This article was co-written by Micah Woodcock and appeared in the August 2009 issue of GRID, Philadelphia’s new urban sustainability magazine.
“Bee, bee, bee. . . bee!” 18 month old Isaac recently learned the word and seemed to have forgotten all others. With his jungle gym located next to his father’s hives in a large Germantown backyard, Isaac showed a fanatic fascination and no fear as we opened the hives for a look. Philly is in fact full of young bee-obsessed beekeepers. Our recent urban beekeeping survey and tour revealed that the majority of Philly’s two dozen or so beekeepers started within the last five years. Their attitudes, knowledge and beekeeping set ups are as diverse as the city itself.
In many ways, honey bees are the perfect urban livestock. They can be kept in small spaces- even on rooftops. They are quiet and unaggressive (most “bee” stings are actually perpetrated by bumblebees and hornets). They require relatively minimal time and financial investment: an average of four hours a month and a few hundred dollars to get started. Above all, they produce wonderful, abundant honey, which is a much healthier sweetener than the highly refined sugar products now ubiquitous in processed food and on grocery store shelves. Eating unfiltered, raw honey from your immediate locale is also widely thought to help with seasonal allergies. Furthermore, when stored in air-tight containers, honey has a shelf life of a few thousand years. Because of the preponderance of male trees and other common city plantings, urban honey is generally considered to be of high quality. Beekeepers at Mill Creek and Greensgrow Farms will tell you that their home grown honey often sells out within weeks of harvesting. With the adaptability of beekeeping, Philadelphia could easily fulfill all of its own demand for honey.
Honey bees provide other useful products as well. The wax used for comb construction can be harvested along with the honey and has countless uses ranging from candlemaking and cosmetics to batik and moustache wax. After the honey is harvested from the comb it can be placed in a nylon stocking or fine mesh bag, and boiled very briefly to remove impurities, such as dirt and larval casings. The impurities remain in the stocking, which can then be removed, and the wax solidifies on top of the water as it cools. The wax can be melted again and poured into molds to make candles, or combined with other ingredients to make soap. Having a surplus of honey around can also provide an easy avenue into the art of home-brewing; honey wine (a.k.a. mead) is a very simple and delicious alcoholic beverage easily tackled by folks new to the craft. Propolis, an anti-microbial substance the bees use to seal and sterilize their hives, has a long history of being used medicinally in the treatment of colds, flu, sore throats, and aching teeth.
Many beekeepers also profess its therapeutic value as a hobby. This seems to result from the calm both required and induced by working with a living hive. Honey bees are a social insect whose complicated collective behavior belies the relatively simple biology of a single bee. Because the queen bee is in most cases singularly responsible for reproduction, one may almost regard a bee colony as a single organism whose many distinct bodies perform highly specialized tasks for the good of the whole. Worker bees perform a wide variety of roles at different phases of their 8 week lifespan: cell cleaning, larvae nursing, drone and queen feeding, wax production, honeycomb building, pollen packing, propilizing, mortuary service, temperature regulation, water carrying, guarding, soldiering, and foraging. This division of labor is unlike any other outside of Homo sapiens and results in the peculiar fascination they hold for us. Who can resist a glimpse into this society in miniature that a glassed-walled observation hive provides?
Bees are also essential pollinators for gardens, farms, and orchards. Other than wind-pollinated corn, the vast majority of our vegetable, fruit, and nut crops are highly dependent on bees for pollination. The commercial beekeeping industry is a multi-billion dollar industry that actually makes the vast majority of its money from pollination services rather than honey. Commercial beekeepers truck their hives across the country following crop pollination seasons, often traveling from New York to Texas to California in a single year. In recent years, these “rental” hives have been devastated by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a phenomenon in which a hive’s worker bees suddenly disappear en masse. While there is still no clear consensus as to the ultimate cause of CCD, most of the suspected factors relate to the stresses of migratory commercial beekeeping: exposure to pesticides, transmission of insect diseases and varroa mites, and malnutrition resulting from monocultural food sources. Whatever the cause, home scale beekeepers have been almost entirely unaffected and there have been no reports of CCD within the Philadelphia beekeeping community. Considering the vital role bees play in pollination, relocalization of beekeeping may be vital to the future of our food production.
