Once considered an oddball hobby, beekeeping is drawing more interest as Seattle residents take up the cause of declining hives and discover the sweetest taste in urban agriculture.
The 1.9 million honeybees, in groups of 10,000 packed into 190 wooden boxes, were unloaded around 8:30 Saturday evening into the garage of the Bellevue home of Cary Therriault.
They had been driven some 11 hours in a large cargo van from a breeder in Orland, in Northern California.
For members of the Puget Sound Beekeepers Association, the bee season officially had begun. Another 1.9 million bees will arrive this weekend.
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Say hello to the bees.
Bee enthusiasts, alerted by an email from Therriault, soon began arriving to pick up the precious cargo, and kept coming until 11:30 that night.
The doors to the garage opened at 6:30 the next morning, and the trek of urban beekeepers continued. Over two weekends, 158 individuals, some bringing along friends and family, will have shown up to pick a total of 380 bee packages.
Among them was Sylvia Russell, who, along with her husband, Ken, has two hives in their garden in the Bryant neighborhood of Seattle.
“See the smiles on their faces?” she asked, holding up one of the wooden boxes, which had wire mesh on both sides. “They’re saying, ‘Sylvia, we want to come home with you.’ “
You can’t really blame Russell for wanting to believe that bees can smile.
A honeybee, well, it does only good — pollinating all those flowers and fruit trees, and literally producing sweetness, plus wax.
And there is something else in this growing interest in beekeeping, besides getting closer to nature.
Bees in trouble
Beginning in 2006, with what has been called the “colony collapse disorder,” large numbers of man-managed colonies have died. Researchers still are trying to pinpoint the exact cause, which has been linked to everything from pesticides to weakened bee immune systems.
Aiding the honeybee population — even one backyard hive at a time — is definitely a factor in backyard bee hives for some enthusiasts, said Bruce Becker, treasurer of the association.
The regional group has a membership of 160 to 190 people, depending on when people renew, he said, nearly double that of a decade ago.
Helping out at the garage was one of the older members of group, Bill Rahr, 81, of Bellevue.
He remembers growing up in Illinois, going to tend to bee hives with his grandfather. Just the get-up for beekeepers is certainly unusual — that white beekeeper suit, helmet and veil that have a faint look of a 1940s sci-fi movie costume.
“Back then, that generation thought all beekeepers were nuts,” Rahr said. “I remember them saying about my grandfather, ‘There’s that crazy guy, going to the bee yard.’
“Now, you’ve got a younger generation, with a better education about what constitutes our environment and our food supply.”
At the garage, Rahr was the go-to guy for questions from the many beginning beekeepers.
Simple things, sometimes, stuff like why there were bees sticking to the outside of the wire mesh of the wood boxes.
Well, at the bee breeder in California, the bees were shaken into the boxes through a funnel. About 3 pounds of bees equaled 10,000 of them.
But it’s not precise science, shaking bees, and some ended up outside. Those bees did not fly away. They clung to the wire mesh to be near the queen.
Not yet that busy
Considering that 1.9 million bees were in the Bellevue garage, they didn’t make much of a buzzing sound.
Therriault explained it’s been a cool spring, not yet warm enough for the bees to become active.
Mostly, they packed themselves into the middle of the 16-by-6-by-9-inch boxes, around a smaller, 1-inch-long box hung at the top by a metal bar.
Inside the smaller box was the queen, and, Therriault said, the worker bees were clustering around her to make sure she was warm.
When bees are dumped into their new hive, he said, what usually happens is that the owners will take out a cork in that smaller box and replace it with a bit of marshmallow. The worker bees will begin eating the marshmallow, and, in a few days, break through to the queen bee, who then comes out and starts laying eggs.
These few days of eating the marshmallow let the worker bees acclimate themselves to that particular queen. Otherwise, Therriault said, they might not recognize her “cocktail of pheromones,” the chemicals she secretes, and kill her.
Each container of 10,000 bees costs $80. A queen bee alone costs $25.
Becker says that setting up two hives will set you back $500 to $800, which not only includes the bees but the frames, hive chamber, smoker, hive tool, veil, gloves and other items.
Once set up, Becker said, the hives need maintenance work that takes up a half-hour or so, twice a month.
Improving the odds
“I always tell people to start with two hives,” he said. “If you only have one and something goes wrong, you’ve got a 100 percent failure rate.”
Each city seems to have its own regulation concerning bee hives.
Woodinville, with its more rural setting, allows up to 50 hives on sites of less than five acres; on more than five acres, there is no limit.
Seattle sets a maximum of four hives in lots of less than 10,000 square feet. In some cases, the city ordinance says there should be a 6-foot-high solid fence or hedge between you and a neighbor, so the bees have to fly higher.
The reason for the latter: As wonderful as honeybees are, every beekeeper has a story of his most memorable sting.
For Becker, 57, an attorney who was 14 and growing up on Bainbridge Island when he built his first hive, it was being stung when he was attending Olympic College in Bremerton.
He couldn’t afford a beekeeper’s suit, and instead used a rain suit, Becker remembered.
“I was stung 50 times in the face, around the eyes, neck, nose, ears,” he said. “It was obvious enough that one of the college instructors asked if I was OK.”
It didn’t take long to recover, he said. A more typical sting for Becker was a recent one in which he had a slight swelling in a finger.
Meanwhile, at the Bellevue garage, the bee enthusiasts kept being enthusiastic.
Sometimes it came down to simple things.
Susan Gregory, whose family lives in Seattle’s Ravenna area, is in her third year of beekeeping, and last year had one hive that produced 2 ½ gallons of honey.
“It’s really expensive honey,” she said. “But it’s totally worth it. It’s good to have bees buzzing around the yard.”
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org