The secret life of beekeepers
Few people venture up to the roof of Washington’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, but John Ferree, 59, does. He has managed four beehives there since 2017.
Ferree also has nine hives at Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, five at the Bush Hill Presbyterian Church and six in his Springfield back yard. To pay the bills, Ferree analyzes car dealership financials for NCM Associates, but he tends to 60,000 honeybees in the spring, summer and fall.
“I love it,” he said. “When I open a hive, I’m amazed at the wonderment of it all.”
Looking inside a beehive with an expert apiarist like Ferree does provoke wonder. Covered with protective gear, he pulls out and studies a series of wood frames covered with brownish, squirming honeybees, some with tiny, yellow pollen puffs on their legs.
Ferree points out miniscule white bee eggs, the shape of a rice grain but one-tenth the size. He can distinguish between ripe and unripe honey. He looks for larvae and evidence of a queen, who is larger and has a smoother back.
The queen, he explains, ventures out of the hive for mating flights, returns, lays eggs and spends the rest of her life there, unless the hive becomes too crowded and the bees swarm to form another hive. He’s seen queens fight until only one is left, and the “winner” becomes the “reigning queen.”
Beekeeping has become a popular hobby for hundreds of people in our area, including older adults like Ferree. They do it for fun and to support pollinators, who in turn support life on Earth. After all, pollinators are responsible for the reproduction of over 85% of the world’s flowering plants, including more than two-thirds of the world’s crops.
Supporting pollinators as a family tradition
Honeybees were brought to America around 1620 to make honey. Today, though, the primary purpose of keeping honeybees is to support plant pollination, according to Virginia’s state apiarist, Keith Tignor.
Bees will fly up to three miles for a pollen source. They carry pollen grains from the male anther of a flower to the female stigma. When pollen is transferred between flowers of the same species, plants produce seeds.
Ferree’s Mount Vernon honeybees provide free pollinator services for the estate’s gardens and orchards — crops like squash, apples and alfalfa.
When he tends to bees, Ferree is carrying on a family tradition: His father and grandfather were beekeepers. He is also president of the Northern Virginia Beekeepers Association, which hosts beekeeping classes. Most of its 430 members are hobbyist beekeepers.
A calming effect
Kim Mehalick, 59, a beekeeper since 2012, is president of the Maryland State Beekeepers Association, whose 1,000 members have around 13,000 hives. She teaches beekeeping online and at local beekeeping club meetings and mentors aspiring beekeepers.
Mehalick finds bees “extremely peaceful. Once you open the box, it’s calm,” she said. “There’s the wonderful smell of beeswax and honey and a quiet hum that is very special. The more you learn, the more interesting they are.”
Mehalick reels off bee facts and tips: A summer bee lives six weeks; a winter bee, six months. Each honeybee makes only one-sixth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. It takes two million nectar-gathering trips to make one pound of honey.
In Maryland, most bees get nectar from tree blossoms like black locusts, tulip poplars, American hollies and basswoods. To a bee, one mature tree equals 1.5 acres of flowers.
“The suburban dream of a grass lawn is a desert for bees,” Mehalick said.
She’s intrigued by the way honeybees, unlike solitary bees, work together.
“They are always planning for the future,” she said.
Calling the hive a “superorganism,” she explained that each queen mates with 15 to 20 drones to ensure genetic diversity, and one queen lays 1,500 to 2,000 eggs a day.
“Workers have to collect enough food and raise babies,” Mehalick said. “There’s a continuity with bees and a hope for the future.”
Summer is honey season
June is a month of high nectar flow, when bees can make the most honey.
Kathryn Krenn, 65, an Annandale, Virginia beekeeper for nine years, has between eight to 14 hives and up to 80,000 honeybees each June. Her bees made 120 pounds of honey one year. She keeps some, gives some away, and that year left 60 to 80 pounds for the bees to eat after flowers stopped blooming.
Krenn teaches beekeeping classes online. Beekeeping is a natural extension of her love for gardening, putting her back in touch with nature, she said, and she likes to be with fellow beekeepers.
“Bees are amazing, super fascinating insects,” Krenn said.
However, she’s worried about their survival, she said. “Native bees are in trouble.”
Globally, bees are in decline because of habitat loss, pesticides, disease and climate change. The 4,000 species in North America are under threat. “Many of our native bee pollinators are at risk, and the status of many more is unknown,” according to the nonprofit Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, based in Oregon.
The Slovenian approach
Maria Velikonja, 63, is a former FBI agent and a Balkans war crimes investigator, but she now calls herself a farmer, keeping bees at her Arlington home and on her farm in Salisbury, Maryland.
“I want to be an expert when I’m 85. Bees are nice little things,” she said.
Through beekeeping, Velikonja sustains part of her Slovenian heritage. Her parents emigrated to the U.S. from Slovenia, where her grandparents were beekeepers.
Beekeeping is a highly technical, evolved science in Slovenia, she said, and she imports special hives from her homeland. Slovenia is famous for these colorful AZ Hive houses, named after inventor Alberti Žnideršič.
Velikonja’s imported beehouse is decorated with Slovenian art. Since it has electricity, she can tend to her bees in all weather.
Velikonja’s friend Jonna Sanders also does Slovenian-style beekeeping in her Fairfax County back yard. Sanders, who has had scoliosis since her 20s, said that the Slovenian approach is customizable and easier for people over 50 or people with disabilities and back problems.
Traditional American beekeepers use vertical frames. But Sanders explained that the 100-year-old Slovenian AZ Hive has more weather protection, creates fewer hive disturbances and avoids using smoke to calm the bees, a common beekeeping practice.
Sanders is so passionate about bees that she helped a Virginia legislator, Del. Paul Krizek, pass a bill in Richmond in 2021 to protect her favorite insect. Now that’s devotion.
You don’t have to be a professional or hobbyist beekeeper to help pollinators. Alonso Abugattas, Natural Resources Manager for Arlington County Parks, offers these tips for supporting bees in your yard:
—Provide nest sites, like tree snags, bunch grasses, mud, bare ground, brush piles and native plants.
—Inventory what you have before launching gardening projects.
—Cluster similar blooms together.
—Have plants blooming in succession all the time.
—Prioritize native plants. Native plants support four times more bees than non-natives.
—Provide natural connectivity between land fragments.