ROGERSVILLE — When New Zealand beekeeper/blogger Trevor Gillbanks posted his U.S. trip itinerary online last month, he discovered he's an in-demand 'Bee-List Celebrity' in this country, with requests for personal appearances coming in from coast to coast — including a stop in Rogersville on Wednesday.
Gillbanks is a woodworker by trade with a long family history in farming.
Combine those two disciplines and a 62-year fascination with bees, and 67-year-old Gillsbanks has become not only a highly respected honey bee hive manager, but also a master hive builder whose advice has been sought by hundreds of thousands of viewers on YouTube and on his Facebook page, both of which are called "Trev's Bees."
Among his followers are members of the Hawkins County based Heritage Beekeepers Club, which asked Gillbanks to visit the club's hives on Far Side Drive in Rogersville on Wednesday, coinciding with the days Gillbanks’ tour of America was in Nashville.
Gillbanks and his wife rented a car Tuesday and drove to Rogersville from Nashville, and on Thursday he will visit more beekeepers in Pineville, Kentucky, before heading back to Nashville.
Heritage Beekeepers president Ace Ely coordinated Gillbanks’ visit Wednesday to coincide with a meeting of the Cherokee High School "Sustainability Society," which keeps several hives at the Far Side Drive location.
"We invited him to stop by East Tennessee and he said he'd be delighted to," Ely said. "Hopefully, we can learn a lot from him about how they keep bees there, and we hope to teach him some things about what we're doing here."
Gillbanks and his wife, Teresa, arrived in Los Angeles on June 9 and since have visited several locations out West, including Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon and Tuscon, which is where they flew out of earlier this week to begin the second leg of their trip in Nashville.
Future stops include Florida, the Bahamas, New Orleans, a tour of the Gulf of Mexico and a various locations in Texas. They'll be flying out of Houston on a 16-hour direct flight back to New Zealand in time for the beginning of bee season at his home, which starts Aug. 1.
Gillbanks said the trip was not intended to be "bee-related" at all, although most of the locations he’s visiting now have bee-related detours.
"It's the middle of our winter at present, and our bees are as clustered down as they're going to get. So I put on Facebook that we were coming to the U.S. and we were going there, there, there and there — and almost within an hour (a Rogersville beekeeper) sent me a message and said if you're coming past us, how about calling in.”
"I didn't think when I started my YouTube channel that I was going to get a following in America. But, the last time I looked at my statistics on YouTube, it was something like 60 percent of my subscribers and viewers are from the states."
Many of the questions he fielded Wednesday, and the suggestions he made from his own observations, related to hive construction and the materials used in hive construction.
But it's not just a knowledge-spreading tour for Gillbanks. He's also learning about problems local beekeepers experience that don't occur in New Zealand such as the small hive beetle, which is a destructive pest that New Zealand has been spared.
But, for the most part, beekeeping from New Zealand, halfway across the world to Rogersville, is fairly universal.
"A honey bee is a honey bee, and the problems that are faced here in America are exactly the same problems we have in New Zealand — as far away as you can possibly get — because these fellows have been doing the job for about 50 million years," he added.
It should come as no surprise to Gillbanks that he has a huge following here considering the problems that American beekeepers have maintaining their hives. Between parasites, pesticides and forage shortages, its not uncommon for local beekeepers to lose most or all of their hives in a single season.
"Every time a farmer mows his hay field, there go all the flowers," Ely said. "The varroa mites are devastating. There are pests and diseases. It's not just one thing. You put all these together, and all the synergy of it just weakens them. Some places in Tennessee had 80 percent loss last year. I lost a lot, and there are people in our club that lost everything. We're trying again."
The Heritage Beekeepers keep 12 hives on Far Side Drive. Those hives host an estimated 300,000 bees, which cover an area up to 50 square miles in and around Rogersville.
With six hives on Far Side Drive, Cherokee High School's Sustainability Club is doing its part to keep the local bee population thriving. With approximately 30 members, the club is also focused on gardening and preserving. They also sell products, such as lip balms and soap, made from their bees' wax and honey .
Ely noted that some people don't realize how important maintaining the bee population is to the human race.
"They are the most incredible pollinators there are," Ely said. "... Each hive has up to 60,000 bees and they're just built for it. The pollen sacks on their legs go from flower to flower to flower, and they're most efficient. They said that one out of every three bites we eat, a honey bee has had its feet on it."