The Gentle Art of Small-Scale Beekeeping
When early colonists first sailed to the New World in the 1620s, they brought along their cherished European honey bees, introducing Apis mellifera to the North American continent. Here, while sowing the seeds of statehood, our pioneer forebears continued to practice the customs of rural England, where honey bees had long been treated as family members. “Telling the bees” about births, marriages and deaths and including them in special occasions was part of the fabric of family life.
Today, small-scale, organic beekeeping is making a timely comeback, with renewed interest in and respect for these lost arts from a simpler time.
“I knew nothing about beekeeping four years ago,” says Ronald Weisburg, owner of Lee Bees, in North Fort Myers, Florida, who credits his wife Cindy, a Master Gardener, with launching the retirees into their latest occupation. The pair now enthusiastically tend 23 hives and Ron is two years into the master beekeeper program at his local Cooperative Extension.
Humans share with honey bees an ancient, intimate and symbiotic relationship of mutual benefit. Although the fossil records indicate that honey bees were thriving on the planet for an estimated 70 million years prior to the appearance of man, human beings and these highly-evolved social insects quickly developed an enduring affinity for each other.
Our interconnectedness goes back at least 10,000 years, when humans began to record their honey-hunting activities in charcoal and chalk pictographs on cave walls. Honey was a valuable food source for our ancestors and they collected it avidly.
As the hunter-gatherer societies settled into self-sustaining family groups, small garden plots became a familiar center of agriculture and social stability. Honey bees adapted to the increasingly organized agricultural system, attracted to the flowering fruit and vegetable crops that sustained their own hive and honey production needs. In return, the bees enhanced pollination and increased harvest yields for their human partners.
Over the intervening millennia, this interspecies friendship has evolved into the practices of modern beekeeping, generating dozens of crop-specific industries. Roughly 100 of the world’s favorite food crops are now directly reliant upon honeybee pollination, which translates to about 40 percent of the human diet.
Today, however, the very capacity for cross-species cooperation that gave rise to the human-honeybee relationship has also given rise to a host of unintended consequences, including a phenomenon dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder, in which resident honey bees simply vanish from hives.
Something is seriously wrong and scientists are stumped. Some observers call the situation the “perfect storm” of circumstances, which includes the proliferation of pesticide and chemical use in mono-crop production; poor queen breeding practices; loss of genetic diversity; immune system weaknesses; global trade expansion, introducing alien pests against which local bees haven’t had time to develop resistance; mystery viruses; and the usual pests, threats and challenges of sustaining healthy, resilient colonies that can produce strong queen bees.
Hope for saving the world’s hardest-working pollinator may lie in finding ways to dramatically increase honeybee research funding, which is being decreased in some states, due to budget cuts.
The nonprofit Friends of Honeybees Foundation has been established as a conduit for honey bee research funds. Some companies, like Häagen-Dazs, have also set up donation sites.
A powerfully positive alternative action, encouraged by under-funded researchers, is for private individuals to take up small-scale beekeeping.
“An army of amateur beekeepers could become part of an eventual solution by helping to collect field data in a wide array of microclimates and conditions,” suggests David Tarpy, Ph.D., the state apiculturist and an associate professor of entomology at North Carolina State University.
Renewed popularity of the English garden hive structure harkens back to times when women were often the mistresses responsible for family hives. Readily available in easily assembled kits from beekeeping catalogs, this lighter hive holds fewer frames than heavier, commercial hives. It is often sold with a gabled, copper-roof section or adorned with finials, making it a delightful visual addition to a bee-friendly backyard or rooftop urban garden.
State-funded cooperative extension programs across the country have the scoop on beekeeping and honey production, providing free information and regular classes. The largest bee school in the United States, in Asheville, North Carolina, last year hosted 300 students for a multi-weekend program and turned away dozens, due to lack of space. Remarks Tarpy, “These are encouraging signs that many are answering the call.”
For information and to locate a local beekeeping association or club, visit. Secure a garden hive from .
Connect with Lee Bees in North Fort Myers, FL, at 239-656-0781 or.
N’ann Harp is a beekeeping activist, freelance writer and founder of Friends of Honeybees, living in Asheville, NC. Contact her at or .