Va. Beekeeping Buzzing As New Hobby

October 9, 2010

By Mark Newton

MASC 642 Online Journalism I

RICHMOND, Va. — Raising honey bees for their honey hasn’t changed much as a profession since the modern, wooden beehive was invented in 1860. Change, however, is coming not only in how bees are being raised, but rather who is raising them.

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According to Virginia state apiarist Keith Tignor, the expert beekeeper at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, beekeeping is experiencing a new wave of popularity. And while any surge in beekeeping is a good thing, it creates an interesting problem: these new beekeepers do it only as a hobby, and only raise one to 10 hives, rather than the hundreds of hives needed to make a healthy income apart from a regular job or the thousands of hives needed to make a living.

Listen: Interview with Virginia state apiarist Keith Tignor

“In the 1970s,” Tignor explains, “we had probably an excess of 90,000 bee hives in the state. Now we’re down to maybe 50,000 or 30,000.” Regardless of those numbers, he says, “we would like to see the bee hives increase. How that occurs, of course, that’s going to be up to the beekeeper.”

These new “hobbyist” beekeepers make up 92 percent of Virginia’s 2,000 to 2,500 beekeepers, while six percent make some income by renting 200-500 hives to farmers as “sideline” beekeepers and only two percent make a living as “commercial” beekeepers. The strongest growth in beekeeping, according to Tignor, “is in that small, personal, hobby-type beekeeping activity.”

One such beekeeper is Hannah Ainsworth of Salem, Va., a recent college graduate who recently acquired her first hives. While she had a fascination with bees at a young age, it didn’t turn into a reality until a local beekeeping association held a class at a nearby community college on how to start raising bees. The Mountain Empire Beekeepers then went one step further by using grant money to help Ainsworth with the the cost of her hives and other supplies.

Beekeeper Tom Fifer extracts comb from one of his hives. “They were very adamant as far as saying that ‘You can do this,'” said Ainsworth. “This isn’t so farfetched or an impossible thing to do. The class was a perfect opportunity to try something we’ve always wanted to try.”

The Mountain Empire Beekeepers are just one of 33 local beekeeping associations in Virginia and serve as one of the most effective means of bringing new members into the field while also improving the techniques of veteran beekeepers. This is especially important as beekeepers continue to combat colony collapse disorder, or the inexplicable disappearance of bees from their hives, first defined in 2006. On average, according to Tignor, this means a 30 percent loss of bee hives over the winter.

Nearly four years later, no exact culprit has been identified, though the most likely causes are various environmental stresses, pesticides, or the Varroa destructor mite, which hitches a ride on a bee and eventually finds its way onto a bee larva, sucking its blood and spreading various diseases. While colony collapse disorder could easily be caused by a combination of symptoms, significant numbers of these mites are capable to destroying entire hives.

For Tom Fifer, who has raised bees for 28 years and has twice been a beekeeping association president, the solution comes from both his own tried-and-true methods and research and those of others. For example, Fifer applies powdered sugar to his bees so that mites lose their grip on the bees and fall out of the hive, where they die and are counted, measuring the overall health of the hive. That method is one of the most commonly used that also doesn’t involve the use of any chemicals, something that Fifer advocates and that newer beekeepers don’t always do out of fear of the mites and other hazards.

“Beekeepers are funny people,” he explains. “I find that many of these younger beekeepers will take what [experts] say and then they want to expand it in a way they think is better. They listen to me and they ask a lot of questions, and then come fall, they’re putting strips in their hives with chemicals on them. They’re afraid they’re going to lose their hives, and they very well may, and I can understand that.”

Ainsworth, on the other hand, knows what that’s like. “There’s a lot of humor with it because there’s so many things that can go wrong. Sometimes, the simplest things work.”

Sideline beekeeper Ken Woodard of Mr. K’s Bees in Chesterfield, Va. takes that idea quite literally. Both he and Fifer don’t wear bee suits and handle their bees with their bare hands. But unlike Fifer, Woodard makes it a point not to use any chemicals or even methods such as using powdered sugar to combat mites, adding that he hasn’t in over eight years of his 30 years of beekeeping. The ideal, he says, is to create non-toxic, organic gardens.

“All of those systemic chemicals, Frankenstein plants, genetically-modified organisms are disastrous,” Woodard explains, “and some of them are actually toxic to honey bees. And those chemicals will show up in nectar and pollen of the plant.”

The idea is to instead solve the problem by selectively breeding bees so that they can resist diseases on their own, rather than switching to a new pesticide when a new breed of mites becomes resistant, which, according to Woodard, was the typical method used in the 1980s.

But while Woodard may be different from other beekeepers in that regard, all beekeepers are united by the fact that in any given year, one hive may survive, and one may not, no matter how much experience he or she had. This is especially true as beekeepers persist through the symptoms of colony collapse disorder. An important thing to note, however, is that there won’t be one single answer to the problem.

“There’s a saying in the beekeeping circles,” Fifer explains, “that if you ask ten beekeepers the same question, you’ll get ten different answers. And they’re all probably right.”

For more information about beekeeping associations in the Metro Richmond area, visit the East Richmond Beekeepers Association, the Richmond Beekeepers Association, or the Virginia State Beekeepers Association.