Enthusiastic amateurs beef up bee populations
Honeybees and their friends are alive and well in the nation’s largest cities. Despite being an endangered species, hardworking honeybees are making an urban comeback thanks to the help of those who know their worth and are now taking part in the cause that is beekeeping.
Every state has at least one beekeeping association; New York alone has 16. Sprouting to help amateurs interested in beekeeping, these associations rely on experienced beekeepers who happily share their knowledge and promise that beekeeping can be as simple as gardening.
Every urban beekeeper has a unique story about how they became involved in the pastime. One mother in Gainesville, Fla., started to raise bees with her 5-year-old son because she had learned how in the Peace Corps and wanted to share the fun with her child. A deacon in San Francisco started beekeeping to raise funds for the food pantry her church runs.
“The honeybee is essential to the environment, and without them a lot of plant life would not be pollinated,” said Jerry Gildea, who works with Rebecca Wood at Urban Beekeepers in Miami’s Liberty City area. “Right now, there is a lot of die-off in the honeybee population, so it is important for more people to keep bees if they can, in order to increase their numbers.
“Even in an urban area, there is a lot that needs pollinating by the bees. It also takes people in an urban area and puts them closer to a more natural environment, which is something that we don’t get to experience a lot of. It brings something that is still wild to the city.”
The two roommates brought home a hive box one day after friends in Lake Worth, Fla., inspired them to keep bees in their backyard.
“I read two books, one of them being ‘Beekeeping for Dummies,’” Gildea said. “Really, we just have some friends in Palm Beach County who gave us a hive, and Rebecca worked their hive and passed their knowledge down to me, and I passed it down to a few other people. We learned a lot just by doing it.”
Today they have seven hives. Once every two to three weeks, they open up their hive box to check on the health of the 15,000 bees inside and their queen.
“You end up getting stung a couple of times,” Gildea said. “It is a little bit of a shock, so that is why we only do it every couple of weeks.” Beekeepers become accustomed to the stings, “especially when you hone in on your gentleness inside the hive,” Gildea said.
At first, Gildea and Wood focused solely on the honey and improving their local environment. “Well, we do gardening and try to produce as much of our food as we can, so beekeeping was a way we could harvest our own sweetener,” Gildea said. “They are great pollinators, and we wanted to have them in our yard doing what they do best. Also, it just seemed exciting to work with bees.”
Beekeeping soon offered two lessons beyond the local environment and interacting with nature. “Honeybees taught me the importance of hard work and preparation,” Gildea said. “They plan for the worst, and that is why we can harvest their surplus.”
Honeybees pollinate more than a hundred U.S. crops, including apples, fruits, berries, almonds, melons, cucumbers, clovers and alfalfa. One-third of the total U.S. diet is derived from insect-pollinated plants, so their survival, which is threatened by parasites, pesticides, habitat loss and grazing practices, is incredibly important to maintain high levels of food production. Anyone growing tomatoes or tending a garden benefits from beekeeping neighbors.
Bees also provide beeswax used for candles and beauty products. Propolis is tree sap that honeybees alter with enzymes to create a sealant. Traditional medicine has found it to be anti-microbial and current research is investigating its other health benefits.
Gildea and Wood also operate Comb Cutters Bee Removal Services, which differs widely from other exterminators.
“We don’t kill the honeybees on purpose,” Gildea explained. “Deaths are accidental. We charge the same amount, but we are thorough, and kindness is free. What we do involves finding the queen and placing her in the hive box with the brood comb. Her pheromones will drive most of the bees into the hive box. Then we gather the bees that do not go into the hive box, using kind methods. We spray them with sugar water that slows them down, and later they lick it off each other once they are in the box. We also use a bee vacuum that places them in a bucket, and then we move them to the hive box.”
Customers have called Gildea and Wood after attempting to remove hives. When that happens, there is a chance the queen is dead. If they find a queenless hive, they use a process called requeening, or the “newspaper method,” to merge two separate hives together. This can also improve the hive’s genetics; since the queen is mother to all in the hive, her genetics determine the characteristics of the entire colony.
The American Beekeeping Federation recommends kind removal methods for unwanted hives and suggests contacting a local beekeeper who may be able to remove the bees without killing them.
To locate a beekeeper, look in the Yellow Pages under beekeeper or honey; contact your county extension service, which may be listed under the name of your state’s agricultural university; or ask your fire or police department, which often have lists of
beekeepers who will take unwanted bees.
Professionals offer this advice: Don’t try to remove the bees yourself unless you are an experienced beekeeper.