You needn’t be the Queen to enjoy the sweet life at Bee City Zoo.
Just as they are in many households, mornings are a zoo for the residents of one neighborhood outside of Cottageville. Just three miles west of Givhans State Park, the doors have yet to open at Bee City, but already things are buzzing. There is little doubt that the Queen is awake and busily dispersing worker bees to nearby fields and forests to do her bidding. Here, the “honey-do” list is long, and will not wait for sleepyheads.
Around the park, llamas poke fuzzy heads up over fence tops to investigate the sound of peacocks screeching around the corner. As serious as tiny monks, Capuchins blink from their lofty perches, while tortoises ease down sandy slopes in slow motion, and quick vervet monkeys clamor for their Cheerios. In the Nature Center, there is some serious slithering going on. With cars already pulling into the parking lot, the cacophony of sound is music to the ears of the owner, Scott Beiring, as he gathers his staff to make sure everything is in order to start the new day.
When his father, Archie Biering, constructed a literal city of bee hives back in the mid 90’s, the Bee 52 Airport, Buzz Cut Barber Shop, and Pig Bee-Wig Bee Supermarket were simply creative stops along Tupelo Drive and Honey Lane; the place the amateur beekeeper called the Sweetest Little Town in the World. But the retired shipyard worker just couldn’t keep the secret life of bees to himself—his goal was to share their important work with everyone, and spread the word about the need to protect them for future generations.
His son, Scott laughs at what neighbors and friends must have thought of his dad at the time. “Poor guy, he retires and goes to live in the woods with bees.” As Archie Biering and his wife, Diane, began to open their sweet city to garden clubs, school groups, and tourists, the word spread, and soon hundreds flocked to learn of the tiny bees’ important contributions to pollination and their precarious future in an ever-changing world.
Gradually, more creatures and critters found their way to Cottageville. With the addition of a few goats and a goose named Harry, Bee City began to evolve into an unexpected zoo and education center on the edge of the Edisto.
When his parents began talk of retiring, Scott realized just how fast life was moving. Having grown up with bees, he watched his parents’ strong work ethic and the joy they derived from the business. He decided to give up his job to buy his parents’ interest in Bee City. “We opened up a can of worms, for sure,” he says, “but it has been such a blessing. We’re continuing the work, and continuing to evolve just as they did. The response has truly been a blessing to us all.”
On this late spring day, Scott, his wife Bridgett, their daughter and her boyfriend are among the first to greet guests anxious to enter the doors to the city built for bees. Hands are stamped, and food for the various animals and birds is placed in small, sweaty palms. The excitement is palpable among visitors of all ages as they step through the wooden doors leading to the cages and corrals of sights and sounds.
Many of the animals are rescued, not always from bad situations, but simply because their owners can no longer care for them. One such rescue, a spider monkey named Joey, hit pay dirt when he came from such a situation in Kansas to live with Scott and Bridgett. “I never imagined I’d have a monkey in the house, much less one that would sleep in the bed, ride a jet ski and have his own Instagram account,” says Scott.
His dad still works there on the weekends, sharing teaching duties in the Nature Center with Master Naturalist, Dennis Blejski. Today, a tiny fox named Frances has captivated visitors. She and her brother, Marion, are experiencing their first day on a leash, delighting young and old with their antics. Nearby, a leopard tortoise named Fluffy lounges in a mulch-filled pool. All around the room, snakes, turtles, tortoises and alligators seem right at home in habitats created for their particular needs. No one leaves the Nature Center without a few facts they did not know when they entered.
“You never know how an experience with the animals will affect people,” Scott says. As if to prove his point, a curious emu pecks at the pearl earring of a passerby, eliciting laughter from her companions. Seconds later, a llama chews thoughtfully on the long brown hair of a visitor before nibbling on her shirt. The experience can also be one of healing, he says, emotionally describing a man whose joy had been stolen after suffering great loss. “A bird lit on his hand, and he smiled this big smile. His daughter came running to the shop to get more food. It was the first time they had seen him smile in a long time.”
Whether for education or pure enjoyment, no visit to Bee City is complete without a glimpse of the hive behind a glass panel, offering insight into the fascinating society of worker bees, drones, and the beloved queen. Coming and going at will, their pollen-covered legs perform a duty vital to the reproduction of plants and trees as they travel from flower to flower, and we are the lucky beneficiaries of the byproduct of their work.
With school tours, senior citizens groups, church groups, summer camps, and other organizational tours taking advantage of the fun and educational experience to be had at Bee City, Scott and his family are as busy as the bees that have put them on the map. That their work is a labor of love is as clear as the golden honey produced in their hives, and for those who visit Bee City, what they do makes life just a little bit sweeter.
by Susan Frampton