The Backyard Buzz: How to Harvest Your Own Honey
Honeybees are essential to our ecosystem, and the environment in Pittsburgh is ideal for cultivating your own hives. Local beekeepers are eager to share the basics to help you get started.
Photos by Renee Rosensteel
Through her career, WTAE-TV reporter Michelle Wright traveled to the Flight 93 crash site on 9/11, covered the Quecreek Mine rescue in 2002 and donned scrubs to observe a kidney transplant.
But one assignment took her from reporter to hands-on hobbyist to business owner. In 2007, Wright was assigned to report on colony collapse disorder, a condition in which adult worker bees abandon their colony and leave the queen and immature bees behind.
“As I continued doing follow-up stories, I became fascinated with bees and bought a hive and a protective suit and got started,” says Wright. She now maintains 15 hives at sites throughout western Pennsylvania, including the Sisters of St. Francis convent at Mount Alvernia in Millvale, a family homestead garden in Penn Hills and an organic farm in Evans City, Butler County. She’s looking to expand her operation this year.
Although Wright sells the honey produced by her bees and uses their beeswax to create body-care products for her line The Wright Stuff, she says bees play a far more critical role in the ecosystem than merely producing a versatile byproduct: Honeybees keep us fed by pollinating about 80 percent of the fruits and vegetables in our diet.
“We desperately need honeybees to keep providing the wonderful variety of things we eat,” Wright says.
As more residents of Pittsburgh and surrounding communities integrate urban agriculture into their lives, they, too, are recognizing the essential contribution of bees to our food supply and the increasing risk that colony collapse disorder and other bee-related diseases — as well as other dangers such as pests, pathogens and pesticides — will endanger the species. In order to help save these insects, more people in western Pennsylvania and elsewhere are turning to backyard beekeeping, says Eastern Apicultural Society Certified Master Beekeeper Stephen Repasky. Rapesky owns Meadow Sweet Apiaries in Brookline, is the president of Burgh Bees in Homewood and vice president of the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association.
Over the past few years in Pennsylvania, the number of registered beekeepers has grown exponentially, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. From 2008-2011, about 300 new beekeepers registered every year. In 2012-2013, about 400 new beekeepers registered each year, and that number rose to 500 in 2014 and 2015. There now are more than 4,000 registered beekeepers tending to nearly 6,000 bee yards with about 63,000 colonies in the state. Most of the registered hives in Pennsylvania are concentrated around Philadelphia and western Pennsylvania.
A volunteer unbands nucleus colonies, or nucs, in preparation for Nuc Pick-Up Day at Dundee Farm in Sewickley Heights.
“There is a big growth now for urban agriculture — everyone wants to go back to the grassroots, knowing where their food comes from and raising chickens and raising bees,” says Repasky.
He also says bees kept in an urban setting may be healthier than those raised in a rural setting. In Pittsburgh, pesticides are used less often — when compared to rural areas with farmland — and there’s easy access to rivers and green spaces.
There also are more plants available over a longer period of time in Pittsburgh due to the microclimates here — temperatures vary between regions, allowing plants to bloom at different times. This is beneficial for bees: They can access a variety of plants for pollination and honey production.
Although honeybees are self-sufficient, they rely on beekeepers — for management of diseases and pests — as much as beekeepers rely on them.
“Globalization has bombarded honeybees with viruses and mites, and they are very dependent on their natural defenses, hygienics and nutrition to try to keep themselves stabilized,” says beekeeper Christina Joy Neumann, owner of Apoidea Apiary in Shaler. “Anything we do in regards to water, good nutrition in the form of plants and anything that can give them an energy boost naturally is great.”
The Langstroth hive is one of the standard, frequently used structures in North America. Frames within the body of the hive make it easier to manage bees and extract honey.
Neumann studied architecture at Carnegie Mellon University. After college, she worked with termites while attending a workshop on biomimicry — a discipline that relies on patterns and strategies found in nature to devise sustainable solutions to human challenges. Termites, like bees, are social insects, so her transition from working with termites to keeping honeybees came naturally, she says.
Using her architecture skills, Neumann specializes in designing and implementing “bee gardens” and meditation gardens to help sustain bees and their lifestyle. At her triple-lot apiary on the homestead that has been in her family for five generations, her yard includes various zones for honeybees and other wildlife.
“Bees and flowering plants have a very ancient relationship of evolution, and you really can’t think about one without thinking about the other,” says Neumann.
Neumann’s yard contains apple and dogwood trees, silver maples, a sour cherry tree, blackberry bushes, crepe myrtle, crocus and milkweed, among other native plants.
