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The buzz factor

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009
0602bees33Nick Hampshire and his beehives at Sunny Knoll Apiary in Gaston.
Nickolas Hampshire was a senior in high school when his father gave him $2,000 and an ultimatum: Turn your beekeeping hobby into a viable business, or you can’t graduate.

Since Nick was home-schooled, he didn’t have much choice.

“It was his senior project,” Bob Hampshire says. “I wanted him to learn how to get a business license, set up a business, run it and keep the books.” He admits he also wanted the honey.

So in 2006, Nick Hampshire founded Sunny Knoll Apiary, named after the 94-year-old farm in Gaston where he lives with his mother, father and nine siblings. He built a pollination business and recouped the $2,000 in the first year. Then he started selling honey through a co-op in Hillsboro. But he found his niche this year when he started selling natural hives to hobby beekeepers.

Interest in hobby beekeeping has spiked recently because of concern about domestic honeybee populations in Western countries, which have been declining since 2004 for reasons that are in dispute. (Climate change, mites and the heavy use of chemicals are among the speculated causes.) The resulting publicity has sparked an interest in backyard beekeeping. Unlike commercial beekeepers, hobbyists can take care of their bees without using chemicals, and Hampshire wants to teach them how. He sells Warre hives, considered more natural because they allow the bees to build their own comb, for $197 each and starter kits for $97 each. He’s sold about 80 hives and kits in the last three months. He maintains a website (thebeespace.net) about natural beekeeping that has had about 47,000 unique visitors since January.

Bees first arrived on the Sunny Knoll Farm when Hampshire was 12 or 13. They were kept on the farm property by friends who let young Nick tag along. “All the bees would be flying around your head and there is this huge, massive buzzing sound,” he says. “There’s nothing like it. It’s pretty awesome.”

But Hampshire, who is now 21, was bothered by the pesticides the beekeepers were using.

“I would always ask them, what are these chemicals you’re putting in the hives? And they would say, well, it’s recommended,” he says. “There’s a lot of information on how to keep bees, but it’s geared toward the frame beehive, it’s geared toward assuming that using chemicals is an option.”

Most beekeepers hate the thought of spraying chemicals into a box of bees, but that’s what commercial beekeepers must do to combat the devastating mites that showed up in the U.S. in 1984. The chemicals weaken the bees and build up in the wax. The mites can be prevented without using chemicals, but it requires time and attention that commercial beekeepers who keep thousands of hives can’t afford.

Hampshire says the problem is impossible to remedy without a complete reform of mass agriculture. But he wants to create a natural beekeeping movement that, little by little, could offset the damage done by commercial practices.

Hampshire is poised, articulate and so thoughtful that he seems dispassionate; but he’s obviously moved by compassion for bees and the humans who depend on them. He comes from a deeply Christian family but he doesn’t speak about God as much as he talks about the greater good.

“As a person I have to have a greater goal — to profit others, to provide value,” he says. “Making a successful business is important but it’s not the major driving force.”

Three years after his father gave him an A, Hampshire says Sunny Knoll Apiary is still in its building years. He spends about half his work week on the bee business and half on freelance web work. He launched a new website in June (warrebeehive.com) to sell his hives and kits and plans to start selling video, audio and PDF downloads in the next few months.

“This is the real thing. This is the thing that I’m going to take full term,” Hampshire says. “It’s something that I can not only pursue as a business but also pursue as my vision — a beehive in every back yard.”

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