Urban Farm :: HONEY BY THE HANDFULS, Seattle's Child June 2010
Urban honeybee keeping has swarmed the city as the next favorite hobby of the backyard farming movement. Ballad Bee Company, which places hives in Ballard backyards for a honey-share program, was inundated with requests for hives this year and is no longer placing hives. Seattle Tilth, which runs education programs that support local food systems, added bee classes to their line-up, and all were promptly filled.
Bees are excellent pollinators and crucial to a healthy garden, so the inclination to add some hives to the backyard is a reasonable one. But while the sweet siren call may be tempting, bees are mysterious insects. Throw kids into the mix and the notion of beekeeping may seem overwhelming. But there are resources to help you get started, and with a couple of precautions, beekeeping makes a wonderful family activity. With the promise of full honey jars and the gift of a working education, honeybees are something any family should consider.
Bees start working in spring, as weather warms and days grow longer. As flowers bloom, honeybees fly from flower to flower and grab tiny drops of nectar, returning them to the hive where it is converted to honey by the worker bees.
Bees can be incredibly single-minded – when they're working, they have little interest in anything else other than work. As long as you steer clear of the beeline, honeybees seldom sting. Any stings may come during times of honey collection, as they work to defend the hive.
Dexter Chapin, teacher and Bee Club organizer at Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences in Capitol Hill, manages the bee program at the school and is not concerned about stings. "Bees come in and bees go out and they pretty much leave the kids alone – even when they're breaking the hive apart or stealing their honey," he notes.
The students start beekeeping as freshmen (about fifteen years of age) and they take part in the entire process. "There is nothing they don't do," says Chapin, adding that the only thing the school requires is for students to wear lab goggles. Some elect to wear full beekeeper suits, and others wear street clothes to check on the bees and collect honey. For a school program that is about eight years old and run strictly by teens, it's remarkable that there have been no mishaps.
Beekeeping suits are also available in children's sizes (all the way down to a size 2T), and at minimum, their eyes should be protected with goggles anytime they are near the hive. Parents can take added precautions around younger children by having them stand back from the hive during honey collection, though a smoker can be used during collection to calm the bees.
In recent years, bee populations have declined and continue to struggle. Backyard beekeeping should be considered as a small-scale antidote. At home, Seattle city ordinance allows for one swarm (with up to four hives) on lots of less than 10,000 square feet; the hives must be kept specified distances away from one's neighbors and passersby. The basics of beekeeping begin with setting up your hives so they are easy to manage. Both Puget Sound Beekeepers Association and Seattle Tilth offer short informational courses for beginners.
First-time beekeepers must make an initial investment in equipment: boxes, frames, foundations, protective gear and the bees themselves. Putting hive boxes together and readying the beeswax frames make for a focused weekend craft project that has something for everyone to do.
Outside of physical set up, a beekeeper has to decide how much honey to take and how much to leave for the hive's food store. A beekeeper also has to keep an eye on the health of the hive, watching out for mites and disease. In the high season, you can expect to look in on your hive once a week.
Honeycomb frames may be removed mid-season for honey harvesting. This can be done simply by positioning a frame over a large stainless steel bowl and allowing the honey to drip in. You may also invest in a honey extractor – hand crank varieties work well and are less expensive. Honey can be bottled in clean jars and used all year long. Make an art project out of crafting hand-made labels for the jars; it's a great way to involve small hands with beekeeping.
Most bees spend winter in a hibernation state. They cluster up with the queen in the middle of the hive and move through the frames at a slow rate, eating honey from summer. A winter beekeeper need only check on the hive occasionally to make sure there is enough honey for the bees and supplement as necessary. In the cold months, children can be solely responsible for bee care (mostly clearing snow and debris from the front of the hive) as the bees' inactivity renders them docile.
The resulting fruit of your labor, honey, is one that shouldn't go unnoted. Honey is nutritious and has enzymes and trace minerals along with medicinal properties. It is an antibiotic and has healing properties.
For kids there's a thrill to adding honey from your own backyard to yogurt or tea or a summer drink (like the recipe on the next page.)
With all this sweet stuff, how can you not be buzzing?
Ballard Bee Company
Photo Credit, Hayley Young Photography