The Birds and the Bees


A local fertility specialist gives new meaning to an age-old expression

by Cindy Riley

Photos by Beau Gustafson

When Dr. Michael Steinkampf, M.D., says his backyard is swarming with activity, he means it. An avid beekeeper, Dr. Steinkampf is passionate about his hobby and hopes to create some buzz by documenting his adventures.

“I never really knew much about honeybees growing up,” Steinkampf says. “One day, Dr. John Hurst, who would become my  mentor, showed me some pictures of his hives when we were having lunch. Later that week, I went to a lecture at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens for new beekeepers and ordered a package of bees and a hive box. I saw Dr. Hurst at a medical staff meeting soon thereafter and asked him if he would help me learn how to keep bees. He suggested I attend the new beekeeper’s course scheduled for about 10 months later and get started then. I replied, ‘No, I’ve already built a hive and the bees will be here next week.’ “

Steinkampf — who is director of Alabama Fertility Specialists, where he helps couples deal with fertility problems -— says learning how honeybee colonies operate is fascinating.

The keeping of the bees…

“I originally trained to be a chemist, and a lot of how bees function involves reproduction and chemistry,” he says. “People have been keeping honey bees for thousands of years, but there’s still a lot to learn about the best way to keep bees. Last year, my mentor and I got a research grant from the National Honey Board to develop a new kind of bee hive.  We are hoping that applying the principles of solar energy used on buildings can help honeybees stay healthy.”

As for bees and reproduction, says Steinkampf, “In humans, the female makes all the eggs she ever has before she is born, while the male makes sperm throughout his adult life. With honey bees, it is just the opposite. The queen bee continues to make eggs throughout her life, while the poor drones, who mate once and die, make all their sperm before they emerge as adults.”

According to  Hurst, a Birmingham gynecologist and  beekeeper for more than three decades, “Beekeeping is hands-on and presents new issues daily. There’s so much to learn, and things are always changing. Michael loves a challenge, and beekeeping presents that challenge very similar to the practice of medicine. Michael is a scientist and loves research and the collection of data to move the education needle forward.

“Michael is full steam ahead in whatever interest he is working on, whether it be practicing medicine where every patient presents with an individual issue or beekeeping, where the bees always present with different problems requiring problem- solving skills.  We are very interested in educating the public as to the value of the honeybee to our environment and society.”

Like Hurst, Steinkampf collects, bottles, labels, gives away and sells honey. They receive calls daily and assist others in dealing with environmental honeybee issues, such as pollination of plants for better crop yield, honey production and collection, human sting reaction patterns and how to handle the ever-changing challenges of Colony Collapse Disorder.

Always eager to learn, Steinkampf attended the Young Harris Beekeeping Institute, a rigorous training and certification program developed by Young Harris College and the University of Georgia that includes  lectures (covering everything from hive construction to honey bee genetics and making mead), practical training and public service requirements. Students who survive  the three-year process and pass all the tests  are certified as  master beekeepers.

What’s most challenging, says Steinkampf, is helping the insects prosper while staying out of their way. “Sometimes you have to open up the hive to see what’s going on with the colony, and they can get really pissed about it,” he says. “Smoking the bees calms them down a bit, but they still get angry sometimes.”

Steinkampf generally suits up before handling his fuzzy friends but  still gets bitten every  now and then. “It’s a little sad, since a bee invariably dies after it stings someone,” he says. “Bees aren’t very aggressive about stinging unless they are defending their hive. Sometimes they will just fly up and bounce off your forehead to warn you off. Beekeepers call this a ‘head butt.’”

Despite the drawbacks, there was no turning back once Steinkampf’s passion  for beekeeping took flight.

“The first year I kept bees, they did so well that the colony divided and a swarm took up residence at my neighbor’s house. The beekeeping books say this doesn’t happen to a new colony, but I fed them too much and didn’t give them enough space in the hive. My neighbor was very gracious and let me pry open the space under his bay window to retrieve the bees, so now he always gets the first honey of the season. I’ve learned to keep boxes with pheromone baits stationed on each side of my property to catch any swarms.”

Steinkampf keeps an informal  journal of his experiences at www.sandhurstbees.com, sharing both stories and photographs that may inspire others.

“Don’t be afraid to try it,” Steinkampf says. “Although beekeeping has long been considered a somewhat stodgy hobby, an influx of young people into the field have converted beekeeping into a vibrant environmental movement. And of course, every year you get all this delicious honey.”

However, he admits, “My wife has been very patient, but she probably wouldn’t mind if the hives went away. My kids have been good about helping collect my research data when I am out of town. My office staff enjoys hearing about how the bees are doing, but my receptionists get a little nervous when the mailman delivers a package that’s buzzing.”

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One Response to “The Birds and the Bees”

  1. Mary says:

    Saw the segment this morning on TV would love to purchase the honey from these bees because they are local the honey is good for allergies–is there a place to get the honey?

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