At nearly 96, Carlton Bearden is Alabama’s oldest living beekeeper. He grew up in Vincent, AL, attended Vincent High School. In February of 1983, he retired for the first time after working 31 years and purchased three beehives—both for his enjoyment and, of course, for the honey. This was the start of his love for keeping bees just like his father before him.
He met his wife at Jackson Lake, and they were together for three months before getting married in 1944. Her brothers said the marriage would never last, but the two were married for sixty-eight years and had four children together before she passed away in 2012. Although she disapproved of his bees, Bearden enjoyed caring for them. He said she constantly asked him when he would get rid of the hives, to which he simply responded, “I don’t know.” Currently, Bearden has thirteen hives at his home in Sterrett, where he has been living since 1960.
Through Bearden’s years of beekeeping, he has had his fair share of ups and downs. He says that the first few years of keeping them were not very profitable, but he did not let that stop him. He has had mites, which kill bees, and hive beetles, which force the bees to leave. However, back in 1988, he gathered 450 quarts of honey from twenty-five hives, which he sold for three dollars a quart.
Carlton Bearden is also one of Alabama’s most resourceful beekeepers. He almost never buys a honey jar, and he is proud of it. “All of my jars are gifts to me. I hadn’t bought but about four dozen jars since I started the bee business.” He is thankful for the jars, and he does not take the gifts for granted, as beekeeping comes with many expenses. He saves a lot of money by making all of his wooden frames. Behind the bright yellow door to his shop, Bearden stores dozens of old frames, almost all of which will be reused. He also makes money by selling his wax after removing the debris and melting it down. He built his honey house himself, and his workshop, and he also maintains a wildflower garden for the bees. He said that, when in bloom, there are many different varieties of flowers from which the bees may choose. And his shelves are stocked full of jars—both empty and full of honey. Though honey can only be collected between the months of March and June, he still retains enough to store shelves-worth of it. He makes sure to leave the bees about eighty pounds of honey in order for them to make it through the winter, but he will feed them sugar water if need be.
He also does other woodworking projects, and he loves giving his children his handmade gifts, such as beautifully crafted trays.
He enjoys helping others with their hives, as well, and when one of his fellow members of the Shelby County Beekeepers Association was injured, Bearden was quick to help by working his hives for him. He has also assisted many people in catching bee swarms, where he sprays the bees with water and, after they fall into a large drum, transports them to a new location.
He says that the bees are a blessing to him, although he has been stung many times. But after his years of beekeeping, he barely feels it. In fact, he said he would much rather be stung by a bee than, for example, bitten by a fire ant, since the pain of a bee sting is temporary, but an ant’s bite continues to hurt.
Bearden is a strong Christian who attends Vincent First Baptist Church. Every morning, he wakes up, eats breakfast, thanks the Lord for his food, for the day, and for his church, and he reads his Bible, which he has now read through four or five times. “Lots of people read the Bible. Lots of people don’t study the Bible,” he said. As the chaplain of the Shelby County Beekeepers Association, he prays at each of their meetings, considering it a privilege.
When asked what honeybees can teach us about God, Bearden responded that they teach us about His creation. “God made bees, and He made you and I. A little creature like that can make honey. We can’t make honey,” he said, laughing. He said that honeybees show people how God has a plan for everything, and uses tiny creatures to do something great such as provide humans with food. He enjoys watching the bees bring pollen into their hives, and emphasized that every bee has its own job and none of them are lazy. While the tiny creatures may only live between sixty and ninety days, they do a lot in that timespan, and we can definitely seek to learn from them.
By: Lindsay Culpepper and Kate Petersen
Photograph by Jake Marvin
This summer, a select group of students at Evangel Classical Christian School in Alabaster, AL was proud to partner with the Shelby County Beekeeper Association for the pilot project of their Communication Corps. The Communication Corps seeks to give talented young writers and photographers at ECCS the opportunity to learn and practice producing journalistic pieces. The SCBA was gracious to extend an invitation to these young students to interview and profile several prominent beekeepers—from seasoned veterans to newcomers in the field. Led by ECCS teacher and writer in residence Karin Ballstadt, the students were excited to not only learn more about journalism, but learn about beekeeping—a profession and hobby not many of them had ever considered before. The ECCS Communication Corps would like to extend thanks to the SCBA for welcoming them in for a look behind the scenes.