A sweet time to start raising honeybees

December 6, 2013
By

HYDE SQ.—If you love honey and have considered keeping your own beehives, this is the season to get started, according to JP resident and Boston Beekeepers Club co-founder Stephanie Elson.

The time of the year is perfect, and so is the political climate, since the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) approved new beekeeping regulations earlier this month.

“Bees are amazing creatures. They are so fun to work with, and, of course, honey is delicious and healthful,” Elson said.

Elson said this is the time for first-time beekeepers to learn about the hobby because materials for a new spring hive—including the bees—are usually ordered very early in the year, and that takes research.

“Setting up a hive is a little like planning and planting a garden,” Elson told the Gazette, explaining that it takes time to plan the location, build or order the equipment, and choose which bees will populate the hive.

“It’s good to get your learning done over the winter, so that you can be all ready to set up a new hive in the spring,” she said, suggesting that “newbees” contact the Beekeepers Club for book recommendations or bee schools.

Beekeeping doesn’t require a lot of space, Elson said, and the hives can be installed almost anywhere—“like the three hives on top of the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel!”

In her own Hyde Square back yard, she has one hive that she purchased new, one she purchased used, and one she built herself. As for the bees themselves, she said they can be likewise ordered—a “starter” colony retails for $80 to $120, Elson said—or captured from the wild.

She also has an observation hive made of Plexiglas in her living room. The bees go in and out through a tube that runs through the window. Elson said that most of the time, her “Bee TV” is “more interesting than actual TV, except for Red Sox games.”

What about stings?

“Bees get a bad reputation from yellowjackets and other wasps that people think are bees,” Elson said, explaining that honeybees only sting when threatened. “Honeybees are quite gentle. I have gotten stung probably five or six times in the five years we’ve been keeping bees. Most of these instances are from when I accidentally squashed a bee and it stung my hand.”

However, many beekeepers wear protective gloves and clothing because bees can feel threatened when the hive is directly handled.

As for the benefits, Elson said they are as varied as the beekeepers. Some do it for the honey and wax. Some do it to boost garden production. Others do it to boost bee populations.

Bee colonies have been collapsing at increasing rates in the last decade throughout the U.S. and Europe. The exact cause is unknown, but research suggests it involves various factors, including pesticides, diseases and industrial beekeeping practices.

And “some just love the creature of the bee and want to host them in their yard, kind of like owning a fish tank,” she said.

Elson said there some up-front costs to the hobby, namely hives and protective gear.

“But just like anything else, there are used bee suits and other items available for sale,” she said. Other equipment, like wooden hive boxes, is also buildable at home.

The BRA’s Article 89—a new zoning code chapter governing urban agriculture—creates new maintenance requirements for urban beekeeping. Many community partners, including the Boston Beekeepers Club, were involved in developing the regulations.

The new regulations will allow two hives per residential location. They will also need to be registered with the City. And the City will consider additional permitting that would create more specific guidelines regarding the number of hives at any given location, BRA spokesperson Melina Schuler told the Gazette last week.

“I think the regulations are a good thing. It means that the city condones and explicitly allows beekeeping. This will be comforting for folks looking to get into the hobby, and also, I’d imagine, for their neighbors and landlords,” Elson said.

The Boston Beekeepers Club was started by a group of local beekeepers who got together for a bicycle tour of urban apiaries, or beehives, in summer 2011, dubbed the “Tour de Hives.” It visited hives in JP, Dorchester and Mattapan. About 35 people participated in 2011.

In 2012, there were 75 attendees. This summer, the tour also visited Cambridge, Somerville and the South End. There were over 140 participants, Elson said. Now the group has almost 500 members through Facebook and Google.

Aside from the yearly tour, the Boston Beekeepers Club also holds educational events throughout the year, including the upcoming Organic Bee School, to be held at Agricultural Hall on Amory Street in January and February.

“Interest in bees and beekeeping in Boston is skyrocketing. Part of this may be due to a growing interest in urban agriculture in general, and part of it is a growing awareness of the importance of bees to our food system, and the fact that they are threatened,” Elson said.

The Boston Beekeepers Club has a facebook page at facebook.com/BostonBeekeepers.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct information on Article 89.

Stephanie Elson empties a 3-pound package of bees —about 10,000 individuals—into their new hive earlier this year. (Courtesy Photo)

Stephanie Elson empties a 3-pound package of bees —about 10,000 individuals—into their new hive earlier this year. (Courtesy Photo)

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