It doesn’t get more overt than Jack McMichael’s Rumble Bee, the yellow-and-black Dodge Ram 1500 he flies around in to various beekeeping events. Purchased with 33,000 original miles, it has two window stickers—Got Honey? and Bee Happy—mud flaps, beekeeper bumper stickers and a KILLERB vanity plate. His wife, Elaine, couldn’t have said it better when she noted, “I guess it’s meant to bee.”
There are reports of a honeybee crisis, but the Chester County Beekeeping Association—of which McMichael is treasurer—wants to set the record straight. There are, in fact, a good number of adapted feral colonies in Chester County. Of late, though, the scarcity rumors have had some thinking the worst. There are other misconceptions, too—namely that, without honeybees, the world would starve. But rice, wheat and corn make up 90 percent of our diet, and they’re wind-pollinated, not bee-pollinated.
“We’d have plenty to eat—it’d just be bread,” says McMichael. “I don’t want to say [recent media attention] is deceptive, but it’s perhaps naïve. The honeybee is a poster child right now, but that’s almost misplaced.”
The crisis is actually in agricultural practice. There’s not enough diversification. Honeybees need a variety of food sources (blooms), and like us, enjoy some foods more than others. Smaller farms like those in Chester County offer a necessary variety of fruits and vegetables. In the Midwest, however, there’s only corn for miles and miles. California’s almond trees are a wonderful food source for honeybees, but they don’t flower long. “Imagine if we had to do all of our food shopping like that?” poses CCBA president Myrl Stone. “What can each of us do to help around here? Stop killing the damn dandelions.”
The most serious challenge to honeybee populations is the varroa mite that can pass on 18 different viruses. It arrived in this country in 1989, and the honeybee is its only host. An infected colony can collapse. But a healthy queen each spring can lay 2,000 eggs a day, beginning as early as the second week of January through October. Each egg hatches in three days if naturally kept between 93 and 97 degrees.
Honeybees arrived in this continent by the early 1600s. They were intentionally imported for honey’s sweetness, as a source of beeswax to preserve leather and as medicine for the wound care early Americans required in warfare.
Today, honeybees are popular—and the CCBA’s membership is way up—because of the “crisis.” It’s true that thousands of bees die, especially over the winter. But they are locally adapted, so they’re sustainable because their production rates are incredible. Honeybees are also significant for the production and sale of raw, unprocessed honey—with its traces of pollens—as a natural panacea for allergies, arthritis and other modern-day ailments.
John McIlvaine is a third generation beekeeper on a family farm in Exton that dates to the William Penn land-grant days. Oaklands Farm still maintains beekeeping equipment and 15-20 hives. McIlvaine, a CCBA member since 1968, sells self-serve raw, unprocessed wildflower honey. “When we run out, no one can understand why,” he jests. “Well, there are no blossoms.”
“We can sell as much honey as we can make,” says Stone, a master beekeeper who started in 1964 and typically maintains 50 hives. “Others report that keeping bees is a headache, that they’ve been losing bees. I have too many. Chester County is a good place to keep bees.”
Comprised of hobby and commercial beekeepers, CCBA members work on research and promote and generously share knowledge, feeding a backyard bee and homesteading movement. They also capture swarms, defend hives against bears and teach beekeeper classes in full protective wear. The club also runs one of the nation’s best beekeeping conferences each March. Of course, they also bottle and sell delicious honey.
West Chester’s Deirdre Gleason, the CCBA’s most recent secretary and its newsletter and website editor, arrives at the ChesLen Preserve apiary in a beekeeping suit sans veil. “You can see that glamour is a big part of this,” she quips.
Total CCBA membership has climbed to 500, though 150 have joined within the past year. Of the 500, 38 percent are female—a growing number. There are long-standing members like Howard Frysinger, whose grandfather, Ralph Taylor, was a cofounder and president in the 1940s. Ray Walker is also New Castle County president of the Delaware Beekeepers Association. Don Coats, of Chadds Ford, is a retired veterinarian, beekeeper and mead maker who works with other citizen scientists monitoring the health and behavior of bees. You can check out his website at citizensciencebeekeeping.com.
Such phenomenal growth brings challenges. You need the structure to handle it. “If you look at our numbers we should have full-time employees,” Stone says. “It’s a wonderful thing, but it brings on obligations and responsibilities.”
For one, the CCBA is outgrowing winter meeting space at the West Whiteland Township building in Exton. From April to September, outdoor meetings are held at ChesLen Preserve in Coatesville, Pa., under a covered pavilion. Stone “lives in Woodstock fear,” he says. If all members attended the same meeting, it’d be quite a crowd. Instead, attendance fluctuates between 50 and 100.
The CCBA’s top event has always been its annual seminar. Formerly held at the Westtown School, the event has since moved to West ChesterUniversity. Typically, 300 turn up there the second Saturday of March (this is the 10th year) to hear prominent speakers—both researchers and commercial experts. The Eastern Apiary Conference is the kindred offering of the Eastern Apiary Society. It was held last summer at the University of Delaware.
Advice is plentiful, particularly on starting hives. Two hives are recommended for a newbie. That makes observation and comparison possible,McMichael says. At ChesLen, as well, hive space is offered as a service to members. It’s essentially meeting space to help build good local genetics. Three years ago, the club started an important queen-rearing program.
Queens and drones meet at the great “singles bar in the sky,” Stone says. Then drones die in the act of mating. A queen can mate with anywhere from a half a dozen to 24 drones in flight, and they have a holding tank— a spermatheca—where they can store sperm for laying eggs for up to seven years thereafter. The queen will live up to five years, but she’s past prime by age three.
Like McMichael, Stone, too, knows plenty about flying around. He’s retired from the aviation industry.