Art and Vera Gelder are moving into a retirement spent taking care of more than 1 million bees, 24 goats, 12 rabbits, 12 ducks, five llamas, four emus, three peacocks and a pair of pigs. That’s not counting the dogs, cats, guinea fowl or the 2,500 adults and children who visit their family farm on the outskirts of Columbia.
“This is what we want to do when we retire,” Art says.
Indeed, their “retirement” includes 70 to 80 hours of work every week, all year. It seems like every time they try to get away, something happens — like the time a llama escaped and wandered through the nearby 300-acre tree farm. The Gelders found it when they returned from vacation.
“Yes, it’s a retirement,” Vera says, sighing and laughing. “I get tired one day and ‘re-tired’ the next.”
But the Gelders don’t mind. Both wake at 5 a.m. Art attends his job as a nurse at Columbia Regional Hospital, where he still works full time and has worked for the past 22 years. Vera helps feed the animals, tends to her plants in the greenhouse, organizes paperwork and prepares for the day.
During the spring, the farm is booked solid with field trips, and laughter fills the air as children see the animals, learn about the plants and bees and have hissing-cockroach races.
In addition to the daily care for their menagerie, the Gelders must give particular attention to the bees. Art learned about beekeeping by reading and talking with beekeepers.
“They’re going to teach you something new every year,” he says of the bees.
He has 10 hives at the farm and more than 20 others scattered around the county, from Harrisburg to U.S. 63. Each hive holds between 60,000 and 100,000 bees.
Amid a steady “bzzzz,” Art works smoothly and quietly, unafraid that his tiny renters could kill him if they attacked en masse.
“If you’re real slow and real careful with them, you can work with them without getting stung,” Art says. “They’re like any other wild animal, can sense when you’re afraid of them.”
When he has to work quickly, he’ll don the helmet and veil and grab a smoker to sedate the hive, but for minor work he doesn’t worry.
“If I get stung, I’m in a hurry,” he says. “The worst thing you can do to a bee is swat at them because it makes them mad.”
The bees require year-round attention. Particularly important is treating diseases: varroa mites and tracheal mites, European foul brood and American foul brood, all bee afflictions, have the power to weaken and destroy the hives. Some diseases are so dangerous that if the hive contracts it, Art’s only choice is to shake the bees out and burn the entire hive.
But when they’re healthy, which is most of the time, the bees do all of the work and live in their separate world, oblivious to Art’s care. Fragrant flowers and blooming trees fill his bountiful garden and acreage, so food for the hive is a brief wing away.
“I try to let nature do its thing,” Art says.
But some days, Art interrupts their routine by adding on supers, or hive extensions, that give their little houses a second story. The bees are quick to fill their newly remodeled homes with honey. Art’s job is easy then: He simply cuts the honey off and extracts it. Each hive yields 60 to 80 pounds of honey.
And soon, the Gelders will have a certified kitchen where they can sell creamed honey through commercial stores. That’s in addition to the candles they make, paint, package and sell.
One April morning, after Art finishes touring his farm and finds everything just so, he takes a deep breath and pauses under a flowering tree. The tiny chorus of bees extracting the nectar fills the air, and the combination of sweet scent and low hum lulls him into a few minutes of calm.
“I love to sit here and just listen to them,” Art says quietly, smiling.