The Bobs and the bees: one ranger's experience with the Bays Mountain beekeeping exhibit
To start this series of articles, I chose to cover Bob Culler, a ranger who has worked with Bays Mountain Park and Planetarium for over 30 years and helped bring the new honeybee exhibit to the park. His experience with providing interpretive information and working closely with nearby hives lends an interesting angle to the long-time fixture of the popular park.
A Kingsport, Tennesee native, Culler’s love of nature drew him to study and graduate from the Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, North Carolina with a degree in Environmental Studies.
“I loved it. It was a really good school. It was a really small school, back then they had about 450 students total so a lot of my classes there were no more than six or eight or 10 of us,” said Culler. “It was a lot of fun, and it was a very good education, and it was a very good experience as far as getting me ready for something like this to some extent.”
Quickly after graduation, Culler joined the team at Bays Mountain and set to work gaining an understanding of the environment he’d visited as a child. Culler said his work keeps him on his toes despite his wealth of experience.
“I just got lucky the job came open when I graduated and was able to get on up here, and they haven’t been able to get rid of me since,” said Culler. “Everything’s new, you always see something new every time you get out up here. Like I said, I’ve been working here for 30 years and still find new stuff out here on occasion.”
Culler said the beekeeping exhibit for the park has been a permanent feature, but as the science changes so does the presentation. Culler said during a normal year Bays Mountain Park can expect roughly 1,000 student visitors per week, though COVID-19 precautions have dropped the number to zero.
“We’ve had honeybees here on exhibit for as long as I can remember, there was a bee exhibit down there in that area where it goes down, even back when I was a kid,” said Culler. “So, it’s one of those things that’s been around for a long time but it’s kind of evolved, so the latest incarnation was started in 2018.”
The creation of the exhibit itself was spearheaded by Cassy Rose, an exhibit technician within the park. Her design and artwork decisions led to the inner hive look of the area while Culler provided the interpretive information regarding the park’s winged guests. Culler said while he wasn’t initially an expert in honey bees, his time spent gathering factoids and tidbits about the pollinators opened his eyes to their value.
“It’s mostly a personal interest. It’s one of those things I’ve always been interested in, honey bees, and I’ve always wanted to try keeping them. I never have done it. One of these days,” said Culler. “I knew a little bit about honeybees starting out and then I learned a whole lot more in doing the research to write for the exhibit”
The main goal of the exhibit itself is to get young scientists acquainted with bees at an early age, as well as raising community awareness of the challenges bees face on a daily basis. The exhibit features several stations outlining the many potential issues a colony can endure, such as mite infestation and disease.
The park’s own exhibit hives aren’t immune to the hurdles, either. While the side view of a busy hive is common in the summer, Culler said the park colonies fail nearly every year. Hives can fail in a variety of ways, and it’s common to discover an entire hive has swarmed following a queen dissatisfied with her living conditions. If conditions are bad enough the hive collapses entirely and the vast majority of the population dies. To refill an empty hive, a beekeeper needs to either find a local swarm to recapture, transplant a queen they already have or buy new bees by the pound.
“We’ve had an issue with keeping the bees too, that spot where we have them down there is not exactly ideal for a beehive,” said Culler. “It’s mostly because it’s in the shade all the time, so it stays cool and damp in there, and so I think that’s been our biggest hurdle to actually being able to keep bees alive there.”
While the cost of continually refounding a hive adds up, the motive of their location has never been a bountiful harvest. Culler said while the honey is nice, the educational value of seeing the bees up close has always been the first priority. The park rarely finds enough honey to harvest at the end of the season without harming the bees, but if they get lucky visitors can find bottles of liquid gold in the gift shop.
“A lot of folks are starting to realize the importance of honey bees now,” said Culler. “The biggest thing I’d want people to take away is the fact that honey bees are not native, they are an import and that they are a domesticated animal. They’re a farm animal, and so they don’t normally live well in the wild. They have to be taken care of.”
For more information regarding the park and its services, visit https://www.baysmountain.com/ or call 423-229-9447.