A small pond in the middle of her bee garden is shallow enough for bees to use for dissolving and diluting honey, evaporation cooling on hot days and drinking without drowning. A water source is necessary for honeybees and the other forms of wildlife that frequent Neumann’s garden. “When you’re designing for bees, you’re designing for a variety of wildlife,” she says.
To those who are interested in keeping bees and designing their own bee gardens, Neumann suggests diversifying their plantings. This helps to prevent disease that could ravage one species from affecting others. She also suggests turning over some of the lawn to forage plants, such as dandelions, and ground-cover plants such as clover.
Neumann harvests between 2,000-3,000 pounds of honey a year from 40-60 hives placed in eight yards around the region for the apiary. At Apoidea, she works to maintain and cultivate the gardens to ensure there are a variety of plants for the bees to pollinate and use for propolis, the substance from tree buds used by bees to seal gaps in the hive and varnish honeycombs.
Repasky’s friends and fellow beekeepers volunteer to organize nucs for pick-up. Each nuc has five frames and includes a queen, bees of all ages, honey and pollen.
“We’ve been developing these gardens for maybe 15 years, and there is still constant evolution,” says Neumann. “It takes about 10 years to see a nice development.”
Repasky recognizes beekeeping as both an art and a science. To be a successful beekeeper, you first must learn the biology of beekeeping before you can appreciate the art, he says. At Meadow Sweet Apiaries, an urban bee yard, he oversees about 100 honeybee colonies.
A second-generation beekeeper who has worked with honeybees since he was 4 years old on his family’s farm in Apollo, Repasky recommends that new beekeepers start out with two colonies — a manageable size that also allows the beekeeper to compare and contrast the two hives.
“It might take you two to three years just to learn the basics, and you can make a lot of mistakes along the way,” Repasky says. “The bees teach you a couple of lessons in the process. We never stop learning.”
Repasky advises would-be beekeepers to find an experienced mentor and take a class in beekeeping, which may help them to be sure they wish to follow through. Some people may shy away from beekeeping after learning of start-up costs — roughly $700 to $1,000 for two colonies and equipment — but expenses will be minimal after that.
He also stresses the importance of becoming familiar with processes and regulations for both beekeeping and food production. After you install beehives, you must register them through the state Department of Agriculture and pay a $10 fee that covers two years; the fee does not change based on the number of hives or the number of locations where they are kept. Inspections of the hives occur biannually during the active bee season, which runs from May through mid-October.
People who produce honey as a hobby without intent to mass-produce — such as selling it on-site or giving bottles as gifts — are not required to register with the state as a honey-production site.
“Roughly 85 percent of all beekeepers [in Pennsylvania] have less than 10 hives, so most are what we consider ‘backyard beekeepers,’” says Repasky.
Those who plan to sell through stores or boutiques, however, are required to register with the Department of Agriculture Bureau of Food Safety. Inspections of honey production facilities occur once a year.
A beekeeper places a dot with a white paint marker on the queen bee for easy identification in the hive.
Random inspections also take place, sometimes during honey extraction or in response to a complaint.
“When you become a beekeeper, you not only have to educate yourself, but educate everyone around you, especially in an urban setting,” says Repasky. “What you do doesn’t just impact you, it impacts everyone around you.”
As for Wright, her interest in beekeeping remains strong almost a decade after researching for her article. Her advice to prospective beekeepers?
“Find a mentor and take a class and be ready to get stung one or two times.”
- Hive Bodies: most recognizable part of a hive; brood chamber
- Frames/Foundation: placed in body of hive for honey and pollen storage and for the queen to lay eggs
- Honey Super: placed on top of body of hive to store surplus honey and pollen
- Bottom Board: helps to reduce Varroa mites and provides ventilation for hive
- Inner Cover: provides insulation (optional)
- Outer Cover: protects the hive from weather
- Smoker: a tool that generates smoke; meant to calm honeybees
- Protective Suit/Veil: protects beekeepers and allows them to inspect the hive safely
- Hive Tool: used to get in between supers and pry them apart
- Bees: can be bought as packaged bees, bee nucs (nucleus colonies) and established bee colonies
Where to Buy
- Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve, Audubon Center for Native Plants, 614 Dorseyville Road, Fox Chapel; 412/963-6100, aswp.org/locations/beechwood/center
- Grow Pittsburgh, Garden Resource Center, 147 Putnam St., Larimer; 412/362-4769, growpittsburgh.org
- Sylvania Natives, Ira Way, Squirrel Hill; 412/596-4989, sylvanianatives.com
- Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, 814 Old Route 15, New Columbia, Pa.; 800/233-7929, brushymountainbeefarm.com
- