FRANKFORT — Kentucky beekeepers are abuzz about the firing of state apiarist Phil Craft. He was one of at least 14 non-merit employees in the Kentucky Agriculture Department who got their walking papers Jan. 3, when new commissioner James Comer took office.
Craft had been on the job for 12½ years, since the administration of Comer's mentor, Billy Ray Smith.
Craft said he never viewed his job as a political hire. But Comer's office said the commissioner "reserves the right to hire his own team."
Comer's office said he planned to name a new state beekeeper "in a matter of days," and that he was working with Dr. Robert Stout, the state veterinarian, to find "a qualified, capable" person.
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"While he is making some difficult decisions under what amounts to an almost 11 percent budget cut, Commissioner Comer is committed to growing the honey industry in Kentucky and is therefore keeping the state beekeeper position," Comer's office said in a statement.
Members of the state's beekeeping community say Comer will have a hard time finding someone better than Craft.
"Phil did a terrific job for 12 years," said Tom Webster, an apiculture specialist at Kentucky State University. "I hate to see him go."
Webster said the position was more important than many people realize. "These days, a lot of people are trying to grow some of their own food," he said. "If they're going to grow bee-pollinated crops, they need bees."
Apples, peaches, berries and pumpkins are all impossible without bees. As is honey, of course.
But the state beekeeper has a couple of other important duties. If anyone finds aggressive, possibly Africanized bees, the state apiarist is sent to check them out. So far, Kentucky's been lucky. "We've found some pretty cranky bees but no Africanized ones," Webster said.
Richard Hosey, a longtime beekeeper in Midway, is worried about his hives. He wants to send some out of state but cannot do that until he gets official certification that they are disease-free, something the state beekeeper usually does.
"We need a state apiarist. I've got a couple hundred hives. It's more than a struggle to be productive these days with all the things coming at us," said Hosey, who sells his honey in Lexington at Good Foods Market and Café. "We need someone who can help, especially new beekeepers. (Craft) was great at that. He's a knowledgeable, amiable guy, and he's helped a lot of new people. What most people don't get is that beekeeping is a true art. ... You almost have to be born a beekeeper."
Lorie Jacobs, president of the Kentuckiana Beekeepers Association in Louisville, said Craft was known for his passion for beekeeping and his patience with newcomers.
Craft was instrumental in getting Kentucky Educational Television's Kentucky Life to film a segment last year on urban beekeeping for an upcoming episode.
"It was exciting, fun and shed a wonderful light on urban beekeeping," she said. "Honeybees are so important to our daily lives. We just don't have a clue how rotten it would be if honeybees ceased to exist.
"I have no doubt that with Phil's passion for the honeybee, it will continue in Kentucky to receive the focus it deserves."
Under his tenure, Craft developed education efforts that reach thousands of beekeepers across the state. His newsletter was emailed to 1,500 recipients and forwarded to hundreds more, including some outside the country. Based on his efforts, Craft was invited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to speak to beekeepers in Bangladesh, but he turned the engagement down so he could be in Kentucky for Comer's transition.
Beekeepers around the state are worried about what the firing means for the future of beekeeping in Kentucky; Craft said he had gotten about 100 emails and calls.
In fact, even though he hasn't been on the payroll for three weeks, Craft is still on the job: As he gets word of problems with bees, he's doing his best to sort things out, and he led a beekeeping school over the weekend in Hazard.
"I'm still working. I'm just doing it for free," he said. "I'm doing it for the beekeepers."
Craft, who lives in Wilmore, plans to continue to send a newsletter under his own name, maintain the beekeeping schools and tend to his hives. He also is looking for other opportunities to keep his hand in the business; one potential job doesn't appeal because it would mean a move to Florida. Craft worked as a civil engineer for many years but says he has no interest in returning to that field. In an email, he said he was "going to somehow try to earn a living related to beekeeping and stay in Kentucky."
The job of state beekeeper might, at first blush, seem frivolous in this austere budget climate. But bees have been in their own crisis for the past few years due to colony collapse disorder, in which whole swaths of bees have mysteriously died or disappeared, and other problems with pesticides and mites.
"It's a very difficult time to be a beekeeper now," Craft said. "It's a challenge. If you've got problems, where do you turn? They turn to me. And I still answer."