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- DW Harris
BEEHIVE STATE OF MIND
Looking for a new hobby? Beekeeping is all the buzz.
By Dylan Woolf Harris
Denise Hunsaker harbors no grudge against the 12 irritated bees that attacked her legs several weeks ago. The hive was getting crowded, after all—a condition that agitates the best of us. And she was wearing black pants, which she suspects triggered the bees' instincts that a predator was near.
A slew of stings later, she was inside looking out the window to determine if things had calmed enough to go back outside.
"That was a really unusual situation," she says. "I've never had 12 bee stings in the eight years I've been doing this. I just pissed them off."
That experience didn't change her opinion about keeping bees, her favorite pastime. What started years ago as a quest for some homebrewed mead, morphed into a hobby that's perfect to pick up when the weather turns warm, and the hives produce fresh honey.
"It's fascinating, it's addictive, it's fun," says Hunsaker, who fills in as the Wasatch Beekeepers Association public-relations officer. Backyard beekeeping is an activity for most anyone, she adds.
But don't delay. By mid-June, it's nearly too late for a hive to grow and flourish.
Beekeeping gives hobbyists a front-row view of nature's systematic honey machines, where each moving part is an animal that faithfully performs its small duty for the benefit of the whole. Each bee has an instinctive role. Drones, for example, mate with the queen. The queen's job is to lay a minimum of 1,000 eggs per day.
About 1,800 people registered their hives with the state in 2016. Utah law mandates that beekeepers do so. But, as Utah Department of Agriculture Insect Program Manager Chris Watson puts it, "We're not the bee police."
It costs $10 to license 20 or fewer hives, $25 for up to 100 hives and, for commercial bee operations with more than 100 hives, licensing runs $50.
One of the biggest responsibilities for a beekeeper is protecting the hive from pests and disease.
The benefit of licensing with the state is that keepers can request free inspections for parasites such as the dreaded varroa mites, which can decimate a colony. The small scarlet arachnid latches itself onto a bee's back and sucks its blood through festering sores that leave it vulnerable to disease and infection.
Fortunately for beekeepers, hives can be treated if the mites are detected early enough.
"We're here to promote the idea of honeybee health and give information on mitigation for disease outbreaks and provide notifications," Watson says.
The department also will trap fierce Africanized honey bees. "We don't allow for aggressive stock," Watson says. If someone's hive is brimming with vicious bees, it can be "re-queened" and salvaged.
Large bee operations often rent out insects to California almond farmers. They ship out their hives on flatbed trucks. Once the crops are pollinated, boxes of bees return—sometimes more than the number that was shipped out, says Roger Stephenson, secretary of the Utah Beekeepers Association.
The association is the state's largest beekeeping group, comprised of large operations, mid-sized "sideliners" and small hobbyists.
Beekeepers who tend to smaller hives usually don't do it for any compensation. There's no money in having bees in the backyard, Hunsaker says, though the honey they produce makes for a good gift.
In its lifetime, a bee produces one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey, and its flavor and texture varies with the seasons, depending on what food is available. "Spring is a really light, syrupy honey. Summer is the golden color, a little bit thicker. Fall is very dark, very rich, almost molasses-like," Hunsaker says.
Stephenson says hobbyists should remember to leave enough honey during the late fall and winter months so the bees can make it through the season when they don't forage. They can be fed syrup, too.
Good beekeepers make good neighbors. The insects will help pollinate plants as they skip from flower to flower. But there's a chance a resident could get uneasy. Hunsaker recommends beekeeping etiquette by taking a contact card "and possibly some honey" to your neighbors and let them know bees will be buzzing around pollinating their plants and asking that they don't try to kill them. They can call the beekeeper if bees start to swarm.
The "newbee" looking to cultivate a hive should first consider planting wildflowers in the yard, which will offer bees a close source of nectar. Research what plants bees prefer. Then, you'll want to set up a hive box. But don't expect a "skep hive"—the upturned woven baskets that also happen to be the state's ubiquitous logo. Those, as well as any other hive that doesn't allow for the frames to be inspected, aren't legal. Several stores in the valley sell hive boxes.
Next, you'll need bees, and vitally, a queen bee. Stephenson says there are various places to buy bees to start your hive—a seller in St. George and another in Richfield, for example. IFA Country Stores keep some in stock, he says. Or you can order them directly from queen breeders.
If that sounds daunting, your best bet might be to join a group like the Utah Beekeepers Association, which has all the answers and suggestions.
Hunsaker showed City Weekly her backyard apiary consisting of five box hives with metal roofs held down with a heavy rock. She estimates the largest hive to house about 70,000 bees. The hives sit on raised platforms with ventilation on the bottoms. A jar of sugar water mixed with a nutritional supplement is near the front landing ways, a sliver opening where the bees fly in and out. When the roof and inner cover is removed, the hive is revealed. It's divided into slots of vertical frames. After prying apart the frames—stuck together with a sappy substance called propolis—each can be removed to reveal the honeycombs.
Suiting up in a protective jacket with a round mesh veil, Hunsaker pointed out the honeycombs as bees flurried about. Her jeans, on this day, were unmistakably blue.