Life has not been sweet for honeybees in the past three decades.
As many know, bees have suffered from both introduced pests and pesticides, including plants that are genetically modified to be toxic to insects, as well as stress and malnutrition from industrial-level uses, involving transporting large numbers of bees to pollinate mass-scale farms.
And the newest threat is coming from the introduction of Africanized bees, long known as “killer bees.”
But bees are gaining allies every year as people, including dozens in Charleston, heed the call to help and are becoming beekeepers in backyards, urban farms and community beekeeping sites.
And groups such as the Charleston Area Beekeepers Association, Charleston Community Bee Gardens and Lowcountry Beekeepers Association are providing the education and mentoring that assure that those who start out and are serious about the craft don’t get discouraged with its challenges.
Statewide, the S.C. Beekeepers Association and its affiliate organizations train between 400 and 500 new beekeepers in the Palmetto State annually in recent years, according to association President Larry Haigh, who lives in Mount Pleasant.
Haigh adds, however, that 30 percent stop keeping bees after one year.
“We have a lot of challenges for new beekeepers,” says Haigh, who also co-founded the 100-member Charleston Area Beekeepers Association. “They will have to keep up to date with what’s happening.”
Beekeeping is buzzing in Charleston.
The beekeeper’s association holds a two-day beginning beekeeper course every year on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. The class has room for 40 people and it filled up within two days, according to Haigh.
Twenty people on a waiting list got a second chance when Charleston Community Bee Gardens held a one-day course on Valentine’s Day. It also filled up quickly.
That’s in addition to all three organizations holding monthly meetings providing beekeepers of all levels with continued education, and other organizations promoting beekeeping on other levels.
The locally based Bee Cause has placed hives at nearly 40 schools and nonprofit sites around the Charleston area.
Haigh says the momentum is building as concern for the welfare of the honeybee dovetails with interests in local farming, organic food and permaculture. Most of those showing interest in beekeeping are young and middle-age adults.
An example of these new breeds of beekeepers is Rachel and Jon Maddux of Mount Pleasant.
The Madduxes, who had their first child last year, started beekeeping three years ago, both for environmental reasons and to help pollinate their raised bed gardens in the Indian Village area of Mount Pleasant.
Rachel Maddux says they see having a bee hive as being consistent with their careers at Boeing, building a more environmentally friendly 787 jet airliner.
“To us, if you are dedicating your career to an environmentally friendly product, it only makes sense to do environmentally friendly things at home, like gardening and beekeeping,” says Rachel Maddux. “We try to plant plants and trees that bees love. We built ponds in our yard so our bees would be able to get fresh water any time.”
The Madduxes admit that they originally got bees to have a successful garden, but the hive has become more than pollinators and honey producers (their hives have yielded 110 pounds of honey each of the past two years.)
“Our bees are like pets to us,” says Jon Maddux, adding that they try not to wear gloves when working with the bees. “This way we can be closer to them.”
And while the Madduxes try not to interact too much with them and minimize opportunities for pests to get in the hive, beekeeping these days requires attention and care.
“We initially thought that we would get the bees and put them near the garden and let them work the garden, and we wouldn’t do anything with the bees; we’d just leave them there and let them do what they want,” says Jon. “It turns out and we know now, that plan would never work. Bees need trained beekeepers.”
Jon Maddux says they “constantly battle” varroa mites and small hive beetles, and are diligent about using “bee-friendly chemicals” and working with neighbors to do the same. They also must alert Charleston County mosquito abatement crews and private mosquito control companies to their hives.
“For us, this is the hardest part of beekeeping: We worry about the health of our bees and what they will get into when they go foraging for food.”
He added they learned everything they know about beekeeping from the Charleston Area Beekeepers Association.
“We could not raise bees without them. For us, we think that is the only way to get into beekeeping and do it well.”
Beekeepers and the bees they care for are raising awareness, in tangible ways, of the need to use less chemical pesticides, introduced and invasive pest species and of the dangers of genetically modified plants and large monoculture farms.
Jim Strohm, president of Charleston Community Bee Gardens, says one key to saving the honeybee will be having more small beekeepers.
“What’s not going to save beekeeping is one beekeeper having a thousand hives. It’s better to have a thousand beekeepers having one hive because you don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” says Strohm, who started beekeeping five years ago after attending a Charleston County Earth Day event.
Strohm, who retired from the Navy and the State Ports Authority, says he thinks the honeybees’ decline is due to pesticides and poor beekeeping.
“Once you get bees, you can’t put those bees in (a hive) and walk away anymore. You’ve taken them into an unnatural environment. Their natural environment is a hole in the side of a tree. Now you have to keep them. You’re the beekeeper.”
Strohm says he starts a new hive with about three pounds of bees, about 10,000 in number, purchased for about $80, with a goal of having about 60,000 in three months.
Most local governments, Strohm adds, are “wide open” in allowing bees. The most restrictive ordinances apply to Charleston County’s unincorporated areas that are zoned residential and to James Island. Some homeowners associations also don’t allow them.
Charleston Community Bee Gardens, which was modeled after Burgh Bees in Pittsburgh, also makes it possible for people who can’t have hives at home because of rules or because they live in apartments to have them in community plots.
Pediatric nurse Sheryl Bey, who took the course by Charleston Community Bee Gardens, is among the newest local beekeepers. She started hers at a community plot, not her yard in West Ashley, because of worries about neighbors.
“I asked a neighbor if she would mind if I put up a hive. She didn’t say no, but looked nervous,” says Bey, who was motivated to start for environmental reasons and because bees are fascinating.
Retirees Dave and Sandy Van Such, who live in the Lakes of Summerville, started a new hive because “she’s a farm girl from Minnesota” who used to have hives to pollinate an apple orchard.
“I just tagged along,” says Dave Van Such.
The couple has an ideal location for hives. It’s on a quarter acre of land adjacent to a lake. But the subdivision doesn’t allow fences and a neighbor has a pool, which bees are drawn to because of chlorinated water.
So Van Such decided to put a hive at one of several of Charleston Community Bee Gardens sites at Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center, nearly 23 miles away from their house.
Strohm and Van Such put the bees in a new hive last week.
Meanwhile, Haigh says beekeeping isn’t for everyone. They ultimately aren’t comfortable with bees or are too daunted by the challenges of keeping them.
“I had people walk away from it after a presentation on Africanized bees, but that’s what we want them to do,” says Haigh, in trying to weed out those who may not be up to the task and challenges of raising bees.
Reach David Quick at 937-5516.