Backyard beehives a sweet deal Thriving hobby has multiple benefits

Mary Stewart Murphey explains the environmental benefits of having beehives in her backyard.

Mary Stewart Murphey watches bees leave the hives in her backyard each day as she drinks her morning coffee.

Soon after the sun comes up, the bees get to work pollinating her garden, where she grows cucumbers, squash and other vegetables.

They regularly return to the hive throughout the day bringing in dusty pollen and flower nectar, which they dehydrate and turn into honey.

And as Murphey sips her glass of wine each evening, she watches her bees come home after a hard day of work and settle back into their hives for the night.

This marks her first year as a beekeeper, and she's fascinated by how organized bee society is and how well it functions. “It would be utopia for mankind to operate like this,” she said. “It truly is so perfect the way it operates. They seem to get it.”

Murphey is one of a growing number of area residents who keep bees in their backyards. She was motivated to start beekeeping after the cucumbers in her garden fared poorly two years in a row. Her stepson, who is a horticulturist, told her the plants possibly were not being properly pollinated, and that bringing in some bees might help.

So Murphey did some research on what it would take to keep bees. Then she took a couple of classes, bought the necessary supplies and jumped in.

It's still early in the season, but Murphey's cucumber plants this year are green and flowering. She expects a good crop, and attributes that to her bees.

“I'm hooked,” she said. Mike Hood, an entomologist and bee expert from Clemson University, said interest in bees has grown tremendously statewide in recent years. That's mostly because more people value organic food and are starting backyard gardens, he said. “Without bees, they can't have much of a garden.”

“In many parts of the state, if you don't keep honeybees, you don't have enough bees to get the job done,” Hood said.

Interest also has been sparked by media reports on “colony collapse disorder,” a phenomenon seen in many parts of the country in which beekeepers report large drops in the number of bees in their hives.

Nobody knows the cause of the disorder, Hood said, but he thinks a virus, a microsporidium and pesticide contribute to it.

Colony collapse disorder hasn't yet been reported in South Carolina, Hood said, although beetles and mites threaten bees here. Still, news of the disorder has sparked an increased interest in bees statewide.

In South Carolina over the past three years, about 300 new beekeepers have earned the first level of certification, he said. That's about double the number in previous years. And more people are taking classes to learn about bees, even if they don't decide to keep them in their backyards.

Larry Haigh, president of the Charleston Area Beekeepers Association, said his group was launched three years ago by a handful of Mount Pleasant residents who were interested in beekeeping. Now the group has 80 members, and 50 people are on a waiting list for a September beekeeping class.

Taking a class to learn about beekeeping is important, he said. While he's excited about the growing interest in bees and the number of local people who keep them, he's also concerned about safety.

People need to be responsible and consider their neighbors if they want to place hives in their yards, he said.

Honeybees aren't aggressive, but they will sting if they feel threatened. So new beekeepers need to make sure they have enough space in their yards for bees, and they need to make sure they have a water source for them. “If you don't provide it, they're going to go to the neighbors' pool,” he said.

He encourages new beekeepers to talk to their neighbors and let them know they are keeping bees. Most people are supportive of the practice, he said.

So far, no municipalities in the Charleston area prohibit beekeeping, he said. But bad encounters with bees could change that.

Haigh cares for his own bees in his Mount Pleasant yard. And he collects the rich honey they produce and sells it for the going rate of $8 per pound. It's not like honey from a store, he said, much of which has been pasteurized and filtered, making it just a simple sweetener.

Each hive, on average produces between 30 and 40 pounds of honey each year, he said. But in a really good year, a hive could produce up to 150 pounds.

That could offset some of the cost of getting started. Haigh said it would cost about $400 to take the class, and purchase one hive, the bees and all the necessary equipment.

And beekeepers have to keep learning, he said.

“It's not an exact science.” Murphey said it really is more an art than a science. And she's working at becoming an artist.

“I'm absolutely obsessed with bees.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.