March 22nd, 2012
02:03 PM ET

Backyard beekeeping creates buzz

Cassandra Lawson admits that beekeeping wasn't popular and was considered "a little eccentric" when she first started.

"Most people thought that it was weird," the Decatur, Georgia, beekeeping teacher says. "Why would you want bees and you live in the middle of a city?"

But Lawson's not the only one fascinated with bees these days. Interest in beekeeping, or apiculture, has been on the rise in the United States.

Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture Magazine, estimates about 150,000 noncommercial beekeepers are in the United States - up from 110,000 in 2008.

The bee's role as a pollinator is an important part of commercial agriculture as well as gardening. Or as Lawson puts it, "Pretty much if we didn't have bees or other pollinators, we'd eat mush."

But what is the attraction for these urban and suburban beekeepers, who may live far from any large-scale crops?

One appears obvious: honey. Charles Berry, who came out for Lawson's introduction to beekeeping class, says, "I'm naturally a city boy, but I've always been very interested in bees and what they do, and I love honey."

But honey fiends should keep in mind that bees eat the honey as well, and Lawson recommends that you not take any honey from the bees for at least a year in order to have a productive hive.

But it's not just the honey. Some people say they are intrigued by the complex society and behaviors of the bees and see them as pets, while others find beekeeping as a way to connect with nature better.

"Bees pollinate everything that we eat so you're doing your benefit for Mother Nature," Berry says.

Michael Bush, a Nebraska computer programmer who has become a prominent voice in the backyard beekeeping community and the author of a book on the subject, said that bees are so fascinating to people that they become an obsession. " 'Bee Fever' has been well-documented for centuries. Bees are too interesting," he said via e-mail.

But while there has been a rise in backyard beekeeping in recent years, commercial beekeepers have been battling a problem known as colony collapse disorder.

The commercial beekeepers have found their bee colonies stricken by mysterious failures that have been attributed to various causes - from pesticides to lack of genetic diversity to the chemicals used in beekeeping to try to keep bees pest-free.

Some have even speculated that cell phones somehow interfere with bees' navigational senses. No definitive cause has been determined, with major studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture finding a variety of factors responsible for the cases it documented.

Given the worry over the insect's future, many of the new wave of beekeepers see their role as defenders of bees to help propagate the population if commercial colonies suffer a catastrophic decline.

Bush said he recognizes that concerns about colony collapse disorder may be a driving force in the rise behind beekeeping, and he sees the increase as a good thing.

"For one thing, it makes people aware of reality," he said. "Bees are tied into the entire ecology around you, and when you keep bees, you begin to be aware of that ecology and that real world instead of the virtual world of TV and the Internet."

For her part, Lawson said the disorder - whatever the cause - is not something about which backyard beekeepers have to worry.

But there are plenty of other hazards that can befall urban beekeepers, and Lawson has some advice for neighbors who can make the environment more hospitable to bees: Avoid "monoculturing" their yards.

"Let the clover and dandelion grow. Don't mow all the time. Don't use pesticides unnecessarily. ... Let your yard be a meadow," she said.

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