Life has stung for honeybees since 2005, when Colony Collapse Disorder hit hives and killed bees at astonishing rates. Beekeepers were unsure what was even causing all the deaths, and the numbers kept climbing. There are many potential reasons, from chemicals used to invasive mites to heavy commercial transporting of hives for pollination. Michael Wines of the New York Times recently reported that this year beekeepers are concerned about all-time highs in hive mortality. Five to ten percent hive loss was typical in the past but this year there was 40 to 50 percent loss of commercial hives. This is a huge concern for everyone, since the Agriculture Department says that a quarter of all our food is pollinated by bees. So what is the typical American to do about the loss of the honeybee?
Enter the Marchese Family. They had become educated about the plight of bees and thought they could try what many people around the world are experimenting with: backyard beekeeping. Dean and Bette feel that it is “always better to bring it closer to home, do it yourself, or buy local.” So Dean and his son Jake, 10, took a beekeeping course from the Beekeepers of Northern Shenandoah Valley. This course teaches the basics from how to build your hive to opening your box of bees to put them in the hive. Dean was impressed with the collaborative, open approach of the group. Woodworkers shared their expertise on building hives. Experienced beekeepers shared their knowledge. The group even offers mentors to new beekeepers, and shares or rents the honey extractor.
Dean says, “There is no replacement for experience.” So Dean and Jake started with three hives their first year. From this they were able to extract 80 pounds of honey. They even had hives that produced a new queen, so they split a hive to create two hives. Setbacks happen to all beekeepers. They did lose two hives over the first winter. But they have continued to educate themselves with online tutorials. They strive to keep the bees naturally with no chemicals.
As Jake took on the project, the parents were pleased that both he and Dominic, 8, were learning life cycles, sustainability, and even economics. The family extracted the honey, put it in jars, and labeled it J&D honey. Hill High Farm Market in Round Hill, which supports local, small growers and businesses, sold their product. Pretty soon Jake was seeing the rewards of his labor economically. Dominic was enjoying eating honey more and more. The family was even creating ways to use the beeswax in crafts.
The Marchese family has learned how to safely interact with the bees. They have been stung, but say it is unusual to be stung at the hives. Dean makes sure to give the bees extra water in the summertime so that they don’t go looking for water in local pools. Experienced beekeepers say they feel a personal connection with the bees. Dean says that he could sense different characteristics of different hives. One hive that was a high producer was more aggressive. He also noticed that when he breathed into the hive the buzzing would get louder. Some beekeepers even claim that they can open a hive unprotected—that the bees trust and know them.
Even if you don’t become a backyard beekeeper like the Marcheses, you can help promote healthy bees in your area. Here are some tips from the Rodale Institute to support the bees and help create healthy hives.
1. Plant nectar- and pollen-rich plants for bees, especially in early spring through November.
2. Choose colors to attract bees, like white, yellow, orange, blue, violet—but not red. Bees cannot see red.
3. Don’t use chemicals. They can harm bees—even Neem based organic chemicals.
4. Keep the weeds around! Clovers and dandelions provide nutrition for bees.
5. Provide water by lining birdbaths with stones or put out water in shallow dishes.
6. Buy local honey, fruit, and vegetables. Local farmers—especially organic ones—support bees with their crops.
7. Tell your friends and neighbors how they can help too!