Honeybees may be endangered around the world, but just outside Cottageville, S.C., they're in pretty good shape. Bee City, created by Archie Biering, a retired shipyard laborer and amateur beekeeper, is a safe haven for more than 1 million of the insects. A welcome sign calls the community "The Sweetest Little Town in the World." It's certainly the cutest. Bees live and work inside a dollhouse city of tiny, painted wooden buildings--each carrying a hive and a kitschy name--lining Bee Creek Road, the main drag. Up ahead are Honey Lane and Tupelo Drive, which lead to the Buzz-Cut Barber Shop, Bee-52 Airport and Pig-Bee Wig-Bee Supermarket. Plastic props are sprinkled throughout: A Tonka truck dumps dirt off-road, a Trans Am model sits by a traffic light that stops no one.
Biering insists he has purposes for his town beyond self-amusement.
"Our main goal is to teach people about honeybees so they will help us protect them for future generations," says Biering, 57, who constructed the city in 1994 across the street from his residence. "Honeybees [which pollinate the bulk of crops] are one thing we need to have for food or else we will have to get used to a very bland diet." Biering--as expected, a font of bee trivia--lists the foods that don't require insect pollination. It's short: wheat, barley, rice, corn.
Bee City is enclosed by walls as high as ladders, which shield visitors from bees that on warm days leave the indoor hives to go about their pollination tasks. Windows with netting provide a clear view of the town's activities. For those who enter the city, clouds of bees swarm in front of each doorway. Biering issues a warning about crossing their flight path.
"If you don't make any sudden movement, they won't come out and get you," says Biering, as he navigates through a pocket of bees hard by the town's WBEE TV/WBUZ radio station.
For many of the 6,000 annual tourists en route to Charleston who spot the sunshine-yellow Bee City mailbox amid signs selling pecans and carports, Biering's creation is more than an eccentric attraction.
"I learned more about bees last time I was here than I ever did in my life," says Suzanne D'Agostino, a Rochester, N.Y., nurse who returned to Bee City to replenish her stock of homemade Tupelo honey.
Biering and his wife, Diane, open their back yard to schoolchildren, senior citizen groups and garden variety tourists interested in learning about honeybees up close and personal. Their mission is to educate people on the precarious future of honeybees, which are being killed off in large numbers by--who knew?--a blood-sucking mite and a microbe that lodges itself in the bee's trachea.
"Most people think if they don't like honey they don't need bees," says Biering, whose fact sheet refers to them as "Angels of Agriculture." "But 80 percent of all pollination is from honeybees. And 90 percent of all bees are getting killed by two parasites. . . . We must train people to keep bees, help us protect them and teach them to attract honeybees to their gardens." For students, Biering offers a two-hour lesson on the life of the bee, from the mating behavior of the queen to the work habits of the insect world's proletariat class. Inside a classroom near a carp-filled pond, a glassed-in hive reveals the bees' workaday routine: A bee with pollen attached to its hind legs pushes through a crowd. A pupa bursts with life. The all-female worker bees dance around, using their bodies to point out good nectar spots. Though it is too early in the spring for the queen to reproduce, Biering details the mating rituals of the honeybees--from the virgin queen's airborne copulation with the drones to the immediate demise of her winged studs. Yet, he continues, for those that don't die and instead burrow into the hive to gorge on pollen, the end is near. When the worker bees clean up the hive, their first chore is to chew off the drones' wings and kick them out.
Biering also maintains a petting zoo on the compound. But the main attraction is Bee City--and its gift shop, featuring jars of honey, animal-shaped beeswax candles and honey-based recipes, including the house specialty, honey mustard dressing.
"I can't believe they dedicate their lives to this," enthuses New Yorker Martha Mrygold, a first-time visitor. "It's so sweet!"
Bee City is located off Highway 61, about 40 minutes from Charleston, on 1066 Holly Ridge Lane in Cottageville, S.C. It is open Monday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and a $2 donation is suggested. For more information, call the Bierings at 843-835-5912.