A Rare Kind of Farm

As he prepares to retire and looks to his next adventure, a Georgia cabinet installer finds an opportunity in bees.

By Boyce Upholt | Photos By Boyce Upholt

One cold morning this March, Jim Ellis lifted the top off a bee box to check on his colonies. It had been a strange spring—first unseasonably warm and then suddenly cold, all confusing for his bees. Ellis knew that he was bound to lose a few hives. “It used to really bother me,” Ellis says. “But I’ve learned that it happens to all beekeepers.”

All farmers, even. In agriculture, you coax what you can from the natural world, but know that you can’t control the weather. Such are the lessons Ellis has learned in his fifties, as he prepares for an unusual retirement career: bees.

“This is farming,” Ellis says. “There are risks.”

Gut Instincts

As a young man in upstate New York, it seemed unlikely that Ellis would wind up in agriculture. His wife, Mindy, “laid down the law,” Ellis says. Both Mindy and Jim had dairy-farming family, and before the couple married in 1983, “she said, ‘I’m not going to marry you if you go into the dairy business. But I’ll follow you anywhere.’”

Ellis has always followed his gut: In 1980, as a college student, he biked for two weeks through some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes. It was his own way of celebrating the 1976 U.S. bicentennial—albeit four years late—and a check on his bucket list. “I always told my sons, ‘Don’t up end up 80 years old in a rocking chair, wishing you’d tried something.’”

Almost two decades later, after careers in sand and gravel production, then working at a hardware store, Ellis finally cashed in on Mindy’s promise. In 2005, on a whim, he became a short-term apprentice to a kitchen cabinet installer in Georgia. As he drove back to New York after the month was up, he realized he’d found a new calling. In 2005, he moved south with Mindy and their youngest son, and eventually struck out on his own.

A Fascinating Little World

He entered beekeeping, too, on something of a whim. A neighbor, Don Kuchenmeister, had made a name for himself on YouTube as “the Fat Bee Man.” The recession years were rough on the cabinet-installation business, so in 2008 Ellis decided to attend one of Kuchenmeister’s beekeeping classes. (Ellis bartered, offering his installation services to Kuchenmeister in lieu of the class fee.)

He quickly realized bees were a good way to make money—and also a fascinating little world. Bees have an intricate social system, dependent on different roles and rituals. When a colony is ready for a new queen, for example, the worker bees deliver royal jelly, a special secretion, to the selected larvae housed inside a special cell. A little more than two weeks later, a queen will emerge, prompted by the chemical properties of the jelly.

“It’s just amazing that they can transform that quickly into a queen,” Ellis says. “Beekeeping is just a fascinating thing to be involved with.” Despite her resistance to him entering the dairy trade, Mindy has been supportive of this late-in-life career move. “She’s been a godsend,” he says. “For all the crazy things I’ve tried, she’s stuck in there.”

Delicious Benefits, Essential Work

The business side intrigued Ellis, too. Some bee operations specialize in selling queens, others in “nucs,” or nuclear colonies, which have been split off from a larger colony to establish a new hive. Some people simply build beekeeping equipment. Others market their hives’ honey or ship truckloads of bees across the country to pollinate almond farms.

Ellis started with a dozen hives on his back deck in Gainesville, an hour outside Atlanta. He owned just a quarter-acre, but the bees thrived. As he became more committed, Ellis realized he needed more space. Last year, he and Mindy bought a 4.6-acre property in the small town of Maysville, Georgia, where he now has 50 hives.

The business has delicious benefits. In a closet in his foyer, for example, Ellis stores a fermenter that is brewing honey wine. There are jars of honey stowed on his kitchen counters, some in familiar amber, others filled with thick creamed honey, processed to control crystallization.

“But the honey is just icing on the cake,” Ellis says. His real aim is to serve other beekeepers; out of a smoker he bought at a hardware store, he is building a brooder to develop queens, and he plans to sell nucs as well.

With the bee populations under increasing threat of parasites and other perils, such work is important. Pollination, after all, is essential for agriculture. Local farmers are eager to host his hives, he says. “Their gardens have never done better.”

For now, though, Ellis still spends long days as a cabinet installer. He focuses on his bee operation only on weekends and days off. Within four years, though, he aims to develop a few hundred hives, and move full-time to beekeeping. “It’s a venture that’s never going to die,” he says. “You’re always going to need bees.”