When Anaiis Salles checked on her “girls” the master beekeeper at Awbury Arboretum noticed one of their hives had been tampered with. Salles, along with her bee steward helpers, put the top of the hive back in its respective position. Even the slightest changes and imbalances can compromise the efficiency of honeybee colonies.
Over a year ago, Salles started three personal hives with Russian honeybees on a private residence in the arboretum. However, she quickly realized that the arboretum was an ideal location for Northwest Philadelphia residents to get involved in urban beekeeping.
Salles is the executive director of Green Sanctuary Earth Institute of Pennsylvania. She partnered with the arboretum to start the Green Sanctuary Community Apiary this past spring. The apiary — the term for a place where beehives for honey bees are kept — four hives that are open to the community and offer an outdoor classroom for Salles’ beekeeping camps and classes. Salles said she hopes to have local schools participate in beekeeping.
“I have a vision our community apiary will bring in people from the local community because I had to go all the way Montgomery County to take my bee class and when you think about sustainability, wouldn’t it be nice not to have to use that gas and drive that far?” Salles said. “We’ve tried to create a local hub for hands-on education and experience here.”
Salles interacts closely with the bees like a member of a team although she acknowledge that she is not the queen bee.
Depending on the time of year, Salles leaves the bees on their own for weeks at a time, returning only to expand the hive, refill food for the bees and check for pests.
“A good beekeeper is keeping an eye on the bees and is making sure that bees are set up in a good environment and getting proper food, water, air circulation and sunshine,” Salles said.
John Austin and Jeff Bullard are recent graduates of Salles’ beekeeping course. Bullard, who lives in a Chestnut Hill apartment, does not have enough space to start his own hive. Luckily, he is a bee steward and continues to work with Salles and the bees at Awbury on a regular basis and increase his knowledge of the bees’ complex behavior.
Bullard said he thoroughly enjoys his time with the bees.
Bullard said: “For me it’s almost spiritual. There’s a sense of calm and peace. When you take the top off the beehive, you can feel the temperature of the bees. It’s always 95 degrees and it’s fascinating. Its like being next to another person.”
Austin has a sufficient backyard for beekeeping and recently started his own hive with a $100 start-up kit. He has witnessed the colony thrive over the past few months.
“When you start out, there are a small number of bees. As the spring goes on, they build combs where the queen lays eggs and raises the next generation of bees,” Austin said.
Arboretum visitors meet their busy neighbors
Anaiis Salles has participated in the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild’s Hive Crawl. This is a citywide event that encouraged people across Philadelphia to get out and explore the hives hiding in neighborhood yards, rooftops and community gardens. Salles and the buzzing bees attracted a crowd of curious neighbors, prospective beekeepers and bee stewards.
While Salles and her stewards opened the hives and began to work, onlookers stepped back and watched. As Salles handled the hives and held dozens of bees at arms length it was hard to tell that she was once terrified to even go near bees.
After seeing that the bees were non-threatening, the Awbury Arboretum visitors began to inch closer and even participate. The youngest Hive Crawl attendees were two small boys that didn’t let their size stop them from smoking the bees to relax them while Salles got to work.
Bee keepers use smoke to calm bees allowing the keepers to work the hives. The smoke inhibits the ability of bees to communicate with one another and send out alerts that something is wrong. In addition, the smoke can confuse the bees and make them think there is danger, which causes the bees to consume their stored honey. While they are trying to sustain themselves in an uncertain situation they end up becoming slow and lazy rather than aggressive.
The bees do not have very good eyesight because the beehives are dark inside. However, their advanced sense of smell allows them to detect irregular circumstances.
Once the smoke calms the bees down, they typically recognize that keepers like Salles are not trying to harm them so they cooperate. The bees do not buzz loudly, a sign or aggravation, unless they feel threatened or disturbed.
Items required for Salles to work the hives include adding extra racks to the hive so that the bees could continue to build combs and reproduce. Her helper, John Austin, also is involved in adding extra layers because the respective colonies quickly expand requiring more space. Salles said her work with hives also requires her to pour sugar syrup in the corner of the hives to feed the bees.
Beginning on July 9, Salles will lead a beekeeping camp for children and teens at the Awbury Arboretum.
The Benefits of Urban Beekeeping
Urban beekeepers work with honeybees in hopes to yield sweeter results than just a jar of honey.
With urban community gardens blossoming the city farmers rely on honeybees to pollinate local produce crops in the same way their rural counter-parts use bees.
