Curious Burg: Beekeeping

by Diane McDonough

Question: How did local beekeepers get their start?
Bees are a big deal. Without bees, there is no food: vegetables, flowers and herbs and spices all rely on bees for pollination. Until recently, for most of us, bees were just background noise busily doing their thing. When suddenly, bee colonies started collapsing all over the country putting bees in the headlines. This renewed interest has led to a rise in backyard-beekeepers. While not a run of the mill hobby, beekeeping is enjoying a resurgence in popularity.
A desire to contribute to the strength of the local ecosystem was part of the motivation for local backyard-beekeepers Jessica Kost and her roommate Abby Davis to start keeping bees in their backyard in New Cumberland. As gardeners, adding a beehive seemed like a no-brainer. They did a lot of research, took the dive and began their bee adventure. While lucky enough to have a family member who kept bees to turn to for help and advice, Davis recommends finding a mentor or joining a local group of beekeepers.
The investment in research began with checking local ordinances and laws governing beekeeping. Most places, recognizing the importance of bees to the local landscape, have few laws around beekeeping beyond common sense or “local nuisance” laws. Where Kost lives there are no constraints to keeping bees, but she advises talking to the neighbors about having a hive in case someone has allergies. There are a lot of preconceived notions about bees and their behavior. Being well-educated about bee behavior can help neighbors see the importance of backyard beekeeping!
Having made the decision to incorporate a hive into their garden, Kost and Davis went about finding the physical pieces for the hive. They found a local Amish craftsman — another Central Pa. Perk! — to build the hive. Once the pieces were procured, Kost and Davis were able to paint the hive, which helps protect it from the weather. There are a lot of considerations to owning bees, just like any animal, one being to make sure they have food and water. Davis notes, “Throughout the middle summer months in Central Pa., the hive must be checked weekly. This is to ensure they have enough room to continue to build honeycomb for the queen to lay eggs. She can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day! In a standard hive check, the beekeeper must make sure the bees have enough to eat, so oftentimes you will find a bottle of inverted sugar water inside a hive. Another important thing to keep in mind is offering a water source close by. If you have a swimming pool, maybe you’ve noticed bees hanging around. Now you know why!”
Once the physical plant was in place, the next order of business was to procure bees. While it is possible to harvest bees in the wild, most beekeepers follow the path that Kost and Davis chose by buying a “nuc” or nuclei, a series of frames containing related bees, including a queen, that are ready to form a new hive. Bees have very sensitive, very complicated relationships that form early in their development. Having a “nuc” with already formed social groups makes it easier to form a successful hive.
No great endeavor is without its share of heartache. The first year that Davis and Kost started their hives, their bees died. Davis shared that their hive collapsed last year, either due to cold weather or varroa mites. Bees are great communal supporters, flapping their wings in order to generate heat, which in turn, keeps the hive warm and the Queen happy. While this vastly oversimplifies the process that the bees live by, it does point out how delicate the whole environment is. An established hive can require sixty to eighty pounds of honey to last through the winter; a new hive requires even more support,which is why it’s not recommended to take honey from a hive in the first 1-2 years. The bees need the honey for themselves!
Beekeeping is a fascinating hobby. The initial investment is nominal, usually under $500, some space and time and energy spent in learning about bees and maintaining good hive hygiene. For Kost and Davis, the investment is worth the time. While they wait for the hive to start producing—it takes about a year—they are still enjoying the benefits in their garden and helping the local ecosystem. Kost already has plans for using that honey in new recipes for her business “fudg-o-lutely” at the Broad Street Market. For anyone interested in taking the next step, a great place to start is with the Capital Area Beekeepers Association (CABA)