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Saving the humble bee
Amateurs take up hobby to replenish decimated colonies, get closer to nature
Saturday, May 2, 2009 3:06 AM
By Josh Jarman
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Dispatch photos Barry Conrad, owner of Conrad Hive and Honey in Canal Winchester, teaches a beginning-beekeeping class. The group that signed up was so large, 130 people, that it had to be split into two classes for the first time in the 25 years.
Brian and Clarissa Cooper took a beginning-beekeeping class, planning to put a hive behind their Circleville home.
Beekeeping has attracted a swarm of newbies in Ohio in the past two years, partly in response to reports of a plunge in honeybees.
On the web
Click here to watch a video of first-time beekeepers learning how to populate a beehive.
Beginning beekeeping • To learn more about beekeeping in Ohio visit the Web site of the Ohio State Beekeepers Association at www.ohiostatebeekeepers.org. The site contains links to local beekeeping groups across the state and information about how to sign up for beginners classes. •
The Ohio State University Extension's Honey Bee Laboratory can be found on the Internet at www.honeybeelab.com. • There are several beekeeping supply stores in the state where new beekeepers can get the equipment they need to start a colony, including Parsons' Gold Apiaries , Simpson's Bee Supply at www.simpsonsbeesupply.com and Conrad Hive and Honey at hiveandhoney.com. A beginning bee kit, including safety gear and a package of bees with a queen, costs about $300.
DANVILLE, Ohio -- Carlton Simpson doesn't have time to worry about the economy.
The 59-year-old runs a small beekeeping-supply company out of his crowded kitchen in rural Knox County and is struggling to keep up with the telephone calls, Internet orders and drive-up customers swarming his home.
That's because the ranks of first-time beekeepers in the state have swelled in the past two years as Ohioans take up the hobby in response to the widely publicized decline in the nation's honeybee population and a growing fascination with a "back to nature" lifestyle.
"If it wasn't for the news, we wouldn't know there was a recession," Simpson said. "Our little family business has outgrown our family."
Simpson, who owns Simpson's Bee Supply with his wife, Bev, and oldest son, Anthony, said this spring has been the busiest in his 21 years in the business.
Ron Hoopes, president of the Ohio State Beekeepers Association, said more than 300 first-time beekeepers attended the association's beginner's classes last spring, and he expects more than 500 this year.
Hoopes said he thinks a large part of the renewed interest stems from reports of colony-collapse disorder, which struck honeybee colonies across the country in 2007. Billions of bees, including almost three-quarters of all bees kept in Ohio, abandoned their hives and died that year. Scientists don't understand why.
The demise alarmed the nation's agriculture industry because honeybees pollinate $14.6 billion worth of fruits and vegetables each year.
"People started realizing how important they are and saying, 'Hey, maybe I can do something,' " Hoopes said.
All this new activity comes as the state is cutting back on resources for beekeepers, however. The state Department of Agriculture cut its honeybee budget last year and now operates with one hive inspector, who has been moved into the plant division.
Jim Tew, a beekeeping specialist with Ohio State University Extension, said that despite the bumper crop of new beekeepers, Ohio still has far fewer bees than 30 years ago. About 12,000 beekeepers raised about 90,000 colonies of bees in the late '70s. Those numbers fell to about 3,500 and 35,000, respectively, two years ago.
That's why the influx of new blood is so important, Tew said. "Some of the most insightful discoveries were made by small but observant beekeepers," he said.
Beekeeping isn't just for country folk. Barry Conrad, owner of Conrad Hive and Honey in Canal Winchester, teaches beginning-beekeeping classes for the Central Ohio Beekeepers Association. He said many of the group's newest members live in Franklin County.
Last year, the Franklin County commissioners gave out 15 $500 grants to new beekeepers to spur interest in the hobby in the wake of the colony-collapse phenomenon. Commissioners said the grants were driven in part by the importance of the agriculture industry to central Ohio.
A beginning bee kit, including safety gear and a package of bees with a queen, costs about $300.
Conrad said 130 people signed up for the beginners classes this year, which forced the association to split the group into two classes for the first time in the 25 years he has been involved. Conrad said most newcomers cite a concern for bees and a desire for a more natural lifestyle as key motivations.
That's true for Brian Cooper, who, with his wife, Clarissa, was at Conrad's farm on be April 18 for hands-on bee training; it was to be their last before they installed a hive behind their home in downtown Circleville.
Cooper said the bees will pollinate the large vegetable garden in his backyard and produce a modest amount of honey for the family's use.
With good weather, an average Ohio hive can produce 60 pounds of honey a year, but Cooper said he ordered a hardier breed of bee that produces less honey than most.
"They do so much that we don't even see," Cooper said of bees. "We thought it would something