Bees, Beetles, Fine Art Prints and Teaching Beekeeping In Primitive Conditions
by Larry Connor
Bo Sterk and I met at the Florida Bee College several years ago. We were selling books and he was selling shirts to help the College program. My business partner, Rob Muir, and I quickly developed a friendship with him. After the January 2016 ABF Convention in Jacksonville, FL, I was able to interview Bo in his St. Augustine home.
Born in Cleveland and raised in Avon, Ohio, Bo was always interested in Nature as a kid. He still has his collection of 1700 butterflies and 600 mounted beetles he started as in his youth and continues to collect to this day. “I have trouble not picking them up and adding new ones to the collection,” he explained. Butterflies and beetles are not the only things he collects. Bo and his wife, Jo, both professional artists besides their other passions, have amassed many interesting items, including artwork from friends, ethnographic artifacts from travels around the world, and their own art creations.
Bo went to Kent State University and earned a BFA in printmaking and illustration. “I almost had enough credits for a degree in botany, growing up with all of those greenhouses in Avon and then taking many botany classes in college – the art and science was a reflection of my many interests,” he explained. He paid for his education by creating botany illustrations for student research projects and their scientific papers and MS and Ph.D. dissertations. He finished his art degree in 1975.
Bo has worked both as a commercial artist and a creator of fine art. “Commercial art is when someone tells you what to draw and then they pay you. Fine art is when nobody is telling you what to do and you are producing what you want to create. Of course, then you have to pursue ways to sell your artwork if you want to make any money,” Sterk laughed.
Bo has done commercial art jobs for Apple Computer, Budweiser and by illustrating three children’s books (I found two on Amazon). But his passion was to produce fine art over his career, moving an average of one thousand pieces out of his studio every year. “There are at least 20,000 pieces of my artwork floating around out there.” Bo explained. “Someday they will be more valuable for someone’s grandchildren.”
The key to selling this artwork was to travel to major fine art festivals in large cities around the United States. For over 20 years he traveled to shows in Dallas, Minnesota, Denver, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Ann Arbor and many other places. In the larger art festivals here were more potential buyers for fine art, and not just arts and crafts. “It is important that you maintain a quality image,” he explained. To assist him with this quality and high volume sales, he employed and trained several art students to help him in production, making and framing his fine art prints. Lately he has not seen this level of quality on the road. He has his prints in many art galleries for sale on consignment.
Sterk moved to St. Augustine, Florida in 1984 after visiting with other artists from the area. Attracted to the oldest city in the United States that shares a Spanish and English tradition, Bo was drawn to the fact that St. Augustine has a large artist colony, with considerable production of fine art. Also, the Florida climate and beaches, as well as many good restaurants were part of the allure for a northern boy. For many years since the move he continued his art production and touring the country to sell work at art shows. As the market changed, Bo turned his attention to renovating several small houses. These rental properties have helped him pay bills and have kept him busy with all the issues that come with being a landlord.
What does Bo Sterk’s artwork look like? He describes it as whimsical satire with humorous animal imagery. He has a series on cats with wings – one hangs in his dining room.
It was Bo’s fascination of nature, his passion for collecting insects, and an opportunity that took him into the study of bees and beekeeping. Besides being influenced by an uncle who kept bees in Ohio, a local artist in St. Augustine started doing apitherapy for her MS. Since there were not many beekeepers in the neighborhood, Sterk offered to get a hive of bees and manage it so she would have bees for the therapy. “I never did the actual stinging. I let her husband sting her. After two years of therapy her disease got worse and they wanted the bees off the property. I took the hive and thus I was keeping bees for myself.”
“Now I have 25 hives of bees; I had 50 at one time and I am more comfortable with 15-20 colonies. With a background in real estate and from doing cutouts, being basically a carpenter this has been a rare challenge,” he explained.
“When I began, I kept bees because of the fascination of the bees. Then I started working with my mentor George Waldoch from Jacksonville to learn how to keep bees. George not only knows how to whisper to bees but also knows the commercial parts of beekeeping, he explained. “Do it right, do not get stung. You don’t need to wear gloves if you’re gentle”, says Bo.
Fast forward into helping others
After years working at educational programs and extension programs, Bo began giving back his knowledge to others. “Fifteen years ago I started to do bees in the Caribbean. One of the bee inspectors at the time took me to Barbados and I did the fieldwork for classes of beginning beekeeping for a week. I was immediately hooked and saw the need for education and trainings in the islands. There are big hurdles to overcome though including bureaucratic efforts to control people coming to the islands, stereotypes of what people thing beekeepers are, and the need to educate people on beekeeping. We had to meet with the Ministers of Agriculture on all these islands and convince them that local honey is best because the demand for it so great from the residents. The demand is so high that the beekeepers have not been able to get their honey to the tourists,” he explained.
Bo’s Objectives of Teaching
Bo gave me the following when I asked him about his objectives in teaching in less developed areas with people not experienced with bees and beekeeping:
• Help people develop a sustainable living, to supplement a beekeeper’s income.