HOW TO JOIN PHILLY’S BEEKEEPING REVOLUTION:
1. Find a location. Philadelphians are currently beekeeping in backyards; on rooftops; and at community gardens, urban farms, public gardens, and schools. In the case of a backyard or roof, there are a couple strategies to employ if you’re worried about what your neighbors will think. It’s not too difficult to hide a hive; bees are quiet and often do their foraging up to two miles from their home. Folks in NYC have even disguised their rooftop hives by painting them to look like chimneys! The other option is to get your neighbors on board by sharing the honey harvest and allaying their fears about stinging.
2. Find a mentor. Although a lot can be learned from books, beekeeping is a skill that’s best developed with guidance from an experienced teacher. If you don’t happen to know any beekeepers, you can connect by taking classes or attending meetings of Beekeeping Associations. Last year, the Philadelphia Beekeeper’s Guild (www.phillybeekeepers.org) was founded and now boasts dozens of members and well-attended monthly meetings featuring prominent guest speakers expounding on a wide variety of beekeeping subjects. Neighboring Montgomery County (www.montgomerycountybeekeepers.com) and Chester County (www.chescobees.org) both have long-established groups.
3. Acquire equipment, supplies, and bees. To build the most common Langstroth style hive, you will need:
●6-8 hive bodies or supers (stacked boxes that contain the hive)
●9-10 frames per hive body (rectangles of wood that hold the honeycomb)
●Wax foundations (pre-made hexagonal framework to get the bees started)
●Bottom board and outer cover (to protect the hive from the elements)
All this can be mail ordered from vendors like the Walter T. Kelley Company (www.kelleybees.com) or acquired from local beekeeping groups for around $250. Assembling your hive will take several days of work. Alternatively, a more rustic top bar hive (an older form still commonly used in the tropics) can be built for as little as $7.
To get into your hives, you will want to spend another $50 or so on the following supplies:
●Smoker (burns leaves or pine needles to mask alarm pheromones and suppress stinging)
●Hive tool (a useful implement for opening hive bodies and moving frames)
●Bee veil (a mosquito net works just fine to protect the face)
A starter colony of bees including a queen will cost around $100.
4. Inspect your hive regularly. After lightly smoking the entrance, open the hive and closely examine each frame for the following:
● Adequate room for the rearing of brood and the storage of food (nectar, pollen, honey) as the season progresses and the hive increases in size. Add frames and hive bodies as necessary.
● Enough nectar and pollen coming into the hive throughout the season and going into winter. It is sometimes necessary to supplement their food supply with sugar.
● Health of the laying queen and signs of hive diseases or pests that may require intervention on the part of the beekeeper.
● Signs that the hive may be preparing to swarm. Bees instinctively like to swarm- it’s how they perpetuate the species. If not pre-empted by the keeper, a large number of bees will leave with the queen to start a new hive.
A hive inspection typically takes 15-30 minutes and should be conducted weekly during the spring when risk of swarming is highest. This is of particular importance in the city. As much as everyone loves bees (even if they don’t know it yet), having a swarm of thousands hanging from a telephone pole in front of your house might make some people a bit nervous. As the season progresses inspections need not happen as frequently.
5. Extract your honey and beeswax. The simplest method of harvesting honey from the hive is to cut out sections of comb and eat it! If you want liquid honey, you can cut out the comb, crush it, and strain it to separate the wax from the honey. The most common means of harvesting honey, both commercially and by hobbyist beekeepers, is an electric or hand crank extractor. A thin layer of beeswax cappings is cut from the surface of a full frame and then multiple frames are placed in the extractor, which is spun rapidly to remove the honey. This method allows the beekeeper to harvest honey without crushing the comb, which can be made into other products or returned to the hive for re-use by the bees. Extraction is often done twice a year and usually involves a full day’s work. An extractor typically costs from $350 to $800, but can often be shared or borrowed from beekeeping groups.
RECOMMENDED READING: The Backyard Beekeeper, Kim Flottum and Natural Beekeeping, Ross Conrad.