A BUZZ IN CHARLESTON

Published in Issue #5 | Summer 2016

By Paul Savor 

Maurice Maeterlinck wrote in his The Life Of The Bee (1924)”… were someone from another world to descend and ask of the earth the most perfect creation of the logic of life, we should needs have to offer the humble comb of honey.” Bees are fascinating creatures beyond their ability to produce honey and wax. The humble bee is one of the most precious insects in the world so it is fortunate that beekeeping is enjoying a revival because bees in the 21st century rely on beekeepers. Beekeeping has many attractive features including a way to provide a way to connect someone’s interests in local farming, organic food and permaculture. This is a hobby which directly helps the environment

Not all beehives are located in rural areas, in recent years there has been a significant growth in urban beekeeping. Across the nation adventurous people are setting up their bee hives in their own backyard. Charleston is no exception. A growing number of Charleston residents have decided to join the thousands of beekeepers from other parts of South Carolina where there are 19 local beekeeping associations according to the South Carolina Beekeepers Association, which includes the Charleston Beekeepers Association (CABA).

Members of CABA are professional beekeepers, researchers, and ordinary people who enjoy beekeeping and share a concern for the welfare of the honeybee. CABA offers beginner beekeeping courses but slots are difficult to find due to their popularity. An alternative might be the Apiculture program at Clemson University which provides the citizenry of South Carolina with the opportunity to learn the importance and value of honey bees and other insect pollinators. One of their services is the ‘Beekeeper Education & Engagement System’ (BEES) which is a new online resource for beekeepers at all levels.

Bees are members of the genus Apis but not all bees are honeybees. Not surprisingly honey bees are primarily distinguished from other types of bees by the production and storage of honey and also the construction of nests from wax. William Shakespeare described honey bees as “singing masons building roofs of gold”.

While the honey bee is not a native species, it has been buzzing around South Carolina for many centuries. Bees were brought to North America by settlers from Europe and remain vital to South Carolina’s economy today. In South Carolina, the honeybee, on an annual basis, directly contributes millions of dollars to the economy through the production of honey and through the pollination of crops. About 70% of our food source requires pollination. Honey bees are the most economically important pollinators in the world.

A driving force in the growth of beekeeping is the current dire plight of the honey bee. Bees have not been prospering in South Carolina or anywhere else in the world since the late twentieth century. Bee colonies around the world are mysteriously collapsing, with adult bees disappearing, seemingly abandoning their hives. South Carolina beekeepers have experienced a precipitous drop in the number of recorded hives and honey production from the 1980s onwards. This phenomenon is named “Colony Collapse Disorder”. Honey bees are like the proverbial canary in the mineshaft; setting off alarm bells about broader environmental degradation. Almost all feral colonies of bees have disappeared by now. Colony Collapse Disorder is part of the current collapse in biodiversity that many biologists believe poses a grave threat to humanity.

This is all very depressing news, but you can play your part in creating thriving bee habitats and thereby contribute to restoring a healthy bee population. You have to start somewhere, so why not in your own backyard? The American writer, Elbert Hubbard said “Every saint has a bee in his halo.” For those aspiring beekeepers, It is not difficult or expensive to install bee hives on your residential or commercial property. A bee hive doesn’t take up much space, in fact, no more than the footprint of the hive itself, which is in the range of 18 x 18 inches. A complete beginner’s kit will cost you approximately $250. The kit will include an assembled hive box, bee veil, protective gloves, etc. Honeybees are usually not included.

If you are looking for inspiration, there are beekeepers with established beehives in Charleston area. Many beekeepers are rather secretive about where they locate their beehives and there is no requirement to register a hive. Consequently, those who are curious about checking out local beehives cannot obtain a map or inventory of hives to guide them in their bee exploration. Instead as you move around the city, you must be vigilant, keeping your eyes peeled for beehives tucked into Charleston home lots. The Charleston Community Bee Gardens (CCBG) are available. If you are keen about bees but live in an apartment and have no place to keep bees then.

Tami Enright is the Executive Director of the local The Bee Cause Project. She started beekeeping by putting two hives in her front yard garden on Isle of Palms and quickly became hooked on bees and beekeeping. Tami has expanded her backyard beekeeping hobby into all aspects of her life: she manages over a dozen beehives on a local farm, provides educational services and hands-on experiences with bees to help enrich the lives of all children, and installs honeybee observation hives in local schools to promote honeybee awareness. www.thebeecause.org

You can still contribute to the health of local bee colonies by taking quite small steps even if you are not persuaded to become a beekeeper. You can contribute by planting your garden with bee-friendly plants, and wildflowers. Also, ensure you have flowers and plants in bloom for as long as possible in the garden and add a water source to your yard. Lastly do not spray your garden and lawn with many of the well-known garden and lawn pesticides, especially those which contain neonicotinoids, a toxic chemical to pollinators. You can also help local beekeepers by buying organic foods and pure local honey. (Some of the larger companies are selling cheap, ultra-filtered honey cut with cheap sweeteners. Some of this honey also contains unauthorized antibiotics and pesticides). You are now equipped to be a bee champion so spread the word. 

Laura Olsen

Houston, TX