David Kelton has seen a lot since he started keeping bees forty years ago – bacterial plagues, colony collapse, even mites from Asia that can decimate honey bee colonies. But lately he has noticed a new phenomenon: more beekeepers. “Visitors to my bee yard have always been interested in honey, but lately it seems they are more interested in finding out how to start keeping their own bees,” says Kelton, a retired electrician who maintains about 200 hives near Gadsden. When Kelton decided to start selling honey bees five years ago, he sold 35 packages the first year. This year he has orders for 475 packages, mostly from new beekeepers.
Backyard beekeeping is nothing new. Until Alexander the Great returned from India with samples of sugar cane, honey was the only sweetener known to Europeans, and it was not uncommon for households to have a hive of honey bees on hand for personal use; a prosperous colony can produce over 100 pounds of honey in a season. However, as the cultivation of cane and beets for sugar became more efficient, honey production was left largely to commercial producers who could maintain hundreds or even thousands of hives, and a few cities even outlawed beekeeping. Meanwhile, the number of honey bees in the US began a steady decline from a peak of almost six million managed colonies in 1947, with agricultural chemicals, imported pests, and foreign competition all taking their toll, as have certain stressful commercial beekeeping practices (more than half of all the honey bee colonies in the US are trucked to California each year to fulfill lucrative pollination contracts). In the fall of 2006, honey bees began to die in unprecedented numbers, with more than one-third of colonies succumbing to a still-mysterious ailment that came to be known as Colony Collapse Disorder.
But as city-dwellers have become more interested in connecting with Nature, the renewed interest in small-scale agriculture has been accompanied by a resurgence of backyard beekeeping. Beehives seem to be springing up everywhere: Parisian balconies, the gardens of Buckingham Palace and the White House, and most notably the rooftops of New York City, which lifted its ban on urban beekeeping in 2010. In three years, membership in the British Beekeeping Association doubled to more than 20,000, as young urban dwellers strode to transform a rather staid pastime into a vibrant environmental movement.
In Birmingham, bee hives were recently established at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and the Birmingham Zoo. According to Paul Mancill, president of the Jefferson County Beekeepers Association, the beekeeping club has seen a surge in membership, and their Beginner’s Beekeeping Course had to add a second class after they were swamped with applications. An annual statewide beekeeping symposium recently held at Auburn University drew more than 400 attendees, a record for the meeting. Dr. James Tew, a beekeeping specialist who coordinates the meeting, suspects this stems from an increasing interest in ecologically balanced urban environments. “Honey bees fit into this concept nicely,” says Dr. Tew.
Urban communities have come to realize the folly of keeping bees away from their gardens, since more than 90% of urban crops benefit from insect pollination, and the fear of widespread insect stinging has turned out to be unfounded. “Honey bees will sting to protect their hive, but otherwise they aren’t nearly as aggressive as hornets or wasps,” says Dr. John Hurst, a Birmingham physician who has kept honey bees for more than thirty years. Backyard beekeepers have come to realize their delicate situation. They generally surround their hives with tall fences or shrubbery to direct bee flights above the heads of their neighbors, and they provide watering stations so that thirsty bees don’t wind up loitering at nearby swimming pools. Sometimes the first that neighbors hear of a bee hive in the area is when they are presented with a gift of honey by their local beekeeper.
Honey bees do particularly well in suburban environments, where the diverse flora give a steady production of pollen throughout the year, and the absence of crowded bee yards and agricultural pesticides provide a healthy environment for honey bee colonies. Some allergy sufferers claim that the ingestion of pollen found in local honey helps relieve their hay fever. Honey obtained locally is more flavorful than most supermarket honey, which is intensely heated and filtered to prolong shelf life.
And for those in the Boston, New York, and Washington DC areas who don’t have the time to attend beekeeping classes, The Georgetown HoneyBee Company offers a turnkey service including bees, a hive, and a year of mentorship training by telephone. “With minimal work and in just a few short months, your colony will be thriving,” the company flyer promises. “They´ll fly about 55,000 miles just to make you one pound of honey. That´s way more than your goldfish ever did.”
More information about backyard beekeeping is available from the Jefferson County Beekeepers Association (at http://www.jeffcobees. org/index.html) and the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, which has published a backyard beekeeping manual available online (at http://www. aces.edu/pubs/docs/A/ANR-0135/ ANR-0135.pdf).