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Acker hears a bee-eautiful buzz

About seven years ago, Gary Acker tasted fresh, unprocessed honey for the first time when a client gave him a quart of raw honey from his hives in Carnation. Intrigued, Acker visited his client's apiary, donned a bee suit and toured the hives. Fascinated by the activity in the hives, the science behind the beekeeping and the end product - pure honey - Acker found himself embarking upon a new hobby that soon became an obsession.

Acker's client became his mentor and he acquired enough equipment from retired beekeepers to start two hives in North Bend. He ordered a bee suit and purchased a four-pound package of 15,000 honey bees with one queen. He scoured the Internet for information and read countless books about the subject as he got started.

Integrating the queen with the new bees is a two-to-three day process. The queen arrives with the order separated in a small box. (If she was not separated, the hive would kill her immediately). The box is placed next to the hive, separated by a barrier of sugar candy about one-quarter-inch thick. After the hive realizes they have no queen, they chew through to release her, thereby accepting her as the new queen.

Acker and wife Jeanne have three daughters who attend Opstad Elementary School: Shannon, a fifth grader; Nicole, a third grader; and Amanda, a kindergartner.

Beekeeping and honeyextraction has been a wonderful way to combine the family's love of nature and the outdoors.

Acker, a general manager of a seafood company in Bellevue, currently has five hives at the Nursery at Mount Si in North Bend with about 100,000 bees between them. Two of the hives are just getting started.

Each hive has its own queen, and each hive can hold up to 100,000 bees. The queens have a life span of about six years, although commercial beekeepers generally replace them about every other year to ensure maximum honey production. Queens are capable of laying up to 2,000 eggs a day.

From April through September, the hives require close attention. Although it would be better to spend a few hours there on the weekend, Acker often stops by in the morning on his way to work so as not to cut into precious family time. "However, that is absolutely backwards, as every single bee in the hive is ready to pounce on me when I pop the top, whereas during midday, half the hive is out gathering nectar and pollen," Acker said.

Hives are moved around the Valley according to the bloom time of various flowers. "After the first week of July, most lowland looming is done so I seal up the hives, load them on the truck and drive them up the mountain to about 1,500-feet elevation on either Mount Si or Rattlesnake Ridge," Acker said.

He checks on them about once a week during that time of year and even though he has a solar-powered electric fence installed around the hives, he has had two bear attacks.

Working with tiny insects that can sting is not without hazard. Acker recalls when his neighbor, Eric Howland, helped him move the hives up the mountain a few summers ago:

"We had unloaded three of the four hives and were in the middle of lowering the monster hive that weighed about 250 pounds. Well, my story is that Eric stumbled, the tower crashed down on me and I couldn't move. The 80,000 bees were a bit testy after the bouncy ride up the logging road, and they were not at all pleased to be knocked over. Bees were pouring all over me like a scene out of a horror movie. I look to Eric for help and he's gone - then I see him racing down the road like he's in the Olympic trials. My screams finally brought him back, but not before I had been stung in the ankles a few dozen times.

"That was the first and last time Eric ever saw the bees," Acker laughed.

The Ackers extract honey three or four times a year, yielding about 30-40 gallons annually. The first summer they had so much honey they had to ask friends to come over and help them extract it.

That led to the first annual "Honeyfest" - an all-out celebration of the extraction process, complete with several hundred pounds of meat and fish on the barbecue, a bluegrass band and fun for about 600 friends and neighbors who are invited to the event every September. Acker enjoys educating the community about the process of honey making from hive to bottle. Everyone goes home with a bottle of AckerBee honey.

Acker sums up his hobby: "Honeybees are truly an amazing insect. The more you learn, the more you want to know about what is going on inside those wooden boxes."

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