Giving honey bees a helping hand
By Steven Hoffman
The tiny honey bee has some mighty big advocates in Chester County.
With more than 300 members, the Chester County Beekeepers Association educates the public about the importance of these fuzzy pollinators. It serves as a place for beekeepers to share information, their challenges and their successes. Most importantly, CCBA encourages people to explore the world of beekeeping.
Cindy Faulkner of Kennett Square is a past president of CCBA, and has been keeping bees for more than seven years. “One of my daughters was quite keen to have honeybees,” Faulkner said. So mother and daughter set up an apiary.
Thanks to her hardworking bees, Faulkner began bottling her Sidecar Honey. It's quite popular locally.
“I was invited to sell honey at the first Brandywine Food and Wine Festival,” she said, and she has been invited back each year. Faulkner takes the opportunity to educate the public about honeybees. “Even with all the press, I don’t think people appreciate how important honeybees are to agriculture,” she said.
The decline of the honeybee population is having huge impact on commercial and backyard beekeepers. The widespread use of pesticides, as well as viruses, pests, and poor hive management are taking a toll.
Faulkner has a background in biology and toxicology. Most of her career was spent working for ICI, first in pharmaceuticals and then in pesticides.
“I had an introduction to honeybees and bee biology through my work, so I feel like I’ve come full circle now,” she said, laughing. Despite her work in the field of pesticides, she keeps her yard pesticide-free to benefit the pollinators. “It’s OK if your lawn has dandelions and violets. here is nothing wrong with having a diversity of plants,” she said. “It’s important food for the bees.”
An organization called The Bee Informed Partnership recently issued a report stating that, nationwide, there has been a 44 percent loss of honeybee hives from April 2015 to April 2016. This collaborative program gathers and processes data submitted by beekeepers.
“It’s frustrating to try and figure out why bees die,” Faulkner said. Like many area beekeepers, she suffered major hive loss last winter. Her hives were doing very well and had ample honey stores, but they did not survive. “There is stuff going on we just don’t understand,” she said.
There are so many variables as to why a hive can perish. “The nutrition of the individual bee and the colony, the genetics, parasites, and diseases -- a whole lot can go wrong,” she said.
This is a challenge facing both new and seasoned beekeepers. “Loss of habitat and pesticides play a part for sure, as do poor beekeeping practices, but sometimes you just don’t know what happened. It’s pretty clear that a combination of things are weakening the population overall,” Faulkner said.
Despite her losses, there are honeybees buzzing around Faulkner’s garden this spring. She ordered a package of bees and installed them in her hive. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to start all over, but I really missed seeing the bees,” she said. “Beekeeping is like a little trail of bread crumbs that has led me in so many different directions.”
Apiculture – keeping bees – has a rich history and has sparked in Faulkner a curiosity about the Colonial and post-Colonial periods. An avid cook, she was already exploring Colonial cooking when her beekeeping mentor, Warren Graham, suggested she check out Ridley Creek State Park’s Colonial Plantation.
“I took a hearth cooking class at the Colonial Plantation, and now I volunteer there as a hearth cook,” Faulkner said. “Through beekeeping, I’ve had the chance to meet so many people, and I’ve learned so much. The beekeeping community is hugely supportive; there is a lot of help and advice out there. You have the opportunity to tap into a great network of people.”
Faulkner feels there is a spreading interest in beekeeping throughout the area. “People see my Honey Bee license plate and stop to ask me, ‘How are the bees?’ I also recently stopped at Pocopson Hardware and noticed they are selling some beekeeping supplies,” she said with a smile.
Anyone who would like to get started in beekeeping should check out the Chester County Beekeepers Association’s website at www.chescobees.org.
This year, Faulkner's oldest daughter is helping with the bees. Hilary Faulkner says she finds honeybees interesting, and likes that they are a female-centric society. “The honey bee was the first symbol for feminism. I think that’s pretty cool,” she said. “When I am out working with the bees, there is a very cool hum going on. You have to be careful; you need to move slowly, and it forces you to think about what you are doing. It’s kind of therapeutic.”
Dr. Don Coats is a Chester County beekeeper who is taking a scientific approach to apiculture. In his bee yard sits a “smart hive.” The hive is filled with active bees, and also contains sensors that read out the temperature and humidity in the hive. The hive sits on a scale so the weight can be monitored. There is an internal microphone that records three different harmonics.
“All the info goes from my hive to London then back to me,” Coats said. Bayer Bee Care gave this smart hive to Coats as a research tool. The company is developing new technology to help beekeepers and support sustainable agriculture.
“There are only 15 to 20 of these hives in the nation, and maybe 100 of them are functional world-wide,” he explained. Coats is able to monitor the hive from his computer. “This is considered the Cadillac of the systems,” he said, “but fortunately a company called BroodMinder is making a streamlined version at a much reduced cost. For about $200, you can get a scale and a temperature/humidity sensor that operates on Bluetooth.”
