New Bee-ginningsApril 2, 2021
By CHRISTINE STEPHENSON
The bees would have to wait.
The 8,000 or so bees arrived at their new home Sunday after being lugged all the way from Georgia. But they’d still have to wait another day or so.
The temperature was set to drop below 30 degrees that night, and after losing more bees this past winter than he’d ever lost in 62 years of beekeeping, Jerry Apple didn’t want to risk it.
“I love my bees,” he said. “I don’t want to do that to them.”
The past year had already been hard enough on Jerry, between nearly half of his bees freezing, navigating his small business through a pandemic, and losing his wife Alice, his best friend and ‘queen bee,’ as he called her.
These bees were arguably more important than a typical shipment. Jerry needed a win.
So he left them to sit in their boxes in his garage until the weather could warm up, went inside and called it a day.
Bees have been a constant in Jerry’s life for the majority of his 85 years.
In Dubois County, Jerry is known for his work. He’s the one who traveled to all the schools to talk to kids about beekeeping, the one who sold honey at the farmers market with his wife for years, the one that has signs at his home along Sixth Street in Jasper that read “fresh bee pollen” and “local honey for sale” and a beehive-shaped mailbox.
Even people from places outside the county, such as French Lick and Vincennes, have always told him, “You have the best honey,” he said.
Jerry has two main jobs as a beekeeper: to sell honey and to collect hives from people who want them removed from their property.
Beekeeping has been such an integral part of Jerry’s life that nearly every inch of his home reflects it. The dining room table is filled with mason jars to store honey. The kitchen has a small pantry specifically to store bottles of it. The floor mats, the fridge magnets, the clocks, the knick-knacks and even his cloth face masks are bee-themed.
Right outside are abandoned birdhouses and such that people around town called for him to remove. Jerry keeps the honeycomb skeletons that were stuck inside of them.
Pretty much every day, he uses honey in his coffee and oatmeal. He loves to slide punny phrases, such as, “don’t worry, bee happy” or “bee all that you can bee” into conversation.
He sees his bees as kids, he said. Some are shy and hardworking while others are always getting into trouble. And they may want to be independent, but he’s got to devote a lot of time to caring for them.
Things like pesticides and cold weather are always threatening bee colonies, but this year was especially bad, weather-wise. Even if it didn’t seem too bitterly cold to us, it had a devastating effect on them.
“We’d never had a winter like this,” Jerry said.
It can take a while to recover from something like that, he said. So Sunday’s new shipment of bees was a start of something new, an opportunity to put the past where it should be.
In Jerry’s life, there’s arguably only one thing more important to him than his bees. That’s his family, and especially his wife, Alice.
The two didn’t marry until later in their lives, in November 1993, but they spent their time together fiercely loving each other.
One of Jerry’s fondest memories of Alice is dancing with her at their grandson’s wedding a few years ago. Someone took a picture of it, and they loved it so much that they framed it.
Alice passed away in November 2020. Now, Jerry has a holographic cube of the photo sitting on the kitchen counter. He usually pats the top of the cube three or four times every day.
Every time he enters the kitchen, he imagines himself slow dancing with his wife right next to the fridge, just like she always loved to do.
“She’d always lock her fingers together behind my back so I couldn’t get away,” he said, laughing. “It was always hard to argue with her when she did that.”
Alice always helped with the beekeeping business, too. She was his right-hand man and his left-hand man, Jerry likes to say. The bottles of honey sitting in the pantry are still labeled with both their names.
She’d help bottle and sell the honey and would always invite customers inside to chat, never treating anyone like a stranger.
“It was never just, ‘Here’s the money, here’s the honey,’” Jerry said.
Jerry lives alone now. Luckily, he still has seven children, three-step children and a big family network to lean on. His daughter, Lisa Knebel, likes to come by and help bottle the honey. He’d be lost without her, he said.
He also has Dan Schroeder, another beekeeper who’s worked with him for the better part of the past decade.
“He does a lot of the things I’m too old to do now,” Jerry said. “He’s a real intellectual … you can tell he’s in it for the long haul.”
Still, his kids are adults that have lives of their own. On a typical day, Jerry will usually get calls or visits from several of them. But it’s not the same as living under the same roof as someone.
This past week, Jerry and his step-daughter Robin McDonald drove past the cemetery where Alice is buried. Jerry didn’t get out of the car because it was too cold and he wasn’t dressed warm, but Robin got out and left a marker at her mother’s grave.
Jerry couldn’t quite remember the exact wording, but it said something along the lines of this:
“God was ready for your wings, but my heart was not.”
It’s a warm and sunny Tuesday, which means it’s time to move the bees to their new home in Jerry’s backyard. It’s a little windier than ideal, but it’ll have to do.
Jerry and Dan are ready to don their suits and mesh veils.
When they’re let out of the boxes, some of the bees are going to escape and swarm around, confused by their new setting, Dan said. He has a smoker to calm them — the smoke makes them think there’s a fire, which changes their attitude and helps them realize they don’t need to attack anyone to protect the queen bee, he said.
Once they’re put in their hives, they’ll be given more sugar water to eventually start making honey. The bees that escaped in the transition will slowly be lured back by the queen’s pheromones. For now, the queen is in a small cage within the box to protect her.
“Then, in three days, we’ll come back and let the queen out of the cage,” Dan said, “and they’ll live happily ever after.”
Jerry can still hold his own, but Dan also does a significant amount of the work. He’s younger and stronger, and he knows what he’s doing, too.
That doesn’t mean Jerry’s planning on slowing down, though. He doesn’t want to be one of those people who retires and then is left wishing they would have done more with their time, he said.
A lot of people ask him how long he’ll beekeep. And just as he does in almost every situation, he has a witty go-to response:
“Until they throw dirt on my coffin,” he tells them.
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