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Backyard Beekeepers Not in it for Money or Honey

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July 8, 2011 by wcobserver

Staff Photographer Brooke McNeely Galligan - Backyard Beekeepers Jerry and Melissa Harvey inspect their hives Saturday at their home in Winslow. The Harveys will harvest their honey in the next week or so.

By Susan McCarthy

It’s high noon. The summer sun is bearing down, pushing temperatures above 90 degrees. In the not-so-far distance, a slight hum can be heard. A fragrant smoky smell of burning pine needles wafts through the air across a light wind. Jerry and Melissa Harvey are stooped over a beehive, inspecting one of the 10 frames inside a stack of wooden boxes. Despite the heat of the day, both are wearing long pants, long-sleeved shirts, long gloves and hard hats with long netted veils that cover their heads and shoulders. Jerry’s pants are tucked into knee-high wading boots and Melissa’s pants are tucked into her socks to keep any bees from entering places too close for comfort.

Jerry removes the top of a hive and then releases two puffs of smoke into the hive from a silver can with a spout that looks a lot like a French coffee press.

“It’s kind of like a doorbell; it lets them know you’re coming,” said Melissa referring to the smoke.

She says the smoke relaxes the bees and sure enough they seem to be relatively calm as Jerry slides out a frame completely covered with bees. As Jerry pulls each frame, he inspects both sides closely and calls out a report of sorts to Melissa.

Jerry reports some mites and Melissa explains that all beehives have them, but when you can see them, it’s a problem. They won’t use any chemicals to treat them, though, and says a healthy hive can fend off a mite problem.

In another frame Jerry points out super-ceder cells, which he says signals that the hive is preparing to make a new queen either because the current queen is old or even because they don’t like her.

Jerry and Melissa Harvey, of Winslow, are part of a growing trend known as Backyard Beekeepers, hobbyists who keep bees and have fewer than 25 hives. The Harveys currently have nine hives and last year harvested about 110 pounds of honey from four hives. The American Beekeeping Federation reports a significant jump in membership among Backyard Beekeepers. Just two years ago, about half their membership was comprised of Backyard Beekeepers and this year that number is close to 70 percent.

Turns out, the heat of the day is an ideal time to be checking in on the bees. More than half of 60,000-80,000 bees have left their hive and have already been working for hours, gathering pollen, nectar and water within a three-mile radius. They repeatedly return to the hive and Jerry describes the process like airplanes lining up on the tarmac, waiting for a chance to land and then dock at the gate.

There is an amazing, orderly, world below the lid of the stacked boxes called supers. The top of the hive is stacked with shallower boxes called honey supers and there are typically two deeper boxes on the bottom that house the brood and the queen.

On this particular day, Jerry is surprised to find the queen in one of the hive’s top boxes, but then notices that there is a new unborn queen among the brood. He and Melissa speculate that she may be coming to defend her turf. Each hive only has one queen and her job is to lay eggs, which is a pretty busy job this time of year as the average bee only lives six weeks in the summer.

“They literally work themselves to death,” Melissa said.

How a new queen is selected is part mystery. Somehow, the bees select one of the larvae and right from the beginning she is given the royal treatment. While the other larvae are fed royal jelly for two days, the queen-to-be receives royal jelly every day during the larvae stage and will be much larger than the other bees when she emerges.

Staff Photographer Brooke McNeely Galligan - Jerry Harvey explains the numerous roles bee play within a hive. As many as 60,000 to 80,000 bees live in a single hive. A single bee only produces 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.

Jerry pulls another bee-covered frame where bees are feeding larvae, making wax caps that will cocoon the larvae until they’re born, or cleaning and readying spots for new eggs to be laid. Within a minute or two of inspecting one of the frames, a new bee is born; he literally pushes up through a wax capping and gets to work.

In just a couple of weeks, the Harveys will harvest their honey. Melissa said they harvest their honey just once in the summer in the first week or so in July, although she said some beekeepers also collect honey a second time in August.

In a single day, that Jerry calls “a very long day”, the Harveys will empty the summer work of their bees from the hives. Melissa says each drop of honey represents the life work of a single bee. Each bee only produces one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime.

To harvest the honey, the Harveys will need to convince the bees to leave the hive and will employ the gentle encouragement of a leaf-blower to do so. They then begin removing frames from each of the heavy-honey supers. The wax cappings on each side of the frame are cut with a hot knife and then the frames are placed two at a time into a hand-cranked spinner to spin the honey from the frame. The honey is emptied into a five gallon bucket and strained before it is placed into jars. It’s not high-tech, but it is hard work.

The Harveys will sell their honey at the Winslow Farmers Market – and between those friends already on a list and what they sell at the market – it’s all gone in a week. Oddly enough, it’s not the money or the honey that interests the Harveys; they’re fascinated by the secret lives of bees.
“Once you get into it, it’s so amazing, you just want to know more,” said Melissa, who describes their hobby as addicting.

Melissa originally became interested in beekeeping because she wanted to make mead for winemaking using honey. She laughs as she recalls this because despite being a beekeeper since 2005, she has yet to make a batch of mead or wine. She said she saw an ad in a shopper for a beekeeping class and has been hooked ever since. Jerry got a package deal when he married Melissa; she moved her bees with her.

The Harveys say they spend several hours a month tending to their hives. But much of the time they spend dedicated to bees has little to do with their own hives. Like the bees themselves, beekeepers are collaborators and the secrets of the trade are passed through mentoring.

“The best way to learn … is when I’m in a box watching someone else do it,” Jerry said.

The couple is currently mentoring a new backyard beekeeper off Hwy. 170. Both are active members of the Northwest Arkansas Beekeepers Association; Melissa has served as its Secretary-Treasurer for a number of years.

“There are very few in the area that we don’t know in some fashion,” Jerry said, referring to his fellow beekeepers.

Melissa says beekeeping is not a hobby you can really start on your own, although she says some people do. If you’re interested in backyard beekeeping, the Northwest Arkansas Beekeepers Association offers a class through the Washington County Extension office each spring and part of that is finding a mentor to coach you through the many nuances of beekeeping. The organization also meets at the county extension offices on the second Monday of every month at 7 p.m.

Jerry estimates it costs about $500 to get a backyard beekeeping operation set up, which includes two colonies of bees. Melissa adds that while the initial investment is a bit hefty, the equipment should last for 20 years if cared for properly.

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