Comer appoints state apiarist whose wife owns beekeeping supplier

jpatton1@herald-leader.comApril 16, 2012 

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer appointed Sean Burgess of Grayson County on Monday to be state beekeeper, in the Kentucky State Veterinarian's office.

"I look forward to working to educate the public, foster new beekeepers and help identify many of the problems that honey bees and the people who keep them are facing," Burgess said. "I will work with the Kentucky State Beekeepers Association and other related groups to enhance Kentucky's beekeeping industry."

According to the KDA, Burgess worked for the Walter T. Kelley Co. of Clarkson, where he taught classes on beekeeping and kept as many as 70 hives of bees.

"Sean has worked closely with Kentucky beekeepers and is very active in this unique community," Comer said in a news release. "He has helped develop new beekeeping products and has the requisite experience to serve in this capacity."

No specific degree qualifications were listed on the announcement, but Dr. Robert Stout, the state veterinarian, said Burgess is studying toward his master beekeeper's certificate through the Eastern Agricultural Society.

"For the last five years, he has engaged in intense beekeeping and has managed a commercial beekeeping operation. He is so well-respected in his field that he was just named to the board at the Center for the Advancement of Apiculture in Garrison, New York," Stout said in a statement. "We are also aware that he has a very accomplished wife in Grayson County who is the CEO and a partner in a successful beekeeping supply business where Mr. Burgess has taught beekeeping classes over the past few years."

Tom Webster, a specialist in apiculture at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, said Burgess is qualified for the job.

"I'm sure he'll take this position very seriously and will do his best for the state's beekeepers," Webster said. "It is a job that requires a lot of interaction with people and Sean is good with that. I think he'll do well."

But Pank Mattingly, who owns Fern Creek Honey in Louisville and has about 50 hives, said Burgess is not up to the job.

"I'm upset," Mattingly said. "Sean Burgess is not a beekeeper. He sells bee supplies. ... He could not tell you the difference between one bee disease and another, and that's what a bee inspector does. ... If you're having a problem with your bees, if your bees are dying, the state inspector is supposed to be able to tell you why."

Burgess's wife, Jane, operates the Kelley beekeeping-supply business in Western Kentucky.

Before appointing Burgess, the KDA sought an advisory opinion from the Executive Branch Ethics Opinion on whether or not he could continue to teach classes there, as Sean Burgess apparently wanted to do.

According to the opinion, the apiarist must receive KDA approval, which might not be granted "if as state beekeeper the candidate would be involved in decision-making or recommendations concerning the business," which would seem to be the case for a business that involves selling and shipping bees.

The state apiarist enforces regulations on bee diseases, has the power to quarantine them and signs off on out-of-state shipments.

KDA also was advised that Burgess "would need to abstain from any matters involving his wife's business. ... (He) also would have to take care not to use his official position or title in any way that would give an advantage to his wife's business," the commission said.

Burgess replaces Phil Craft, who was one of at least 14 non-merit employees fired when Comer took office Jan. 3. Many Kentucky beekeepers expressed dismay at the time, citing the importance of bees in agriculture.

The state beekeeper is also responsible for checking out potentially dangerous aggressive bees.

And for that, beekeeper Abigail Keam in Lexington, is grateful that the post has been filled. Her 30 hives supply her with honey and other products for the Lexington Farmers Market.

"I'm delighted that we have a new bee inspector, especially with the finding of Africanized bees in Tennessee," she said.

Last week, Tennessee's state apiarist confirmed that for the first time, partially Africanized bees had been found in Monroe County. The bees, which had been imported from another state, were genetically 17 percent Africanized and have been destroyed. The Eastern Tennessee beekeeper, who was not identified, was attacked after opening a hive; he received about 30 stings and got away by jumping in his car.

Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.

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