They came in a 3-pound box. Ten thousand honeybees shipped from a Georgia apiary to Ray Sweeney’s Hernando, Miss., doorstep. With that, the admitted “tinkerer” had a new hobby—beekeeping.
Those first honeybees established two hives, which soon became four, then eight, then 16. By year’s end, Sweeney expects to have 20 honey-producing hives at the edge of his backyard.
“Not everyone was happy when I first got the bees,” Sweeney said. “They thought they wouldn’t be able to go outside anymore. Now, they realize it’s not killer bees out there, just honeybees doing bee things.”
Composed of brightly colored, stacked boxes called supers, the hives are hard to miss along the fence. They’re lined up about 50 yards behind the chicken coop, to the right of a garage holding a rebuilt 1969 Dodge Dart GTS, and a homemade powder-coating oven used to paint refurbished, vintage Coca-Cola machines—-all paraphernalia of just three of Sweeney’s other pastimes.
When it comes to choosing a hobby, his only requirements are that it be interesting and fit into the family’s life. But Sweeney tries to have variety, with something that appeals to each of his children: 11-year-old Collin, 13-year-old Cameron and Ryan, a sophomore chemistry major at Mississippi State.
“I do a lot of stuff and have a lot of weird hobbies,” Sweeney said. “But you have to try a lot of things to find what you really like. These are experiences my kids will take with them because the things you experience when you are young are a big factor in the decisions you make about what you do with your life.”
Sweeney said the variety of of experiences he had as a student worker at the Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Miss., influenced his decision to study computer science. And it’s been the variety of tasks at his job with FedEx that has kept the “tinkerer” with the same company for nearly 20 years.
“A lot of people move around to different companies and do a lot of different things,” Sweeney said. “It just so happens that I didn’t have to switch companies to work on different projects.”
His projects have included integrating the company’s ground and air tracking systems—which process 6 million packages a day, 12.5 million during peak seasons. The 1995 graduate also helped with the successful deployment of the handheld device used by FedEx couriers to register pick-ups and deliveries and receive instructions from a dispatcher.
Now, as an information technology manager, Sweeney said he helps others navigate the technical issues that arise for the shipping company.
“I like doing the technical work so much that it was hard for me to contemplate not doing it, but, after 17 years, it was time to try my hand at management,” Sweeney explained. “Now my challenge is empowering others to do what I enjoy doing.”
Letting go of projects is the biggest adjustment for someone like Sweeney who enjoys getting his hands dirty. He said there is always the urge to micromanage, but he realizes his team knows what it’s doing, even if it’s not the exact steps he would have taken to reach the goal.
“I have to step back and let them do the job, just like my managers did for me earlier in my career,” Sweeney said.
It’s a similar to the problem he faced when he first got his honeybees, when he was so intrigued by his new hobby that he tended to over-manage the hives.
“I was out there every day, ready to jump in at the first sign of one little problem,” Sweeney confessed. “You tend to forget that they’ve been around for millions of years, so they know what to do.”
He said watching bees in action is fascinating. From his back porch, he can sit and watch them fly to and from the hives, collecting nectar to produce their honey. Because of the variety of plants they use as sources, each hive’s honey has a slightly different flavor. But as long as they aren’t foraging among the bright yellow flowers of the bitterweed plant, the quality is the same, Sweeney said.
“Bitterweed honey just doesn’t taste good,” he added. “That’s something I learned this year when I accidentally collected and bottled some.”
Sweeney collects the honey as the colonies fill their supers. The process starts with removal of the frames–-wooden structures that hang like file folders in a super–-that contain honey-filled comb. He then carefully scrapes off the wax caps and places the comb in an extractor, which uses centrifugal force to separate and strain the honey.
At the end of the season, he leaves each colony with a full supply of honey—around 40 pounds–-to live on during the winter.
Sweeney collects and bottles about 750 pounds of honey each year, most of which he gives away or sells for a small price–after all, he’s in it for the experience, not to make money.
“Each year as a beekeeper you learn a little more and encounter something new,” Sweeney said. “That keeps it really interesting.”