The decline of pollinators, especially honeybees, has raised concerns across the globe. In Virginia, honey producing hives have decreased by about 64% since the 1970s, to less than 35,000, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture. As awareness of the problem spreads, more people are taking up backyard beekeeping. Catherine Komp has more in this edition of Virginia Currents.
Each summer, members of the Rockwood Park Backyard Beekeepers Association put together a festival to help introduce community members to beekeeping. Set up near the Rockwood Nature Center in Chesterfield County, there’s a drone bee petting zoo to help show youth and adults alike the gentle nature of bees. A glass enclosed demonstration hive provides a close-up of honey bees at work, and a couple of beekeepers extract honey from the comb and give visitors a taste.
Rob Wokaty: So for people who want to get into beekeeping, there are a lot of options, but one of the cheapest options and most flexible is what’s called the top bar hive.
Compared to the more common, vertical Langstroth hive, which requires specialized equipment and expertise, Wokaty says the top bar hive can be made by the average homeowner.
Wokaty: You can actually make these with scraps, some people have made them out of recycled 50 gallon drums, some people made them out of pallets.
The horizontal, one-storey hive has slanted sides and hanging frames; dividers permit multiple colonies in one box. Wokaty says you also don’t need any special equipment to extract the honey.
Wokaty: The homeowner can take this frame inside, cut the wax off off of the frame, and they have what’s called cut comb honey and the cut comb honey can be crushed with potato masher or a fork even and the honey can be drained out and strained so the average homeowner can use it, they can pull the honey out only when they want it, instead of having to do a large extraction process once a year like the commercial or the large homeowner beekeeper would do.
Wokaty started beekeeping 14 years ago and has watched the popularity grow. He says they’ve had as many as 90 people show up for the Rockwood Beekeeper’s monthly meetings.
The Eckerts: Hi, I’m Ross and I’m a "new-bee". I’m Herb Eckert, husband of Ross and been a beekeeper for six months.
The Eckerts got into beekeeping after they noticed the insects disappear from their coy pond.
Ross Eckert: I actually became a beekeeper to save the bees. I don’t even care if I get honey. I just really think it’s important because they’re our pollinators and if there’s no bees, there’s no food.
Herb Eckert: So that’s why we’re trying to get people to join the clubs, because it’s a big thing, all the pesticides, which we’re trying to keep people from using. You kill the bees, it’s going to be bad, there’ll be no more food.
The Eckerts joined the Rockwood Park Backyard Beekeepers Association, which costs $15 a year, and spent six months taking classes before ordering their first hive. The queen flew away, but the Eckerts say it’s a learning process and the Rockwood beekeeper community is lending support as they rebuild their hive.
There are 40 beekeeping clubs across Virginia and many opportunities to learn. At Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Kristi Orcutt teaches introductory and advanced beekeeping.
Kristi Orcutt: What I discovered is that the very first day before we do a whole lot of lectures, we give them basic information so they know what they’re seeing, we go into the hive the very first day. The student beekeeper isn’t doing anything yet because they’re not ready, but they stand back and watch and they’re always shocked by how calm the bees are and they always seems to be ready to go to the next level.
After putting on protective hoods and preparing the smoker, Orcutt takes me to inside some of the hives. Using a hive tool, Orcutt prys open the protective cover which the bees seal with a thick, dark substance called propolis. The bees are calm, going about their complex work as we inspect the inside. Using her bare hands, Orcutt pulls out one of the nine frames that fit perfectly into the first section of the hive.
Kristi Orcutt: There’s some nectar that’s very clear looking in some of the cells, some of the little holes that are six sided.
Orcutt explains that some of the bees will fan their wings over the fresh nectar to evaporate some of the moisture so it’s less conducive to bacteria. They’ll seal it with a coat of wax until it’s needed later. She then pulls out a frame closer to the center.
Next we go deeper into the hive, into the brooding chamber to check on the number of larvae.
Orcutt: You can see these sort of swollen lumps, those are larvae of drones. Look, there’s one emerging, that’s a drone getting born basically. He was a larvae, a little white grub, and he went through metamorphosis and he’s come out head first.
For those not quite ready to become beekeepers, Grace Chapman, Director of Horticulture at Lewis Ginter, suggests acquiring more bee friendly plants. She says honey bees are attracted to cool colored flowers, whites and blues, as well as purple echinacea and red bee balm. And she suggests other options.
Grace Chapman: Think about trees, shrubs, perennials and ground covers. Part of my yard is dedicated to completely growing clover, and it’s right in front of my bee hives so I see the bees all over the clover.
Choose plants that flower at different points of the year, says Chapman, and plant in groups.
Chapman: It’s really interesting when you do a hive inspection and pull out your frame and some of the cells are packed with pollen and it’s every color of the rainbow. I’ve seen all the way from really light yellow pollens to really dark reds and everywhere in between and it’s really beautiful and interesting to watch. I love to sit and watch my bees going in and out of the entrance and seeing what’s in their pollen baskets.
In addition to Rockwood, there are beekeeping clubs in Huguenot, Ashland and two in Richmond (Richmond and East Richmond). Lewis Ginter’s next beekeeping classes begin in September, and Rockwood’s are in October. The Virginia Department of Agriculture also offers support, and has a beehive grant program. It funds up to $200 per new hive, with a maximum of $2400 per year. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE news.