Come summertime, backyard beekeepers reap sweet rewards
July 2, 2011
By Warren Kagarise
The pastoral landscape surrounding Issaquah is not quite the biblical Promised Land, but the area is rich in honey (if not milk) as beekeepers set up hives in area backyards and barnyards.
The buzz resumes each spring and summer as the daytime temperature nudges past 60 degrees and dandelions start to poke from the sodden soil. Then, all summer long, honeybees use assembly-line efficiency to gather pollen, and produce beeswax and liquid gold — prizes for amateur apiarists, or beekeepers.
Honey aside, backyard beekeeping continues to gain popularity as organic and urban farming trends attain mainstream success; gardeners opt for a back-to-nature approach; and beekeepers establish hives to counteract colony collapse disorder, a mysterious phenomenon responsible for countless honeybee disappearances since 2006.
The anemic economy also made a difference, as people started to rely on honeybees and mason bees, another species, to pollinate kitchen gardens and orchards — both cheap food sources.
Jerry Good established a beehive on 6.5 acres in May Valley a few years ago, and tended to honeybees pollinating apple, cherry, pear and plum trees on the land.
“The bees do all of the work for you with not a lot of effort,” he said. “The bees work all summer long, and they’re gathering and making honey — and then it’s yours.”
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Peter Jarvis, a retired King County Superior Court and Issaquah Municipal Court judge, received a starter beehive as a Christmas gift a couple of years ago. Nowadays, perhaps 35,000 to 40,000 Carniolan honeybees buzz out of a plastic hive and drift from flower to flower.
Jarvis, a longtime Sammamish Plateau resident, learned beekeeping through trial and error. His initial colony did not last through the winter chill. The replacement batch almost departed en masse in a swarm, after the queen bee and worker bees sought to form another colony.
The honeybees swarmed just before Independence Day last year, and formed a watermelon-shaped clump in the branches of a fir tree about 18 feet above the ground. So, dressed in a white beekeeper suit and perched in a backhoe bucket, Jarvis shook the swarm into a hive to recover the bees. Other wayward bees returned to the hive later.
“They know where home is,” he said. “They want to be with their queen.”
The honeybees Good used to keep in May Valley disappeared last year, perhaps in a swarm or due to colony collapse disorder.
Such headaches can become commonplace for backyard beekeepers — and more common than stings than outsiders might imagine.
Jarvis has escaped stings so far, although angry honeybees almost retaliated as he opened a hive for the spring.
“They got madder than hell, and they came after me,” he recalled.
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Brad Jones, Puget Sound Beekeepers Association president, said interest in urban farming and homegrown products have sparked interest in the 63-year-old group and backyard beekeeping.
“I grew up in rural Montana and living in the city it’s kind of tough sometimes when you’re used to wide-open spaces,” he said. “Keeping bees is kind of a connection to more of an agrarian lifestyle in the city.”
Jones started keeping Carniolan and Italian honeybees in a Seattle backyard to produce honey mead, the ancient alcoholic drink, and tends to numerous honeybee colonies each spring and summer.
The observational beehive at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle is another agrarian outpost in the city — and a conversation starter, especially since beekeeping started to catch on among urban and suburban gardeners and colony collapse disorder appeared in the headlines.
“The No. 1 question is, where’s the queen? And the No. 2 question with an observation hive is, are they trapped? There’s a common perception that they can’t get out or if they got out they wouldn’t come back,” said Sarah Moore, the life sciences manager at the science center and the wife of a hobbyist beekeeper.
The honeybees do indeed return to the colony at the iconic science center. The teeming beehive is a popular attraction at the museum during the spring and summer months.
“People are a lot more informed than they have been in the past,” Moore said. “They either know a lot about bees, or at least there’s a general knowledge that the bees need some help — they’re having trouble.”
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The buzz, both figurative and literal, in a tree-lined Sammamish neighborhood is all about bees.
Not the honeybees so beloved for providing the amber liquid inside plastic bears on grocery store shelves. Not the bumblebee immortalized in the violin-propelled orchestral piece.
Instead, the bees buzzing in the air around Knox Cellars Native Bee Pollinators along a suburban street come from a different species altogether: Orchard Mason bees, a hardy workhorse used to pollinate gardens and orchards throughout Western Washington.
The bee evangelist behind the buzz at Knox Cellars is Lisa Novich, a former Weyerhaeuser marketing manager turned bee entrepreneur.
“This is a hobby that went out of control,” she said.
The hobby started after Novich’s father, Brian Griffin, hoped to increase the yield from some backyard apple trees — “lots of blossoms but no fruit” as she recalled. Then, he came across a Washington State University pamphlet describing mason bees as a reliable — and minimal-fuss — pollinator.
Griffin later put the knowledge into a book to offer a plain-English explanation for home gardeners about mason bees. Until “The Orchard Mason Bee” reached beekeepers and gardeners, only academic papers about mason bees existed.
The father-and-daughter duo started operating Knox Cellars on the Sammamish Plateau more than 20 years ago and toiled side by side for more than a decade, until Griffin retired several years ago.
Orchard Mason bees do not reside in a hive and, most crucially, do not produce beeswax or honey. The species lacks the queen and hierarchical social structure inherent in honeybee colonies.
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Orchard Mason bees emerge in the early spring, toil for a short period and then die off in late spring. Meanwhile, eggs fertilized during the brief spring spend the rest of the year gestating into mature bees.
Knox Cellars sells mason bees to customers in Sammamish and Issaquah — including to the Hayes and Squak Mountain nurseries — and across the United States. The company is a national leader in the mason beekeeping industry.
Gardeners can create nesting habitat for the bees in do-it-yourself wooden blocks or special plastic containers. Then, the bees handle the rest.
Sammamish Plateau resident Linda Hines transformed her yard into a native plant sanctuary and started keeping Orchard Mason bees from Knox Cellars about a decade ago.
“I’m just interested in pollinating without all of the work of honeybees and the problems that they have. I don’t even want to bring those into my yard,” she said.
Hines stashes the maturing bees in the refrigerator during the cold months, and places the bees outside after the Oregon grape starts to bloom in early spring.
In the spring, mason bees emerge from mud nests and seek out nearby pollen sources. (The mother bees create a mud barrier to seal off each nest cell.)
“That’s why they’re called mason bees, because they use mud like bricklayers,” Novich said.
The species is not aggressive or easily provoked, although most of the concerns about bee dangers stem from a “Jurassic Park”-style experiment involving Africanized bees, or so-called killer bees.
“You can be stung by one, but it’s pretty hard,” she said. “I mean, if you get stung by a mason bee, you really deserve it. You have to really, really piss them off. If you sat on one, it might sting you. It’s an absolutely last-ditch operation for them, and it’s a pretty mild sting.”
Further separating honeybees and mason bees is aesthetics. Orchard Mason bees resemble a housefly more than a honeybee.
“Every year, I’ll get a call from at least one customer who will be all upset because the bees I sent them, ‘Well, the bees aren’t emerging from those straws, but houseflies are,’” Novich said.
Though honeybees remain a more familiar presence than mason bees during the summertime, mason bees existed in North America long before honeybees. The continent lacks honey-producing bees, except for bumblebees — though the species does not stockpile honey.
“Honeybees, which is what we’re all taught about when we grow up, are not even native to North America. They’re all European,” Novich said. “They came to North America with the very first settlers, and the Pilgrims at Plymouth had wine casks full of honeybee colonies.”