Keeping the Bees

Pat and Mike Gardner and their bee sign. The bees on top of the sign are hand-carved in wood by a Michigan craftsman.

At 510 Patterson Road, Baxley, Georgia, sprawls Gardner Apiaries. Fifteen-year-old Michael (Mike) Gardner actually became enamored with bees because he had an older friend who kept some. Michael would finish his chores and then visit his friend and the bees. The friends would hang out, watch the buzzing creatures, and study their habits; by doing so, Michael learned a lot. One day he was on the school bus when a swarm of bees settled on the big windshield. The driver turned on the wipers, and the bees swarmed to a bush.

“I hurried home, dumped my dad’s Sunday shoes out of the shoe box he stored them in, cut a hole in it, and went back to collect those bees,” Michael said. “They swarmed into my box and I took home my first bees. My dad wasn’t happy; I wasn’t really happy about the whipping I got either, but I’d found my vocation whether I knew it or not.”

Michael and his wife Pat are from Zeeland, Michigan. They had bees up there and were pollinators of apples and blue berries when a new pest—trachea mites—appeared. Thousands of these microscopic creatures could live in the trachea of the bee, eventually killing it. They were running about 2000 hives at the time, but with the advent of the mites, they lost all of them except one. Michael was ordering bees from the South GA beekeepers, like Bill Spell, Reggie Wilbanks, Jerry Shuman, and Jimmy Morris. Pat and Michael came to Baxley to start their hives again. First, they bought out Steve and Bill when they were ready to sell. They kept buying until they had bought out all the Baxley companies that were around at the time, a total of seven. They quit the pollinating business, sold out in Michigan, and started taking care of their customers in South Georgia. They do still have a home in Michigan and return there often.

When they started their business in Baxley, they had five employees—two full time and three part time. Now they have fifty-three fulltime employees. They package and sell bees and queens across the continental United States. Their starter package consists of a queen, approximately 3 pounds of bees, and a can of food to sustain the bees for three days. A company that originally produced 2,000-3,000 packages per year has grown into a company that now produces over 50,000 packages and 150,000 queens per year.

Pat does the bookkeeping for the company and gets the accounts ready for the accountant. She sells a lot of retail honey in Michigan, too. Customers can purchase various quantities from five-gallon buckets to single quarts.

“We ship out 1000 packages of bees in one semi-truck,” Pat said, “but some customers pick them up. We also produce about 700 drums of honey per year here in Baxley.”

Michael has invented and patented a new plastic queen cage. They make the packaging on site now as well. He’s designed and is working on patenting two machines to assemble the packages for shipping, so there’s plenty to do, no matter the season. During the winter, they refurbish and do maintenance.

The spring is bee season. They’ve just started up for this year because the weather has been inordinately cold. Bees do not take kindly to cold.

Gardner’s Apiaries is an old-fashioned company that helps its employees as needed.

“We’ve been blessed with great employees from the beginning,” Michael said. “April Shadron has been with us for twenty years. She’s like a daughter to us. When she had her second child, she told me that she had to go home and be a mama, but I said, ‘No.’ I’ll build you a nursery for the baby, hire a nurse if I have to, but you can’t leave. So I built a nursery, and everybody helped take care of the baby. He grew up right here in the office for the first five years of his life. Even the customers helped. Everybody loved that baby.”

Quinda Patrick is another of their good employees; she’s been with them for seventeen years and has been to Michigan for them or with them on many occasions. She goes and picks up apples for the other employees in the fall. She too is practically family.

The Gardner’s also purchase and refurbish homes in the area, which they sell at cost to their employees who have proved themselves reliable. The homes are close by, and the employees can walk to work if they want to.

“I believe in second chances,” Michael said. “I was given a second chance, and I’ll give them to others. There are a variety of reasons that people get to be down and out. We’ll help folks get off drugs. We had a single father living in a car with his children. We helped him, but so did the other employees. Everybody helped him get on his feet. Sometimes good employees make mistakes, and as long as they see the error of their ways, they get another chance. We do try to lead by example though. I lived under a bridge abutment once when I was fifteen, and a man gave me a job and helped me get an apartment. I try to pay that forward. Anybody who wants to work and has a good attitude can get a job here.”