Little did Jim Dempster know when he relocated from Minneapolis to Raleigh that he would one day find himself responsible for a community consisting of more than a million residents. As the Apiary Manager at Bayer’s Eastern Technology Station (affectionately known as “Beesboro”) in Clayton, NC, Jim is responsible not only for conducting scientific research on its 24 colonies of honey bees, but also for maintaining the colonies’ health through the good times and the bad.
“I concentrated on business and marketing at the University of Minnesota, so there was nothing in my educational background that prepared me for the work I do today,” notes Jim. “But about 25 years ago, I met a friend who was into backyard beekeeping and that really got me interested.” Like many hobbyists who catch the beekeeping bug, Jim quickly learned that passion does not necessarily lead to perfection when it comes to raising bees. Luckily, he found a local beekeeping organization to help him learn more about how to properly care for his hives and soon after, his life would change.
It was in one of these local beekeeping meetings that Jim heard a guest speaker talk about building a state-of-the-art facility designed specifically to promote honey bee research, develop education partnerships, support stewardship and pursue solutions to improve colony health. After the presentation, Jim introduced himself to the speaker, Dick Rogers of Bayer. “We had a ten-minute conversation about bees and I guess I must have seemed pretty enthusiastic, because two months later Dick offered me a job at the Clayton apiary,” Jim recalls. “It started out as part-time, but soon became full-time following the construction of the Eastern Technology Research Station.”
With an emphasis on research and proper hive management, Jim’s work is designed to see how colonies can overcome the stress of dealing with the many factors that affect bee health. Perhaps the most important stressor is one familiar to any beekeeper – the invasive parasite known as the Varroa mite – which weakens colonies by feeding directly on the bees and by the transmission of deadly diseases. “One of our biggest challenges is to maintain a sufficient level of mites for research purposes, while also trying to keep the hive alive,” says Jim. “We’ve been very successful at this and have managed to keep our seasonal losses below ten percent over the past five years, despite some very high mite infestations.”
While hive research and management are the focus of his job, the joy of simply observing bees is what brought Jim to beekeeping and remains with him today. One of his favorite observations is the “red queen” (a queen marked with a red dot and numbered for tracking purposes). A few years ago, Jim acquired a red-dotted queen from a feral colony to add to one of his personal hives that needed a new queen. “That queen apparently didn’t like my home, because she soon flew away,” he says. “Surprisingly, we found her swarm in ‘Beesboro’ and got her settled into one of our research hives. Because her colony grew so quickly, we moved her to the home of Tony Avent, a well-known gardener, author and public speaker.” Even in a reduced colony, the red queen continued to increase the number of bees extremely fast and so was moved again to Jim’s backyard. “Within a month, she decided she had had enough, swarmed and vanished,” laughed Jim. “We tracked her moves over one-and-a-half years, so I’m hoping her offspring won’t have the same restless spirit!”
When Jim’s not managing bee colonies, he enjoys visiting his two children in Colorado. As for hobbies, he wouldn’t exactly call himself a gardener. “I’m more of a digger of holes,” he jokes, “and my wife keeps me busy digging them. I’ll bet she knows every landscaping outfit within a five-county area.” Whether it’s planting ornamentals or seeking solutions to improve bee health, it looks like Jim will keep on digging for the foreseeable future.