When attorney David Bird moved to his spacious home in what he then “thought was rural Howard County,” the Cincinnati native decided to take on a few thousand extra mouths to feed.
Bees, that is.
“It seemed like the right opportunity, since we have more open space,” explains Bird, whose love for gardening had, over the years, piqued his curiosity about bees. “They’re great pollinators.”
But after a decade of tending his solitary hive – a vertical white box about the size of a filing cabinet that sits to the rear of his property – Bird admits that space is not necessarily of the essence.
“I’ve since learned that you don’t need a lot of open space to raise bees,” admits Bird, who after 30 years of practicing law (including 18 years with the Office of the Attorney General) recently opened a home office. “People raise them and keep them in the city.”
The bees especially fancy the blossoms of nearby tulip poplars and black locust trees, particularly during May and June, a time beekeepers designate as “the honey flow”. Bird supplements their year-round diet with a sugar water mixture that he places in their hive.
“They love the holly bushes,” he adds, “and at certain times of year, when the hollies are blooming, it’s an astounding sight, because the whole bush will buzz – almost a roar, it’s so loud – filled with honeybees.”
In a good year, Bird’s bees will yield about 40 pounds of honey, which he harvests and bottles for his family’s consumption; what they don’t use is given away. Bird proudly displays the blue ribbon he won at last year’s Howard County Fair for the fruits of his (and the bees’) labor.
“It’s kind of a down-home occupation,” he laughs.
A major component to the breed and overall health of the hive is the queen. “After one year, really practiced beekeepers will go in and remove the queen and install a new one,” explains Bird. “If you just leave her alone, she’ll go at least two years, maybe more. But if you’re in the business and you have to have a certain production of honey every year, you want a strong queen. A couple years ago I bought a Russian bee, and I’ve had a lot of success with that queen.”
Bird recognizes that not everyone appreciates his chosen pastime. “In a subdivision like this, neighbors are a little nervous,” he explains. A great deal of their discomfort, he feels, can be chalked up to a popular misunderstanding of bees.
“I don’t think people distinguish the stinging insects – a bee is a bee,” he notes. “Of course, the really nasty ones are the yellow jackets and the wasps and the hornets. [But] honeybees – they’re not aggressive. They will sting you if you really disturb them or if you’re walking barefoot through the grass and there are clover and bees.”
And then, of course, there are those Africanized bees – a hybrid of the African honeybee and a variety of European honeybees – that we’ve been dreading all these years.
“The marauding killer bees,” Bird laughs. “I actually saw that word used in an ABC News story. They’re out there looking for you.”
Though the “killer bees” have made their way into the United States by way of Mexico, they have yet to expand beyond the Southwest.
“I have heard of one case,” Bird adds, “where they stowed away on a ship that came into Baltimore Harbor – you know, they came from the South – so the agriculture people had to come in and get them out of there.”
Having been stung “many times” himself, Bird admits that stinging is an occupational hazard with beekeeping. “You have to acknowledge that you’re going to get stung, and just get over it,” he explains. “If you can accept that, you can be a beekeeper.”
But beekeepers across the country have a more pressing concern than skittish neighbors or killer bees: namely, the varroa mite, a tiny parasite that has decimated the domestic honeybee population over the last 15 or 20 years.
“These mites are like bloodsuckers; they attach to the bee’s body, and they can kill the whole hive,” Bird explains. “You’ll see an article about beekeeping in the paper periodically, and they’ll always mention the varroa mite, because it’s been really devastating. Beekeepers have been trying to find new queens because of the varroa mite.”
Consequently, wild honey bees have grown increasingly rare. “Finding a beehive in a hollow tree is not very common anymore,” Bird notes. “Most of the bees are being kept by beekeepers.”
To monitor the spread of problems like the varroa mite, the Department of Agriculture (with which the law requires beekeepers to register) regularly inspects beehives. Beekeepers can also stay informed through programs put on by various state, national and even international beekeeping associations comprised of everyone from hobbyists, like Bird, to farmers and scientists.
“In Howard County we have our own beekeeping organization – the Howard County Beekeepers Association (www.hcbamd.org),” Bird notes. “There are always people to call and talk to.”
These same organizations are also excellent starting points for those with a budding interest in beekeeping, putting on introductory courses, usually over the winter.
“That’s where I got started,” Bird explains. “They go through the nuts and bolts of how to put together a beehive, how the bees behave and what goes on in the hive. It’s a very good introduction; if someone wanted to get started, I’d definitely recommend attending one of those. And of course, if you get in touch with your local club, people are always willing to share stories and advice.”
For now, however, Bird has no plans to expand his efforts. “Keeping a beehive is kind of labor-intensive,” he says. “The challenge of keeping one going is enough.”