Ag Career Profile: State Beekeeper

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By McKenna Dosier

If you would have told Dr. Tammy Potter ten years ago, that she would be the state apiarist (fancy word for beekeeper), she probably would have laughed at you.

Potter attended college to become an English professor and was one for many years until her grandfather called her back to the farm that she was determined to get away from, to help him take care of his bees.

“From the time we opened that beehive I just knew my life had changed and that I would always do something with honey bees,” she said.

Potter started working on a research project with the queen bee industry in Hawaii in 2007. When she returned to Kentucky she began working with surface mines in the eastern part of the state where she focused on returning pollinators to areas affected by mining.

“My thought at the time was ‘I can always go back and be an English professor’ but at that point in time there wasn't anyone who was focused on pollinator habitat on surface mine sites,” she said. “I thought that was an opportunity I needed to walk toward.”

 Potter said a day on the job is never the same as another, but revolves around three main areas.

Hive health--She inspects commercial hives entering and leaving the state by taking hive samples. The USDA will analyze the samples for parasites and viruses to try and pull together a baseline of data on Kentucky honey bee health.

Economic Development--Potter links beekeepers to farmers markets and promotes honey as a Kentucky commodity and as an alternative to sugar.  According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, Kentucky’s 5,000 bee colonies produced 230,000 pounds of honey in 2016. That honey was valued at nearly $1 million.  

Extension and outreach--Potter brings bees to schools throughout Kentucky and teaches students the importance of pollinators. She also works with 4-H members and the Bee Ambassador Program, which emphasizes pollinator programming at the county level.

“When you open a beehive with them there's an immediate wonder,” she said. “I don't want there to be kids that go through school without ever seeing a honey bee.”

Potter said her job varies from season to season. From spring to fall is the busy season, but things calm down in winter and she has the chance to read new research and go to conferences. But when the first week of April hits, it’s bee season again.

Potter said working with the USDA is one of her favorite parts of her job, because she said until recently there has been no baseline data of bee health in Kentucky. She said she loves going out to see beekeepers, taking samples and recording valuable data.

“I love being in apiaries,” she said. “I love working with beekeepers, I love doing samples of honey bees and figuring out some, maybe, really easy ways beekeepers can change management to get hives healthier.

“For me, it's been a loyal career and I could not have imagined it when I first went to college,” she said. “It all fits in nice ways.”

For anyone interested in beekeeping, Potter said she recommends going to several different beekeeping associations for a full year to learn the seasonality before purchasing any equipment. Potter said the associations are a good place for anyone to start because dues are often inexpensive and you get to meet new people, learn the language, see the diversity of equipment and pick a style of hive that is comfortable for you to start with.