Yong Park, a professor of entomology at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, grew up in the Republic of Korea not far from the demilitarized zone that separates the country from its communist neighbor to the north, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
That a man with such a seemingly exotic background would find himself in Southeast Arkansas teaching university students about the virtues of beekeeping may seem strange, but it is most definitely true.
Park first came to the United States in the late 1980s after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in zoology in South Korea. He went on to earn a doctorate in entomology and plant pathology from Mississippi State University in Starkville in 1997.
Where are the black beekeepers?
Park said during a recent conversation that he is interested in passing his interest in beekeeping on to the students at UAPB.
“When I first came to Arkansas I asked myself, where are all of the African-American beekeepers?” Park said. “I thought I had found a few but they turned out to be actual Africans from Ethiopia. I would often hear African-Americans say that they didn’t like to be around bees because the bees didn’t like them.
“There is some truth to that because darker colors do cause more agitation with the bees,” Park said. “This is why the beekeeping suits that we wear are white and why the hives are painted white. But this does not mean that because you have dark skin you cannot work with bees.”
Park said the key to safety around bees is moving in slow, fluid motions.
“The guard bees will come out and bump you just to find out what you are,” Park said. “If you just let them bump you they will go on and not try to sting you. It’s also important not to wear fragrant lotions and perfumes. Those things agitate them.”
Park said he is in the process of setting up a beekeeping club for UAPB students. Each student in the club would have a beehive to look after, if they desire.
“I am filling out the paperwork for it now,” Park said. “I will start with freshmen and sophomores so that those who are interested will have several years in the club. The thing is, it’s one thing to read about bees in a textbook but another to get to interact with the bees as they will in the club. They will see that a queen bee is easily differentiated from a drone bee and a drone bee is easily differentiated from a worker bee. They will build up experience in recognizing bees.”
Park said that when students prepare to graduate they will have the option of keeping their hive or donating it back to the club.
“This way the number of African-Americans trained in beekeeping will go up,” Park said.
UAPB bee hives
Park maintains several honeybee hives on the UAPB campus behind the Parker Agricultural Building.
“I also keep beehives in my backyard at home,” Park said as he prepared to demonstrate how a hive is accessed. “I joke with people that I have pets and when they ask me how many I tell them oh, about 300,000.”
Park donned a white zip-up bee suit and the protective mesh headgear that zips into the suit.
“The smoker is very important,” Park said as he set fire to two pieces of burlap before he quickly stuffed them into the metal smoker can and began to pump the attached bellows to get an adequate cloud of smoke going. “Once, I set the fire too hot and when I went to smoke the bees what I got instead was flame that shot out and completely incinerated some of the bees. So, it’s very important to start out cold.”
Park walked up to a four-level hive and, after puffing out enough smoke to calm the bees, he pried the lid of the top hive box open and held up a couple of the wooden frames that the bees use to create the honeycomb where the honey is found.
Park said the European honeybee, which was introduced into North America several hundred years ago, is not the only bee that pollinates cash crops, including fruit as well as nut trees.
“European honeybees are generalists,” Park said. “They will pollinate many types of plants and over a longer period of the year. There are also native bees including sweat bees and mason bees and these are specialists in that they are adapted to pollinate a specific plant or tree at a certain time of year.”
Park said the recent phenomenon of honeybee hives failing can be attributed to what has been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder. The disorder has several causes.
“The population of bees has definitely dropped,” Park said. “From 1980 on, pests like burrow mites began to invade beehives. After 2000 you began to hear about CCD and some of the causes are chemicals and pesticides. There are also issues with the way that honeybees are used to pollinate orchards. A honeybee is naturally going to consume nectar from a variety of plants. But beekeepers will take a hive to say, an almond grove in California, and the bees will only consume almond nectar. That is like if you ate nothing but pepperoni pizza three times a day for several months. You would get sick of it. And honeybees end up with dietary deficiencies by only consuming one kind of nectar.”
Park said another factor causing bee die-offs is the transport of honeybees from their homes in areas of the Midwest to places as far away as California or Florida to pollinate farms.
“You can have a 30 to 40 percent hive die-off during these trips,” Park said.
Park said that so far there have been no Africanized honey bees, popularly known as killer bees, found in Arkansas.