die, they just fade away. That’s the way beekeepers are doing. You don’t see many young beekeepers.”
As I’m standing by the back door of their kitchen saying good-bye, I glance out into Hildreth’s carport.
Boxes of empty quart jars are stacked along the walls.
Before leaving, I walk out to the stand by the road. Eight jars of honey glowing in the afternoon light. The produce of thousands of honeybees and a single man.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.