The unlikely apiarist

August 28th, 2015

Beekeeping, tending cattle and managing a dental practice: It’s all in a day’s work for your alumni president.

Dr. Lee Kavanagh checks the frames of the bee hives at his College Station, Texas, home.

From the bitter freezes of January to the sweltering stretches of July, inside the hive, it’s a steady 90-plus degrees. Or at least it should be. The bees need to maintain this temperature to survive. In summer months, they’ll carry nectar in their mouths to the hive, regurgitate it, and flap their wings, helping the water to evaporate from the nectar, and in the process, providing natural air conditioning. In the winter months, “heater bees” warm the hive’s close-knit quarters within the 14×18-inch wooden boxes.

Even if the hive maintains its standard temperature, all array of things can go wrong: The bees may not make it past swarm season, or worst yet, the queen might grow ill. When that happens, the workers will raise another in her place.

“If the original queen doesn’t leave, they’ll fight to the death,” Kavanagh explains. And the workers with them. It’s the bee equivalent to a hailstorm.

Kavanagh preps the smoker with wood chips prior to tending the hive.

Dr. Lee Kavanagh preps the smoker with wood chips prior to tending the hive. Photos: Tim Stephenson, Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences

These are just a few tidbits we get from Dr. Lee Kavanagh ’02, a part-time beekeeper and full-time dentist, who in May assumed presidency of the Baylor College of Dentistry Alumni Association.

From our vantage point on the dirt driveway, the four beehives look unremarkable — like stacks of abandoned, oversized Legos. But up close, a swarm of motion ensues as Kavanagh lifts the screen from one hive.

“When we open up the hive, they’ll start moving really fast,” cautions Kavanagh, covered from head to toe in a white beekeeping suit. The smoker in his hand looks like the oilcan clutched by Tin Man on “The Wizard of Oz” and smells like a long-burning barbecue pit, but it produces a calming effect.

Dr. Lee Kavanagh tends one of the beehives at his College Station, Texas, home. “It makes them think the hive is on fire,” says Kavanagh. “They’ll engorge with honey and become docile because they think they have to move.”

That frees up Kavanagh to harvest the honey. The collection is straightforward: He snips off the wax tops, places the frames within a drum and spins off the good stuff. It’s the culmination of three years of work — that’s if the hive even lives that long.

Dr. Lee Kavanagh opens the hive to reveal that the bees have been busy. Honey is ready to be harvested.

Kavanagh opens the hive to reveal that the bees have been busy. Honey is ready to be harvested.

It’s not that tending the hives occupies much of Kavanagh’s time. Because of its volatility, one can’t really make a living from beekeeping. Fortunately for Kavanagh, dentistry is his mainstay. But he and his wife, Lela, spend most of their spare time caring for the menagerie of animals at their College Station, Texas, ranch home.

Paco the rabbit lounges in a corner of the living room, content in his well-tended enclosure. A deer mouse whiles away the evening in his pint-sized wooden city off the kitchen. Brandi, a high-strung wire-haired terrier, is tempered by two senior canines, both blind: Chief, a 12-year-old Chihuahua mix, and Mollie, a 15-year-old Great Pyrenees, who snoozes the day away.

Kavanagh with Bumblebee, one of three female Jersey cows he and his wife, Lela, own.

In the air-conditioned, screened-in patio with Bumblebee

There’s the cat who moseyed over to the Kavanagh home, birthed a litter of kittens and never left, a hen house replete with fresh eggs — daily — and the newest addition: three female Jersey cows, who with time, will produce milk. The barn has yet to be built, so in the meantime the girls enjoy luxe accommodations: a screened-in, air-conditioned patio connected to the kitchen. From their vantage point on the living room sofa, the Kavanaghs can opt to watch the evening news or simply pull up the blinds to see their bovine friends just outside the window, hooves pampered on a cushion of hay nearly half a foot thick.

Even that doesn’t always keep the cows out of the house.

“One time I closed this door, but it wasn’t latched,” says Kavanagh, jiggling the doorknob. He walked into the kitchen and there was Bumblebee, their alpha female, standing casually at the kitchen counter, her liquid brown eyes taking in the surroundings. “It sounded like someone with heels on,” he recounts.

Tending the animals takes more than 20 hours a week — one hour in the morning and two hours each night. During those daytime hours in between, Kavanagh and Lela manage the dental practice.

It’s a simple shop. Kavanagh is the dentist and dental hygienist. Lela is the office manager, and Shirley “came with the office.” A dental assistant for the previous owner, she opted to stay on with Kavanagh.

He bought the practice in July 2009 with a handshake deal in the office but didn’t inherit patients. The retiring dentist’s niche focused on temporomandibular joint disorders.

The practice’s College Station locale comes with a unique challenge: Every three years it loses 70 percent of its patient base, comprised primarily of Texas A&M students and military personnel.

The Kavanaghs at the College Station, Texas dental practice

The Kavanaghs at their College Station, Texas, dental practice

With the Kavanaghs’ approachable manner, they don’t have any trouble with the fluctuation. As one class of students leaves, members spread the word to the next, negating the need for advertising.

“We try to make it feel more like a home than a dental office,” Lela explains. “We have a lot of patients who move away but come back just to see him.”

Even if you’re not in need of dental treatment, if you’re in College Station soon, you’ll want to stop by to see Kavanagh. He may just have some honey for you. And if he doesn’t, just give him your address. He’ll send you some.

— Jennifer Fuentes