Buzz, buzz, beekeeping

What’s black and yellow and all a-buzz in Richmond? If you thought “The VCU Rams!” you’d be right, but that’s not what we’re talking about today. Today, it’s bees!

What’s black and yellow and all a-buzz in Richmond? If you thought “The VCU Rams!” you’d be right, but that’s not what we’re talking about today. Today, it’s bees! My first introduction to the world of beekeeping was through the Reading Rainbow episode where LeVar Burton follows a beekeeper around for a day on the job.

I was interested, but as a kid with mild allergies, beekeeping didn’t make my list of Dream Careers at the time. And yet somehow, I found myself in a whole room of beekeepers at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden Library & Educational complex on the second Thursday in April. There I took my first tentative step towards becoming an apiarist. But why?

Well, if you were able to attend one of the free showings of the film The Vanishing of the Bees held at the Richmond Science Museum last month, then you might be familiar with colony collapse disorder (CCD). Essentially, whole hives of bees are vanishing, and nobody is precisely sure why (though there are many hypotheses including malnutrition, pesticides being used by industrial farming, viral or fungal infections, and more). Beekeeping has experienced an upswing in popularity lately, in part because people certainly don’t want to lose bees and all of that sweet, sweet honey (and pollinating!), and it’s a brand of farming that can be done on a small (even urban, depending on the local ordinances) scale, and it’s pretty cool. Those are the reasons I could think up for becoming a beekeeper, anyway.

So there I was at the Richmond Beekeepers Association meeting, learning about top-bar hives vs. Langstroth hives, and the status of swarming bees (despite this alarming-sounding term, a swarm of bees is actually a GOOD thing!). David Stover, one of the RBA members, explained that bees swarm as a means to reproduce. The bees leave the hive as a large mass to nest somewhere to replicate a new colony.

“What drew you to beekeeping?” I asked.

Stover replied that he was “reading the morning paper and in the home and garden section, there was information about a bee workshop, and I told my wife ‘I think I’d like to do that’. Then I never acted on that. Exactly a year later, there was another ad for another bee workshop, and when I mentioned it to my wife, she laughed and said, ‘Oh yeah right, you’re going to do that!’ so I signed up…and the rest is history!” He has been beekeeping for several years now.

Nancy Essid, secretary of the RBA, had this to say when I asked her in an email what drew her to bees: “Beekeeping is actually a family tradition although I didn’t know that until after I got interested in bees. I found some old beekeeping equipment on some family land and got curious about what it was all about. Then I found out how important bees are to our food supply and the environment. I wanted to do something good for the environment and continue a family tradition. So, I started keeping bees. The more I learn about them, the more fascinated I am with them. They are truly amazing insects.”

I had to know, though, about the little thing bees are famous for. The stinging. “Do you get stung a lot?”

Essid’s answer is reassuring. “I’ve only gotten stung 4 times in 7 years. The worst was last fall when I got stung right next to my eye. My eye was swollen shut for a day. If you are calm and gentle around bees, they will not sting you. When they do sting they will die.” David Stover offered similar advice, advising being gentle, and perhaps keeping an EpiPen on-hand.

“Is beekeeping important? Why?”

“Beekeeping is very important,” explained Essid. “Especially for people who like to eat. Bees help produce 1/3 of our food supply. They also help pollinate plants and so help other living creatures in the food web. I think if people realized how important bees are we would insist on protecting them and their environment. They are much more susceptible to toxins than we are. If bees aren’t healthy the environment they are in is not healthy. Unfortunately, there are a lot of unhealthy bees out there.”

Finally, I wanted to know what advice Essid has for aspiring apiarists. “The first thing an aspiring apiarist should do is join her/his local bee club. Connecting to local experienced beekeepers can give you access to years of experience. Also, you can find people to call and help you when you need it. Not to mention making great friends and having a community of people who share your passion for these amazing insects. The second thing is to read everything you can about beekeeping. Create your own beekeeping library so you have resources you can use when you need them. The more you know about honeybees, the better beekeeper you will be.”

And for the young aspiring apiarist, the Richmond Beekeepers Association has a youth mentoring program. Every year the association will sponsor one young person between the ages of 10 and 18 who is interested in taking up beekeeping. This is great for Virginia because while beekeeping may be the new chicken-keeping in terms of popularity, according to the Richmond Beekeepers Association website there are dwindling numbers of beekeepers in the state of Virginia.

Their website states that “Whether due to one of the many afflictions being suffered by bees causing a beekeeper to leave the art, or simply due to old age, there are fewer beekeepers each year. This is somewhat alarming in regards to the value honeybee pollination plays in Virginia agriculture. The honeybee’s pollination activity makes possible 1 in 3 bites of food in the U.S. diet, and the direct positive impact to Virginia agriculture is approximately 80 million dollars each year. Their purpose is not only for the pollination of crops, but also for the pollination of wildflowers and tress that keep our environment greener.”

So there’s another point in favor of beekeeping: keeping an old tradition alive (along with the bees themselves) to help make a positive impact on Virginia’s agriculture. Go young people, go! Fly! And if that doesn’t motivate you, how about the fact that Neil Gaiman (author of the Sandman comic series, American Gods, and The Graveyard Book, among others) is also a beekeeper? (Woops, that’s the librarian in me coming out. Ahem.)

So maybe (may-bee) you’re a little bit more interested in bees now than you were when you starting reading this article. If you are, the Richmond Beekeeper’s Association meetings are open to the public, and are held on the second Thursday of each month from 7-9pm at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. David Stover also highly recommended the book Honeybee Democracy by Thomas D. Seeley.

Enhance your beekeeping book library by checking out these other books too:

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Hayley DeRoche

Hayley DeRoche is a librarian with a penchant for cardigans and corduroys. Luckily, her professional life revolves more around technology & information than fashion.

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