John Skinner is dressed like the government officials that invade Elliot's house in "E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial." As the suited man approaches a stack of wooden boxes, he hears an increasing volume that sounds much like the hum of a distant interstate.
The bee expert and University of Tennessee entomology professor squeezes his "smoker" to emit a smell that recalls nights around the campfire. The hum from inside each box becomes louder and busier as he approaches a colony that holds up to 50,000 honeybees.
Skinner joins at least 3,000 beekeepers that work in Tennessee. The Knox County Beekeepers, a club that began after World War II, is considered one of the strongest of the state's 22 bee associations, Skinner said.
Local honeybee enthusiasts and people around the country call Skinner for advice daily, he said.
Former Knox County Beekeepers president Bob Yost admires such knowledge. He said it sometimes seems that the honeybees themselves can even detect an amateur from a professional.
"You're in the presence of a creature and they've accepted you into their environment," Yost said. "It's like you've won the Nobel Prize."
The bees of the UT entomology department produced approximately 180 gallons of honey this year alone. The collected natural sweetener is kept in buckets stacked on the sticky floor of a small building nestled at the corner of the agricultural campus.
This honey will not only be used for breakfast biscuits. Rather, the bee venom can ease the pain of multiple sclerosis and arthritis. People have told Skinner that the bee sting therapy has "changed their lives."
For the most part honeybees have only one thing on their mind: honey. A forager bee automatically assumes a vigorous work schedule. Honeybee workers will take up to 10 million trips to make just one pound of honey. The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that honey production totaled 181 million pounds last year.
Barry Richards, president of the state beekeepers association, cited a now common saying: "You can no longer be a beehaver. You must be a beekeeper."
An estimated 200,000 colonies were in Tennessee in 1980. Twenty years later the numbers were down to 24,000.
You can find the queen by locating her entourage. These attendants not only feed and groom her, but also keep a constant monitor on the mother's performance.
"If she falls short," Yost said, "they will get rid of her."
When additional queens must be produced, workers will sometimes bite or pull the limbs of the failing head of household. If two new queens emerge, they may play their own game of sudden death.
Most species of bees kept in the United States are docile. They will only become aggressive in defense of their home or because of the loss of a queen.
The work they do during the rest of the year accounts for an estimated pollination value of $118.9 million each year in Tennessee, a statistic that excludes the value of non-crop agriculture like cattle's consummation of honeybee pollinated grasses and grains.
Honeybees play a role in producing one-third of the world's food supply.
Published: Fri Aug 20, 2004 | Modified: Sat Aug 06, 2005 06:17 p.m.