Meadville Tribune

April 10, 2012

‘Backyard beekeeping’ encouraged to battle shortage

staff and wire reports
Meadville Tribune

GREENVILLE — You can thank the honey bees — and the people who keep them.

One-third of all the food crops consumed in the U.S., from fruits to vegetables to wildflowers to nuts to seeds, are pollinated by bees, making them a crucial part of the ecology.

However, development, new pesticides and new diseases are thinning the honey bee populations in both the U.S. and Europe, leading to what national, state and local experts in the field(s) are calling a pollinator shortage.

Last year’s stormy winter, wet spring, and four-week drought didn’t help either.

“The value of bees isn’t the honey, but the pollination that they provide,” said Temple University Ambler and Delaware Valley College adjunct apiculture professor Dr. Vincent Aloyo. “It’s really wonderful because they take care of the plants. There’s lots of plants that are in bloom.”

These days, experts like Aloyo, Eastern Apiculture Society Chairman Jim Bobb and Pennsylvania State Beekeeping Association Vice President Charlie Vorisek of Linesville are encouraging home beekeeping as a way to help boost honey bee populations and activity (there’s even a “Beekeeping for Dummies” book) — and it appears to be catching on.

According to Vorisek (who also serves as vice president of the Northwestern Pennsylvania Beekeepers Association and owns and operates Vorisek’s Backyard Bee Farm), roughly 80 percent of the state’s approximately 2,600 registered beekeepers are hobbyists working with 10 or fewer colonies of bees. “It’s immense, the benefit these people provide, because they’re spread” — along with their bees — “all over the state,” said Vorisek.

But the early spring has made it tricky for beekeepers, according to the experts. Honey bees do not hibernate, so as soon as the weather got nice enough, they started pollinating (the pollen is what stimulates them) and raising their young. So the honey harvest in Pennsylvania, which normally happens in May and June, looks to come early as a result.

But “if they’re more active in the winter months,” Vorisek said, “they’re going to use more of their food stores,” and if they go though their personal food supply of honey too quickly, “they starve.”

There are ways around that, however.

The first is to create food for them. “What we feed the bees is sugar ... with water,” Bobb said, describing an icing substance, called fondant, that the beekeeper puts on top of the hives. The fondant is then switched with sugar syrup.

Vorisek said he’s been supplementing many of his hives around the region with candy sugar since February. It’s likely “if I hadn’t checked them when I did” and added that food source, he said, “they would have starved.”

The other method is to divide the hive to “make them think there’s a lot of work to do at home.” Because every hive needs a queen bee, the queenless half of the hive needs to have female eggs placed into it.

Building a colony of bees is as easy as buying a kit, said Aloyo, a resident of Whitpain who has been beekeeping since 1966.

“Most people buy a package of bees (and a queen),” he said, adding that hive construction materials, and important devices like a smoker and a hive opening tool, are also needed to get started.

When it comes to extracting honey and caring for the colony, that’s when it’s a good idea to have somebody show you, according to experts.