Stately trees line the avenues in the Myers Park neighborhood, one of the closest to the heart of uptown Charlotte, branches and leaves shade the streets and the sidewalks, the houses and the hives.
The hives? Yes, the hives—all over Charlotte, urban and suburban backyards are buzzing with the sounds of bees making honey.
Walk straight through Libby and Gerry Mack’s Myers Park home and there, at the back of the yard, perch two stacks of bee hives—brood boxes and supers, in the lingo of the beekeeper.
Not far across town, Wayne Hansen, president of the Mecklenburg Beekeepers Association, has a bit more land to work with—and more hives to match.
And in yet another spot, Jimmy Odom practices his beekeeping, something he came to ten years ago, when his brother asked him to help rob the bees (harvest the honey) from the hives his brother was keeping. He was hooked and has been at it ever since.
Hansen, Odom and the Macks are surrounded by neighbors, back left and right, and they manage to co-exist quite well—bees, neighbors, kids and pets.
The Macks, Hansen and Odom are just three members of the active (more than 150 strong) Mecklenburg Beekeepers Association, which meets monthly in Charlotte. Hansen is president, and Libby Mack is secretary and all are active. All participate in “bee school,” a winter program of classroom work culminating with a field day in which students work with their mentors to handle the hives (it’s easy to tell students from them mentors—students are still wearing gloves—and more, in some cases).
And bee school has been growing steadily over the past few years. Just this past winter more than 80 people took the class. Not everyone who completes the class gets a hive. But the growing size of both the membership and bee school is proof that bees are booming.
Luckily for Charlotte, there is no ordinance against backyard beekeeping, although Hansen advises anyone in a subdivision to check in the with the homeowners’ associations before getting too involved (some of the HOAs do prohibit bees, counting bees as livestock, he says).
The trend—allowing urban beekeeping— is gaining momentum nationwide. “New York City has repealed its ban,” says Libby Mack, “and there are bees on the roof of Chicago City Hall and the Paris Opera house. I understand the Ritz-Carlton (in Charlotte) is going to have a bee hive.”
Surprisingly, just keeping a hive doesn’t take much space. In fact, it doesn’t take anymore than the footprint of the hive itself, roughly 16 x 22 inches. From there, the hives build up. “You could keep a colony of bees on your balcony,” says Mack. (And they must have a source of water: if beekeepers don’t provide that, the bees may go looking for it and become a nuisance.)
The hurdles are few, but the biggest by far might be convincing nearby neighbors that 100,000 stinging insects will be calling the backyard home. The Macks let their neighbors know. “The adults were hesitant, but luckily the children said, ‘We know all about bees. They have pollen. They are endangered. They make honey. They’re important for nature,’ and the parents said okay,” says Mack. “Of course, a jar of honey goes a very long way to show the neighbors that there is an upside to having bees in the neighborhood.”
As for advice to wannabe beekeepers? “Become a member of the Mecklenburg Beekeepers Association,” says Mack. “You have to apprentice. Meet people and find a mentor you are comfortable with, and plan to help your mentor. There’s a lot of work—things that need to be built and carried. Honey harvest is a lot of labor. You learn by helping.”
Odom echoes Mack’s advice about bee school and adds, “then you need to be curious and not afraid (of the bees).”
There’s an art to beekeeping, says Mack, as the tangy scent of the pine needle fire in her smoker drifts across the lawn, coming out in puffs as she uses the bellows to keep it going. (Beekeepers use the smoke to lightly subdue the bees when they first lift the lids from the supers.) “You have to make sure they have just the right amount of room, but not too much. That’s the art, finding that balance to make (maximum) honey.” This she says as she pulls frame after frame from the supers, each glossy with nectar and crawling with surprisingly docile bees.
“Look how slowly they move,” she says softly. “They’re calm. That’s just them, and they’ve had very little smoke.”
The Macks came to beekeeping when Gerry, a woodworker, thought he’d like to make the equipment needed by beekeepers. The woodworking part of that gave way to the fascination of beekeeping.
Hansen thought he’d do his garden a favor by keeping bees. Before he knew it, the honey from the bees became more important than the bees pollinating the garden. “It’s a hobby. There’s education involved.” Although he can’t pinpoint exactly the reward for what can be, at times, hard work.
The hardest work may very well be harvesting the honey. After making sure the bees have wintered over, then getting them ready to start gathering honey in the spring, the time to gather the honey comes in late June or early July in Charlotte. The honeycomb is taken from the hives and spun in a harvester (a lot of the more dedicated beekeepers own their own harvesters, a big barrel of a machine that spins the honey from the comb). Hansen built a separate, concrete-floored honey house in his backyard. The Macks turn their kitchen into the honey house every year for the sticky process.
After the honey harvest, bees collect nectar from late summer and fall flowers that don’t taste that good to humans, says Mack—that honey goes to the bees, which gets them through the winter (beekeepers do check on their hives through the winter, but they don’t need to do much), and then the season begins again.
Beekeepers are passionate about what they do.
Hansen talks about the bees, his clover-filled lawn, the habitat, about things that are just good for the planet, about the sun-warmed waxelters that adorn his front yard (hot boxes that melt the beeswax, letting it strain into pans. Low tech, low hassle but effective.) “There’s chemistry. There’s biology. It’s good for the planet. Maybe that’s why I keep doing it,” he says.
Then Odom sums it all up in a sentence. “I learn every time I get into them,” he says of his bees. It seems that just might be what keeps them all going.
Well, that and the honey, of course. eP
Barb Freda is a Charlotte-based freelance writer who blogs at BabetteFeasts.com. This story took her longer than usual to write because of frequent honey-tasting breaks. She is now considering where she could place a hive in her 6-story apartment building. She was not stung in the photographing of this story.
Most times Wayne Hansen has been stung in one day: “They lit me up like a Christmas tree,” he says about a bunch of not-sodocile bees. “There were 60 stingers in me.” He requeened that hive, which is what beekeepers do with a mean hive. North Carolina has the biggest beekeeping society in the U.S., says Odom, which grew when the state bought 500 colonies of bees to give out to new beekeepers across the state.
The North Carolina State Beekeepers Association can be found at www.NCBeekeepers.org.
You can help strengthen the honeybee population where you live. Some tips:
Avoid pesticide sprays in your yard. Pesticides not only sicken and kill the bees, they kill the flowering plants they feed on.
Keep bees. For an initial investment of about $350, you can start your own hive and get a lifetime’s supply of honey. After that, expect to spend about $50 a year for maintenance. It’s not incredibly time-consuming, either. After October, when the hives go dormant, you don’t have to touch them.
Contact your county beekeepers association for information on classes (many of them are free) and mentors. The list is at www.ncbeekeepers.org.
KNOW YOUR SCIENTIST
Name: David Tarpy
Job: Assistant professor of entomology and extension apiculturist (beekeeper) at N.C. State University
Why you do science: “I tend to view the world fairly logically and have a real fascination with the empirical process of discovery. In school. I just gravitated toward the sciences because I found them very intriguing.”
Read more: Go to N.C. State’s apiculture program site, www.cals.ncsu.edu/entomology/apiculture/.