Beekeeping catching on from Aliquippa to Pittsburgh

Beekeeping catching on from Aliquippa to Pittsburgh

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ALIQUIPPA -- Standing in the yard of Jennifer Wood and Robert Steffes, as thousands of bees buzz across the sky in seemingly random paths, it's easy to forget that the honeybee population has been rapidly declining over the past five years.

The couple's 35 acres of land in Aliquippa make their property an ideal habitat for the millions of bees that occupy roughly 20 colonies housed in stacks of boxes on their lawn.

The decline in the honeybee population is attributed to colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon responsible for the loss of an estimated 35 percent of honeybees each year to an unknown cause. The media attention it has received, coupled with recent trends such as self-sustainability and environmental awareness, has sparked an interest in beekeeping that has reached the local level.

Steffes, 59, and his wife, Wood, 52, have been keeping bees at their house in Aliquippa for about seven years. When the two decided to dive into beekeeping, they knew nothing more than what Wood had read in a novel, "The Secret Life of Bees."

After a daylong class and a yearlong mentorship, they were hooked. Steffes is now the president of the Beaver Valley Area Beekeepers Association, which offers yearly classes and connects prospective beekeepers with mentors.

"Beaver County has a lot of beekeepers. It's a good place to keep bees," Steffes said.

The urban atmosphere of Pittsburgh is also a good place for keeping bees. After encountering several prospective beekeepers in the city, Wood and Steffes decided to offer a class at the East End Food Co-op. They expected 15 students; 50 showed up. As the couple expanded their role in urban beekeeping to include mentoring new beekeepers, the initiative they had started expanded along with it, resulting in an organization known as Burgh Bees.

Through funding from the Sprout Fund and a partnership with the Penn State Cooperative Extension, the organization is able to educate beekeepers through classes and mentorship, as well as maintain hives in the city.

All shapes, sizes, ages

Stephen Repasky, 35, is one of two master beekeepers affiliated with Burgh Bees. A second-generation beekeeper and wildlife biologist, Repasky was looking for a place to keep bees following his move to Dormont when he stumbled across the organization. Now, between caring for his numerous colonies scattered around the city and mentoring other beekeepers, Repasky dedicates 25 to 30 hours of his time each week to honeybees.

"I enjoy doing beekeeping, but it excites me even more to know that there are other people who are catching that buzz," he said.

Repasky estimates that Burgh Bees has trained more than 200 people in the last two years, with some traveling from Ohio and West Virginia to take courses.

"You get all shapes, sizes, ages; you name it," he said. "We get the small-+hobby farmer that only has 20 or 30 acres but wants to have bees, and we get the apartment-dwelling city resident that wants to keep the bees, but doesn't have the room to."

Burgh Bees has an apiary in Homewood for just that reason. Members pay a fee, complete a required amount of volunteer hours and, in return, receive access to a fenced-off lot where they can house their hives. Surrounding the lot are herbs, wildflowers and other pollinators planted with the bees in mind.

Just behind the lot, buses pass every several minutes on a highway. Yet this doesn't affect the bees at all.

"Bees, oddly enough, are doing better in urban and suburban areas than in rural," Steffes said. Bees in the country are closer to farmers, who use pesticides and chemicals, something not found in the city.

Whether urban or rural, the reasons people keep bees vary as much as the people who keep them.

"It's a hobby that everybody can do, and you hit all levels," Repasky said. Some keep bees for the honey they produce, while others are more interested in promoting pollination and helping the environment. Repasky even knows some who like the calming effect of working with bees after a long day at the office.

Learning and optimism

The love Wood and Steffes have for beekeeping stems from the opportunity to continue learning.

"There are so many interesting levels to pursue in terms of honeybees, so that's what keeps us going," Wood said. She also appreciates the hope they bring for warmer weather.

"In March, when you're sick of slogging around in your coat and boots, you can see them bringing back pollen," Wood said. "Something is blooming that you can't see."

As fulfilling as beekeeping is to people, it benefits the bees as well. There is no research yet to show how much the spike in beekeeping has done to stop colony collapse disorder, but Repasky remains optimistic.

"At the very least it's staving off what's happening," he said. "We're still losing bees, but it's not as drastic."

Even more encouraging is the interest that younger people are showing in honeybees. At the beginning of the summer, Burgh Bees hosted a group of 60 elementary students at its Homewood apiary. Repasky found the enthusiasm of the students encouraging.

"It's not about the video games anymore," Repasky said. "It's about what we can do to preserve the environment."

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Howard County Beekeepers Association Inc.

(A 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization)

Our purpose is to promote honey beekeeping in Howard County, Md by providing a forum in which current honey beekeepers may become more knowledgeable of best practices and the public can become more, and accurately, informed on the benefits of honey bees.