By RICK WATSON
Beekeeping is not a hobby that comes to mind when you meet Dr. Glenn Cobbs.
The Mountain Brook doctor’s tall and fit physique resembles that of a runner, a golfer or avid tennis player. He has played some tennis and dabbled in golf, but he loves the keeping of bees.
“In order to keep bees successfully, you have to really enjoy it,” said Cobbs. “Like medicine, beekeeping is something that is endless and boundless. You can always learn something new and interesting.”
Born at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham, Cobbs has lived in and around Mountain Brook for most of his life. His first exposure to beekeeping was when he was about 15 and his parents were building a new house in the area. During the construction, contractor E.E. Kelley learned that Cobbs’ mother suffered from hay fever and told the elder Cobbs to try bee keeping. The bees would collect pollen and nectar from the neighborhood and the resulting honey would help with the hay fever.
The honey they produced didn’t have a lot of impact on his mother’s hay fever, but it introduced the family to beekeeping. “Like a lot of other beekeepers, it wasn’t long before [my father] fell in love with the craft and hobby,” Cobbs said.
In those days, Cobbs was more of a helper to his dad, but he learned a great deal about how to care for bees and how to process the honey. When the elder Cobbs died in 1976, Cobbs inherited the bees. He’s been a hobbyist ever since.
He keeps two hives of bees in his backyard on Dell Road. He is a member of the Jefferson County Beekeeping Association and regularly attends the meetings to learn more about bees.
There’s enough nectar sources in most places to support colonies of bees. “You can keep them almost anywhere,” he said. “There are people in New York City keeping bees on the tops of buildings.”
He pointed out that around Birmingham, tulip poplar trees are a good source of nectar as well as other flowers and shrubs. The source of nectar impacts the taste of the honey. Cobbs said that clover honey is mild, while buckwheat honey may be a little coarser. “Tulip poplar or Tupelo honey is darker and has great properties,” he said.
Although the county association sells honey at Pepper Place Market, Cobbs doesn’t sell his honey. He has never really had enough to justify selling it, so he keeps it for his own consumption and gives it to friends as gifts.
In addition to its use as a natural sweetener, honey’s wax can be used for making candles, balms and soaps. Propolis, which is what the bees use to seal the honey in the hives, has been termed “natures preventative medicine” and is marketed to consumers. “Some people also feel bee stings protect against arthritis,” Cobbs said.
The nature of beekeeping changed about 25 years ago with the introduction of pests from overseas, like a Varroa mite that attaches itself to the bees and the brood (the newly forming bees).
“This pest parasitizes bees, weakens and kills them,” said Cobbs. “Until that insect came over, beekeeping was quite easy. You could just put your bees out there, and most of they time they would do well. When that parasite came in, it decimated bees.”
Now keepers must treat the hives with a chemical or take special care to keep from losing them to the mites. Since the chemicals can be incorporated into the honey, keepers should not treat the hives during the honey flow, said Cobbs.
After honey begins to flow each year, keepers around central Alabama start robbing the excess honey from the hives in June or July leaving enough for the bees to live on for the rest of the year. Normally tending bees only takes a few hours a week except during the harvest when Cobbs enlists family and friends to help process the honey.
Another new challenge to bee keeping is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a phenomena encountered about four years ago in the Midwest. “The bees would simply abandon the hive leaving honey and a few bees, but there was no evidence of what caused them to leave,” said Cobbs.
He said a lot of people are concerned about CCD because about a third of all the food grown here in America is related to honey bees, and some feel the loss of these creatures could cause a food crisis.
CCD was investigated and blamed on everything from cell phone towers to new kinds of insecticide. There has not been a big problem in Alabama with CCD, though it’s not uncommon to lose some bees each year. “Most beekeepers hate to lose bees for any reason because they are almost like pets,” he said.
There are a few ways to get in to beekeeping. Besides taking a course, Cobbs recommends learning like he did—from a mentor like his father. Keeping bees is not an expensive hobby. The hives, the bees and the protective equipment needed to keep bees only cost a few hundred dollars.
Cobbs said for those who like bees and aren’t afraid of getting stung, beekeeping may be for them. Being mindful about ecology and the environment are also good motivations to get into bees. “I get stung a lot, but that’s just part of the game,” he said.
Cobbs, currently on staff at UAB Hospital as a specialist in infectious diseases, lives with his wife, Naneita. They have three sons and eight grandchildren.