by Adam Reger

Burgh Bees has been promoting beekeeping in the Pittsburgh region since 2008. More recently, Burgh Bees created the Homewood Educational Apiary to provide beekeepers of all levels with a place to tend their hives, educating the public in the process. Apiary Director Jeff Shaw sat down with us for an interview on the Homewood Educational Apiary’s mission, what makes bees so vital to the environment, and what it is that gets people hooked on beekeeping.

What exactly do you do at the Homewood Educational Apiary?

Our main mission is to make people more aware of native pollinators in and around Pittsburgh and their importance to the food supply. We offer an introduction to beekeeping through our classes—we have an arrangement with the Penn State University Extension to use their classrooms. We present the basics of beekeeping and bring in equipment to show them how to get started. Since 2009 we’ve trained over 900 people interested in beekeeping.

If people are interested in trying it out for themselves, the Homewood Educational Apiary has a fenced-in area, about 30 by 40 feet, where they can keep their hives and tend to them, and it’s also got a pollinating garden with lots of native plants. All our plants are grown without chemicals: no herbicides, no pesticides, no fungicides. That’s really important to our mission.

Homewood Educational Apiary / Photo: Ben Filio

Photo: Ben Filio

So the Homewood Educational Apiary is a little like a community garden: people can store their hives there and come to tend the bees and harvest honey?

It’s a lot like a community garden in that sense. You can put your own hive there, which is useful for people who can’t keep bees on their property or who live in an apartment. New beekeepers are assigned mentors, somebody who’s gone through several years of managing a hive and feeding a colony. The new beekeeper can ask questions or go to the mentor with problems.

How did the Homewood Educational Apiary develop out of Burgh Bees?

Burgh Bees used to take groups on field trips and educational demonstrations to look at members’ hives, located in a few different places. That educational component kept developing to the point where we thought that it would be nice to have our own location. In 2009 we formally established the Homewood apiary as the base for Burgh Bees. We put all the hives there, and later that year we started offering classes.

Besides classes, how else do you reach out to the community?

Once a month during the summer, we hold “open apiaries” where the community can come in and take a look at what we do. There’s no experience necessary whatsoever. It gets the community involved and anybody who wants to get their feet wet and learn about bees and pollinating plants can come to that.

We also have corporate groups, schools, and garden groups that reach out to us. They’ll put together an outing, a hike or a picnic and an educational experience. We take them through the apiary and show them the hives and introduce the whole process.

What makes bees so important?

Without pollinators like bees, 75 to 80 percent of all the produce you see in the grocery store would be gone. If you look at what’s been happening since 2005 with colony collapse disorder and the introduction of a lot of chemicals into the food supply, we’ve seen 50% of the worldwide bee population die off every single year. The reasons have to do with chemicals and with lack of habitat: asphalt, huge farms. That’s no environment for a bee.

Homewood Educational Apiary / Photo: Ben Filio

Photo: Ben Filio

What can people do to keep bees from dying off?

We encourage the people who come to our classes and our beekeepers to go to conferences, to educate themselves as much as they can about the importance of habitat and natural beekeeping.

Even though the bee population has been declining, there’s been an increase every year in urban beekeeping. We have the audience to make a difference, and hopefully that’s what we’re doing.

Your website has a photo of a group touring the Apiary and I was surprised to see people wearing veils but not gloves. What else tends to surprise visitors to the Apiary?

It’s all in your experience level and how you work bees. Sometimes you have to wear gloves. If you’re pretty familiar with those bees, you know if they’re aggressive or not aggressive. You can go to a hive that’s super-calm, pull a frame out of the hive and the bees stay right on the frame. If you go in there aggressively and you’re moving things roughly, they’ll sense your energy and they might get aggressive too. If you’re slow and calm, they’ll sense that as well.

One thing that surprises a lot of people is just the number of bees that are in a hive. People aren’t prepared to see 60,000 bees in a hive. You pull a frame out and it’s just loaded with bees. They’ve never seen that volume of insects together in one place.

What fascinates people about bees and beekeeping?

Bees are one of the highest evolved social organisms. They all work together as one unit. There are not many situations where you can open up an organism’s living space and see all aspects of development: food, child rearing, work. It’s fascinating for people, and it’s an easy educational experience because there’s so much to talk about.

I’ve seen lots of people catch the bug once they see what beekeeping’s all about. One of our volunteers started out thinking she didn’t want to tend bees. We set her up with a hive and she loved it—she ended up putting bees on her own property. And she’s actually allergic: she got stung and went to the hospital. But she goes through the hives herself, she does tons of events, she loves the kids and goes out and conducts educational events in the schools.

Once people see the bees and the importance of them, you can’t stop them.

Learn more about Burgh Bees and see how you can take part in the Homewood Educational Apiary’s programming as well.