But beyond urban bee keeping providing a profitable, sustainable way to produce honey and wax, people like Anaiis Salles are attracted to urban beekeeping for its potential to restore the bee population s that have gone mysteriously missing in the past five years.
In recent years numerous news accounts have reported on the sudden loss of bees. The bees were not dead but were nowhere to be found. The bee loss situation in Pennsylvania is also noticed by beekeepers around the world. This puzzling bee loss phenomenon was named Colony Collapse Disorder.
While the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder are not entirely clear beekeepers and scientists have found that both pesticides and pests play significant roles in honeybee disappearance.
Salles said: “Beekeepers feel that systemic pesticides are implicated in weakening the bees’ immune system and there is a particular mite from Japan that quickly spread worldwide through international commerce. So we’re looking at pesticides, weakened immune systems and a whole host of other factors that comes in. It’s like bees having AIDS.”
Honeybees also face their archenemy: the varroa mite. Varroa mites carry diseases and suck the bees’ blood.
However, there are natural and organic ways to prevent and kill varroa mites without using harmful chemicals. Salles said that she freezes portions of the comb where male bees will be born to check for varroa mites before the eggs hatch and cause more damage to the hive.
Colony Collapse Disorder is bad news for bees and beekeepers. And, this problem affects far more than honey.
According to the USDA, honeybee pollination contributes $15 billion to the agricultural production of nuts, fruits and vegetables. Bees are credited with pollinating one-third of America’s food. In addition to limiting food fresh food supplies and lowering farmers’ profits, bee disappearance indicates larger environmental problems.
Salles said honeybees are like canaries in a coal mine alerting humans to their unsustainable agricultural practices that have compromised the environment.
“We could ignore species extinction up until now because it didn’t really have an impact on us, but we can’t ignore honey bee extinction. That will spell the end for us,” Salles said.
Organic, urban beekeeping practices
Urban beekeepers, including Salles, see cities as an unlikely but ideal place to begin to help honeybees and in turn improve the ecosystem.
While rural areas with monoculture farming and profuse pesticide use have become undesirable for keeping bees, cities offer land with less systemic pesticide use.
By building strong bee colonies urban beekeepers hope to raise bees that can thrive in local environments. Once a colony becomes too large, the bees will swarm and start other colonies all the while continuing to pollinate local plants and foods. Additionally, urban farmers can share their bees with local beginner beekeepers thus sparing beginners from having to purchase bees from faraway regions. Bees imported from faraway regions are less likely to adapt to the weather in the new areas and are more likely to bring unfamiliar pests and diseases to the new environment.
One of Salles’ primary goals is to rear queen bees that can handle local weather and resist mites.
The community honeybee hives that Salles maintains contain colonies of Italian, Carniolan and small-cell regressed bees. Different types of bees have distinct characteristics. For example, Italian bees are known for their large appetite and calm behavior.
“Everything we do here is natural and organic beekeeping, so we are going back to the size of bees that nature made, not the size of bees that man produced by forcing them to create larger cells and bigger bees,” Salles said.
Farmers that maintain hives just for honey throw off the colony’s natural balance by using pesticides and harvesting bees with only honey production in mind.
For example, usually one queen runs a hive for about three years. She decides everything, including how many types of each bee need to exist to maintain a productive hive. However, beekeepers that want to enhance the hive’s productivity, replace the queen bee frequently so there is always a younger and more fertile queen bee to overproduce offspring, which leads to more honey.
Salles said she believes that the production and extraction of honey should be secondary to the colonies’ health. Colonies must save up honey for at least one winter. If honey is taken too early, the bees will not have enough food and energy to work and to maintain a strong colony.
Salles is now beginning to extract honey from her personal hives after over a year of tending those hives.
Robert Peters, the owner of a private garden within Awbury Arboretum where Salles keeps her personal hives, is looking forward to honey production. Peters said he sees great benefits to hosting the honeybees already.
“I’ve been reading that bees are in serious decline and I thought it made a lot of sense to have bees because they’re pollinating all of the fruits and vegetables,” Peter said. “There also seems to be a real explosion of interest in beekeeping in this region and if we can help facilitate that, it’s part of our mission at the arboretum to teach people skills for self-sufficiency.”
In addition to educating local residents about bees and training urban beekeepers, Salles published a children’s book about Colony Collapse Disorder, The Day the Honey Bees Disappeared, and is currently working on a second book.
Awbury Arboretum’s Master of the Bees