Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Weekend at Bud’s

“The dog has always been thought of as man’s best friend. Man’s best friend is the honeybee.”
— Alan Buckley, Ft. Payne, Ala.

Each April for the past five years a small but devoted group has gathered in a remote corner of Noxubee county for three days of food, fellowship and … beekeeping

Story Birney Imes | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

“Hey, that guy there is The Bee Whisperer.”

The pronouncement comes from a large, shirtless man reared back in a leather recliner. The bottoms of his bare feet are blackened with dirt; the only article of clothing he is wearing is a stained pair of khaki cargo shorts with a tired elastic waistband. The voice has a slurred syrupiness found only in the South; this one is tinged with mirth. Meet Bud Watt.

He’s the lord of this manor, such as it is.

It’s a Sunday morning, the second weekend in April, and it is raining. About two dozen men and women move between the darkened living room, front porch and yard of Watt’s brick ranch-style house. Those outside have taken refuge under a stand of oaks at the edge of a woods. They share the space with stacks of wooden boxes resembling milk crates, an assortment of displaced outhouses and two or three battered deer stands.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Welcome to the final day of Bud 5, a gathering of friends who met through the Internet and share a common passion for the “Apis mellifera,” more commonly known as the honeybee. For five years they have converged here in this remote corner of Noxubee County. Most have come from the Southeast, others from as far away as Oregon and Pennsylvania. For three days they have told stories, shared food and drink and taken part in various beekeeping exploits devised by their host.

Bud Watt is one of those improbable characters who have always populated the rural South and who could exist nowhere else. Shaped by the contours of a world where change is imperceptable, they are the product of a time and place.

For Bud that place is Cooksville, a smattering of houses, farms and deer camps at the eastern edge of this rural county. The son of a farmer and a mother who loved to hunt deer and quail, Watt lives next door to the house in which he grew up. Everyone in these parts knows Bud, and he them. His talk reveals a storyteller’s gift for detail and humor.

“For five years I was a teacher and coach at Noxubee High,” he explains. “The national average for a teacher is five years, and I didn’t want to mess up the national average.”

He then went into the cattle business but says it was boring. Same for catfish.

“Then I started playing with bees, and I never did get bored with bees,” he says. “You know, they are mostly women, and I don’t ever get tired of women.”

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Some here are novice beekeepers — “newbies,” Bud chuckles knowingly (a label he has done his best to erase over the past two days) — others manage hundreds of hives. The pool of knowledge here is deep; the things these men and women know about bees would cause those who write books on the subject to scratch their heads in wonder.

“They have an approach to life that’s all their own,” the Whisperer is saying. He’s Alan Buckley, an EMT from Ft. Payne, Ala. If anyone, he should know. He’s been studying bees for 40 years.

He’s just told a story about his hives being harassed by Japanese hornets. The honeybees didn’t know how to defend themselves and were facing annihilation.

“They have their own form of intelligence,” Buckley explains.

The Whisperer stepped on a hornet, stunning it, and put it in one of his beehives.

“The bees figured out where they could sting the hornet so it would kill him, and then they communicated it to the other hives.”

If that were the only story told this weekend about the honeybee bordering on the fantastic, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking it farfetched. But there are plenty more like it.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

“How can you not fall in love with that kind of genius,” says Tammy Muldrow, in another conversation about bees.

Tammy’s husband Brian grew up in a beekeeping household in Beaumont, Texas. When he left home at 18, his father had 4,000 hives. As far as Brian was concerned, beekeeping was a permanent fixture in his rearview mirror.

Twenty-five years later he met Tammy. They moved back to Beaumont and bought a building to live in. As it happened, the ground floor had bees living in a wall. When the time came for Brian to remove the bees, he called his wife.

“He made the mistake of saying, ‘Watch this, honey,’” Tammy says.

It was love at first sight.

“Like any sane man he said ‘no’ at first,” Tammy recalls. But like any sane man, Brian relented. The Muldrows are building toward 500 hives. “I want to do this for the rest of my life,” she says.

A stream of news reports in recent years on declining populations (Colony Collapse Disorder) has led to heightened awareness and concern about the role honeybees play in the food chain. That and an increased emphasis on locally produced food, has spawned a backyard beekeeping movement.

Some of these new beekeepers are urban professionals like Michael and Liz Hosp, who live in the Little Five Points section of Atlanta. Five years ago when a neighbor wanted to get rid of his hives, Michael and Liz said yes. Honey they don’t consume, they give away. One of the beneficiaries of the Hosps’ largesse is the 7-year-old asthmatic son of a friend. Since becoming a regular consumer of local honey, the child only takes his $300-a-month medication in emergencies.

The pollen in local honey is thought to help mitigate allergic reactions.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Talk to beekeepers about their relationship with their bees and you begin to question just who keeps whom.

“It’s addictive,” says Bruce “Schawee” Scharwath, a Cajun and former raccoon hunter from Paulina, La., who was introduced to beekeeping when a hive took up residence in his deer stand. “I had 90 hives, but I lost 47 in Hurricane Isaac. I’m back up to 55 or so. Probably will get up to 100 by fall.”

Along with Watt and another Louisianian, Jeffrey Paul Armstrong or “J.P.,” Schawee is one of the organizers of this event, and its chief cook. For the midday meal he has prepared a sauce piquante (pronounced “sos pee-kont”), a savory, spicy Cajun stew served over rice. This year’s version features venison; last year it was alligator meat.

Armstrong runs a family-owned pest control company based in Metairie, La. J.P., as he prefers, specializes in bee removal. For more complex jobs he calls on his friend Schawee for help. (J.P. and Schawee met at Bud 2. “It took about 30 seconds, and I realized we were kind of like long-lost brothers,” J.P. recalls.)

The two call themselves The Bickering Beekeepers. They have a set of YouTube videos documenting their bee removal exploits. One such video entitled, “JP & Schawee Try Not To Melt While Removing Bees,” shows the two Cajuns standing in front of a small brick outbuilding. JP is talking: “Hey folks, it’s J.P. and Schawee. It’s Tuesday, June 14, I believe. We’re down here in southeast Louisiana and it’s hotter than the devil’s crotch … with just as much steam.”

By afternoon the rain has subsided and like foragers leaving the hive, the beekeepers have taken flight, headed back to their towns and families, their jobs and responsibilities. A year from now many of them will return to this far-flung place where again they will shed social standing, political leanings and personality differences. Once more, for a weekend at least, they will become a laughing group of men and women united by their love and reverence for this curious and industrious insect, the honeybee.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.

Photographed by Whitten Sabbatini.