Don Hopkins knows his way around a beehive.
Hopkins is the NCDA&CS Apiary Inspection Supervisor, which puts him in charge of helping beekeepers across the state maintain the health and safety of their hives. The program includes six inspectors and a lab technician who together serve the entire state.
“What we do is inspect the brood nest of honeybee colonies to ensure that the growers get the pollination services that the bees provide for them. That’s why even though bees are animals, we work in the Plant Industry division,” he said. “It’s about protecting the pollinators that help sustain agriculture.”
Hopkins has spent 32 years with the NCDA&CS, but he has been around bees for most of his life. Born in Bernardsville, NJ, Hopkins was introduced to beekeeping at an early age.
“It started when I was around ten. They used to deliver bread back in those days, and the delivery man was a beekeeper. He would come and sell some comb honey along with selling the bread, and I just became fascinated by what he was doing,” Hopkins said. “I really owe it to him for getting me started.”
When Hopkins moved to North Carolina to marry his wife in 1988, he sold the bees he had been keeping in New Jersey due to a quarantine in North Carolina on bringing in the insects from out of state. He soon met then-supervisor Logan Williams, who hired him on as a temporary inspector.
That job eventually turned into a permanent position, and around 1993 Hopkins took over Williams’ position as head of the apiary program. In the decades since, no two days have been quite the same, he said.
“It’s pretty hard to pinpoint what an ‘average’ day would be, it varies quite a bit. Right now for instance we’re doing probably our most intensive inspections for commercial beekeepers who are moving out of state as well as selling to other beekeepers in-state,” he said. “We have a permit-to-sell list that we maintain that keeps us busy from the end of February through into the beginning of March, and then the rest of year we do routine inspections for anybody who has a request for problems with their bees.”
A love of animals runs through Hopkins’ family. He previously worked as a saddler while his wife works as a horsemanship instructor, and the two first met in Florida due to their shared work with horses.
Education is a big part of what Hopkins’ work, as he talks to beekeepers and teaches them about issues they need to be aware of. Chief among them is finding a better way to adapt to the Varroa mite, an exotic pest which has become ubiquitous in colonies around the world.
“We’re not going to be able to eradicate them, but finding a way to get colonies to the point where they are resistant enough, that should be the goal of all beekeepers,” Hopkins said. “There are a lot of people who don’t understand how big of a problem this one pest is, and it’s important that everyone knows this.”
Inspections give Hopkins the opportunity to interact with all kinds of people with all kinds of takes on beekeeping.
“Bees are something that have always been fun for me. Working with bees and seeing how other beekeepers are working with them, everybody has a different take on how they manage their colonies,” he said. “It’s just something new every day.”
Hopkins has worked with bees his entire life, but he said he still learns something new every day.
“Anybody who says they know what’s going on with bees, they’re missing too much,” he said. “They’ll always show you something new.”