JONESBORO (AP) — What started as a part-time business in 1967 has evolved into the largest honey operation in Arkansas, one that goes from Northeast Arkansas to Southern Mississippi. Now Coy’s Honey Farm near Brookland is believed to be the biggest single operation based in Arkansas.

It’s a family operation, said Richard Coy, who generally oversees the pollination arm of the business. Brother Steven Coy, who lives in Perkinston, Miss., takes care of the southern end of the honey business, as well as raising queens to establish the new colonies. David Coy, who lives in Jonesboro, is in charge of honey production.

"We all three work together to get the job done," Richard said. He said that means all of them do whatever is necessary to get the job done.

But, Richard said, their father, Bobby Coy, "is still the boss," even though he considers himself retired. Bobby was recently driving an 18-wheeler that was transporting bee hives.

It’s a big operation, encompassing some 12,000 hives of honey bees that last year produced 1.2 million pounds of honey, all of which was sold through a cooperative. Because of Coy’s arrangement with Sue Bee Honey, they don’t sell any honey retail, Richard said.

It really is a big operation and makes a living for 14 people.

The business was started by Bobby’s father, Gene Coy, near Lake City in 1967. Bobby, who graduated from Lake City High School, had gone to work for Sears Roebuck and Co. in its Memphis store. He worked with his father for several years while living in Memphis. In the early years, one could actually order honey bees from Sears.

As the business grew, the Coys wanted to leave Memphis to raise their three sons. Bobby could see that the honey operation could be turned into something from which he could make his living. So he left Sears and moved to the Jonesboro area to go into the honey business full-time.

The rest is history.

But it’s not history, not yet, and the business continues to grow and improve. The Coys recently completed a new building at their headquarters on Crowley’s Ridge west of Brookland and have new extraction and other equipment in it that will make life easier as they bring in the harvest of the sweet sticky stuff.

Working bees is not only a sticky job, but it is hot and can be kind of dangerous, particularly if one is allergic to bee stings. In order to handle the insects, the hives and their components, a special suit must be worn. It has gloves, a heavy shirt with long sleeves, a mesh veil and a hat. Bees have great difficulty getting in when all of that garb is tightly closed.

The company has a "holding pen," at a former gravel pit west of Goobertown, where hundreds of hives can be kept. Those who visit the "holding pen" and are not dressed are advised to stay in their vehicle. Coy said there are guard bees, whose job is to protect their hive from predators.

While most of the Coys’ honey is made from cotton and soybean nectar, they send several thousand hives each year to California where they are used to pollinate that state’s almond crop.

"In California they need about 1.2 million hives each year to pollinate the crops," Coy said.

He said the total number of hives in California is listed as about 500,000.

It’s a good sideline for a number of beekeepers in several other states, including the 4,400 hives the Coys sent this season.

Area beekeepers, including the Coys, were affected by the boll weevil eradication program, which ended in recent years in Northeast Arkansas. The same insecticides that were used to kill boll weevils, also kill honeybees.

That meant that the Coys, who depended on cotton for much of its pollen, had to seek alternatives. So they began expanding southward into Mississippi. Now that the eradication program is over, they are seeing a growth of colonies once more using local cotton fields as a source for pollen, he said.

While they have several year-round employees, Coy said during harvest several more are hired. The Coys also perform honey extraction for other beekeeping operations.

When the honey is being brought in, it is taken to the "hot room" where the frames that contain the bees wax honeycombs that contain the sweet liquid are kept while they soften up. Then it is to the "uncapping" operation where the tops of the chambers are removed so the honey can be removed through centrifugal force. From there it is filtered and pumped into barrels for sale.

Another point is that each spring the colonies are divided, which not only prevents overcrowding, but provides additional and fresh hives for honey production.