Eastside Fire & Rescue establishes rooftop beehive at Issaquah station

May 8, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Brian Gilomen, Eastside Fire & Rescue support services technician, checks on one of the frames in which his honeybees have built a honeycomb to incubate eggs and store honey. By Greg Farrar

The buzz at a downtown Issaquah fire station is all about honeybees.

Eastside Fire & Rescue established a beehive on the roof at Station 71 next to City Hall. Station 71 is perhaps the only fire station in the state, and maybe beyond, to host a rooftop beehive.

Honeybees use assembly-line efficiency to gather pollen, and produce beeswax and honey — prizes for amateur apiarists, or beekeepers.

The focus at the Station 71 beehive is conservation, although the agency could someday sell honey from the beehive. The experiment in rooftop beekeeping is meant to lend a hand to the strained honeybee population.

EFR Chief Lee Soptich proposed the idea after reading about tenants in rooftop beehives established on Seattle skyscrapers. Intrigued, Soptich turned to Brian Gilomen, support services technician for the agency and a backyard beekeeper, to establish a rooftop beehive at Station 71.

“If the weather allows them — if it’s not too windy or not too rainy or not too cold — they leave the box and go collect,” Gilomen said.

The agency received 8,000 to 10,000 bees in the initial shipment.

“It’s only been up there for a couple of weeks, but they’ve already created honeycombs,” Soptich said.

The beehive and honeybees cost about $300 for purchase and setup. The agency did not use public or taxpayer dollars to fund the project.

The nonprofit Eastside Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association donated the funds for the beehive and honeybees. The beekeeping is handled by off-duty EFR personnel.

On the Web

In 2011, The Issaquah Press asked local backyard beekeepers about the benefits and pitfalls of being amateur apiarists. Read the article at http://bit.ly/rlMZMm.

“They are quite a gentle animal, actually,” Gilomen said. “They’re not like yellow jackets or wasps or hornets that invite themselves to your barbecue.”

Still, Soptich encountered some skepticism about the proposal. Officials also raised concerns about liability, plus stings for firefighters and residents near the station.

“Most of the fire administration looked at me like I’d gotten too sugar high on honey or something,” he said. “They were worried about, is there going to be a risk? Is there going to be a public perception that we’ve gone way off-mission?”

EFR is spread across the region from Carnation to Issaquah, and Soptich envisioned the agency as a leader in the effort to re-establish honeybees.

In addition to the EFR beehive, other beekeepers established hives to counteract colony collapse disorder, a mysterious phenomenon responsible for countless honeybee disappearances since 2006.

Most honeybees in the United States descended from European honeybees transported to North America in the 1600s by early settlers.

“We have 16 roofs in East King County, and he thought it would be a good idea,” Gilomen said of Soptich. “It really is a good idea. There’s a decline in bee population as it is. Feral bees are going extinct quickly.”

From ‘green’ to liquid gold

Gilomen started as a beekeeper several years ago, after his son made a request to establish a backyard beehive.

“Finally, after about a year of him talking about it and asking about it — usually with kids, a couple of weeks later it’s out of their minds — a whole year went by and, lo and behold, I gave in,” he said.

Gilomen started as a volunteer firefighter in 1979 and transitioned to the support service role about 15 years ago.

Soptich said the project complements other “green” efforts at the agency and in the city. Last year, EFR opened Station 72 — a showcase for “green” technology and the most energy-efficient fire station on the planet.

“Issaquah is known for trying to be environmentally friendly,” he said.

The agency collects rainwater at Station 72 next to the Issaquah Transit Center and Station 73 in the Issaquah Highlands to use in the facilities. EFR also utilizes special techniques to limit the environmental impact caused by washing fire trucks and other equipment.

“This provides a way for us to help out the area with trying to rejuvenate the declining bee population,” EFR Deputy Chief Bud Backer said.

The latest environmental initiative surmounted the initial skepticism from agency employees.

“Now it’s kind of grown into a curiosity, because the guys are starting to learn about it,” Backer said. “If they know the beekeeper is going to be there, it’s ‘Hey, let’s all go out and watch, because this is kind of cool.’”

The rooftop fire station beehive is perhaps unique among fire departments.

“There’s not another one out there that’s probably been crazy enough to do this,” Soptich said.

“I’ve not seen an International Association of Fire Department Beekeepers yet,” Backer added.

Honey aside, backyard beekeeping continues to gain popularity as organic and urban farming trends attain success. Even the White House added a beehive after President Barack Obama assumed office.

In the process to collect pollen, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates bees generate about $15 billion in added crop value each year, especially for almonds and other specialty crops.

The beehive at Station 71 needs about a year for the honeybees to store food and create honeycombs before beekeepers reap any liquid gold.

“We won’t harvest any honey out of it, because they’re going to need it to store up for the winter, but next year, we’re going to have honey out of that darn thing,” Soptich said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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