Fluctuating hive weight gives a clue as to what’s happening inside the hive. As bees bring nectar in, the weight will increase, so you know the bees are being productive foragers. If one of the hives is gaining weight but another hive plateaus or loses weight, this could be indicative of an inefficient queen bee. She may have stopped laying, or she may have swarmed with a portion of the hive.
“If you are weighing your hives, you can intervene early. You know which hive needs attention,” Coats said. “This hive gained six pounds yesterday,” Coats said, pointing to one of his beehives. The gain was most likely the result of a sunny day, and busy bees gathering nectar.
Coats retired from his veterinary practice after 48 years, and is now using his skills to study the honey bee health crisis. He started beekeeping about 15 years ago when a client gave him equipment.
“I began keeping bees for honey. But I could see there were a lot of beekeeping practices that are anecdotally shared and probably mis-practiced,” he said.
Coats is focusing his research on the Varroa mite and the Nosema parasite, both contributing factors to honeybee decline. The Varroa mite feeds on the blood of the larvae and adult honey bee, and also introduces viruses into the honeybee population. It is considered to be one of the most devastating pests affecting the honeybee industry. Nosema is a fungus that is held in an infected bee’s gut and impairs their ability to digest pollen, which weakens the bee and shortens its lifespan. The fungus spores are passed through the bee’s waste and spread to other bees in the colony.
“Early on, I began looking at the evidence of Nosema’s role as a pathogen,” Coats explained. “There are spores in the colony, and under certain circumstances, like weak hives, they will increase. But it’s not a cause and effect experience.”
Coats sampled 15 hives last year and found a small percentage had up to 5 million Nosema spores per bee. To contrast, he sampled a feral hive (one that is not being managed by a beekeeper) in Chester County that has been active for 50 years. Bee samples taken from the feral hive show as many as 13 to 17 million spores per bee at peak times. Yet that hive is healthy and thriving. Considering its longevity, this colony of bees is able to manage their Nosema infestation on their own.
Coats believes this is due to the overall good health of that colony. He strongly feels that good hive health is the foundation for any successful hive. Beekeepers need to accept there is a certain level of pest population in the hive, and allow pests to exist at or below this level. If the infestation increases, the least toxic or invasive methods should be used to treat it.
“Beekeepers need to be able to determine when their hive has crossed that threshold, and then treat appropriately,” Coats said. Overuse of chemical treatments can be harsh on the colony, and can contribute to an immunity build-up. Coats shares his research with the Bee Informed Partnership as well as with the Eastern Apiculture Society. He will also be offering a microscope workshop at the EAP annual conference in July.
Equally important to Coats is his work with Delaware Bee Walkers, a group he formed with fellow bee enthusiasts. The Bee Walkers monitor pollinators and strongly advocate for native plantings.
A few years ago, Coats was observing honey bees feeding on native plants at Coverdale Farm. He noticed there was a large variety of bees feeding alongside the honeybees. This experience brought his focus to native pollinators.
“There are 400 species of native bees in Pennsylvania, and they are losing their habitat,” he said. “Native bees are more fragile than honeybees, and they need native forage; it’s what they evolved with.”
To help support natural bee habitats, the Bee Walkers promote turning lawns into mini-meadows using native plants. Originating in Delaware, their work has spilled over into Chester County.
“We have helped create a mini-meadow in a location off Fairville Road, and one at the intersections of Spring Mill and Burnt Mill Roads,” Coats said.
Most exciting is the creation of a large pollinator meadow at Oberod. Pointing to flats of plants destined for Oberod’s meadow, Coats said, “I have some Cardinal Flower, Liatris Blazing Star and White Turtle Head.” Many other native plants have already been seeded into the meadow. Coats and another beekeeper also have installed four beehives at the site.
Bees are not the only pollinators to benefit from the meadow, “We are planting forage that is favorable for all pollinators,” Coats said. “The White Turtle Head flower is the native host for the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly.” This butterfly is Maryland’s state insect and is on their endangered list.
The group is also monitoring bees at Winterthur as part of their Native Pollinator Project. The volunteers count bees visiting the meadow and note what the bees are feeding on. Sometimes, bees are captured and examined under a microscope.
“We are assessing the habitat differences between Winterthur and other area pollinator meadows,” Coats said. When asked which plants are important to the native pollinators, he mentions Hyssop, Aster, Boneset, Joe-pye weed and Mistflower, among others. Websites such as www.xerces.org and www.panativeplantsociety.org are great resources if you want to include native plants for pollinators in your garden. Coats shares information about his native pollinator project on his website, www.citizensciencebeekeeping.com.
In addition to his native pollinator work and his bee health research, Coats finds time to mentor other beekeepers.
“It creates an exchange of information, we all learn from each other,” he said. “I’ve always been an environmentalist at heart, and beekeeping just fits.”