• Help people develop a green income.
• To do this he worked primarily with women and youth groups. They are more available and able to care and nurture the bees. Youth groups are always excited about learning the beekeeping. If you get them hooked it is a good thing – they value education in the Islands because education is so far out of their reach, especially in Haiti.
Here is his story about the importance of education to the people he trains:
“The last time I conducted a five-day workshop in the mountains, I had one fellow about 30 years old walk four hours in and four hours home every day just to attend the meetings. He would leave home with only some rice and pigeon peas. I would give everyone coffee. Once you give these workshops a couple times, and you see this level of interest and dedication, you are hooked,” Bo explained
Bo has gone to Haiti for 10 years. He was strongly impacted the third world aspects of the country. He took his wife, Jo, with him on one trip so she could teach candle making in a small village with no running water or electricity. She was unable to express her disbelief about how very primitive everything was for months after. When Bo travels into the mountains he takes his own food with him, meaning that he carries live chickens bound at their feet, water, and everything else he has planned to consume. The cooking conditions were, at best, very primitive. His photos of the facilities make you wonder if you would feel safe eating food prepared in these “Haitian kitchens”.
The first time he visited he did an exploratory trip. He found that the existing beekeepers were all keeping bees in logs. They were basically all bee tenders. They used a machete to ream the comb out and crush it and drain the honey out. “The honey is pretty bad tasting from all the smoke ash – it was pretty awful,” he explained.
“The first thing I did was to encourage them to make more log hives. I did not want to make drastic changes, and I encouraged them to work with the logs to increase their production. The first time I visited one beekeeper he had six hives, after working with him he 25 hives on the following trip. When he got to 60 hives he was able to get a moped. This allowed him to go into the city and go to college. In Haiti, a college degree means that you can get a steady job in agro-economics, working with the farms market their products directly. When he about to graduate he had about 75 log hives. We then moved to top bar hives. A sheet of plywood was $80US. I developed a design that allowed each beekeeper to develop four hives per sheet. The top might be the piece of tin or a banana leaves. The top bar seems easier on the bees to harvest. Only about 25% of the country has electricity so beeswax is highly valued.”
“Now the same guy has been able to purchase five Langstroth hives. They do not have good extractors, so they have to rely on homemade extractors. They sell their honey in old juice containers or zip-lock bags. It sells for about the same as in the U.S. or a bit more,” Bo explained.
A lot of honey is bartered for any other produce not produced on their farm.
All small scale beekeeping. Bo continues to push the development of more the log hives in the mountains. Yet the top bar hives have been very successful, making four hives from a sheet of plywood. Until the earthquake in 2010, farm wages were running about $1 per day. After the earthquake wages have gone up to $4 per day.
A Favorite Story
I asked Bo to share his favorite story about helping students in Haiti. He related the experience working two boys, eight and 10 years old when he first met them. “They would bring in school kids the first day – mountain boys. They would stay with their mothers while their fathers traveled some distance for work. The young boys ended up being the farmers with their mothers. The two brothers got two top-bar hives from our program. They build six more hives. They have eight hives now, and knowing how a top-bar hive works, they would convert a kitchen chair with arms into a hive, putting the frames along the arms of the chair. They blocked them with scrap wood and used a banana leaf as a cover.”
“Now they are about 16 and18 years old, but it is hard to make contact with them. It takes two hours by four wheels with a driver – then I had to walk in an hour to meet them. Meanwhile, the boys had to walk 2.5 hours to hear me talk,” Bo explained.
“Translation is difficult. Because of the diversity of language, my talking involves having two – creole and a pidgin – translators.
He usually teaches in a Catholic church because it is the only place with a civic center or a space for classes. Teaching was done by demonstrations, especially the difficulties and obstacles to make things that are sustainable. All doing natural comb with a starter trough or a wax in string.
The most advance student has about 70 log hives. He puts a swarm in, hold the bees inside for four to five days and then gives the hive woven ends.
Florida Bee College
“(Dr.) Jamie Ellis’s bee college is fabulous. It is one of the best things that has happened in the southeastern United States, hands down,” Bo enthused. “After going down to the Caribbean, I was able to convince Ellis to take the bee college there. I am just finishing up my master craftsman in certification (he is a master beekeeper through the University of Florida Bee College).” His project has been to write and illustrate a 25-page set of simple instructions for use in Island development programs. He is also translating his beekeeping guide into creole.
Save the bees = feed the people
Bo’s plans include the March bee college in Florida and the next Caribbean bee college. He, of course, is focused on getting his new manual printed and going back to Haiti. There is will work toward his objective:
Save the bees = feed the people. In Haiti, honey bees are going to prove to the people that small steps by keeping bees will improve some people’s life dramatically.
Check out Bo’s website for Bees Beyond Borders – http://beesbeyondborders.net
Follow Dr. Connor and ask him questions about his interviews at upcoming beekeeping meetings. For his latest schedule, and for a list of his books, consult www.wicwas.com.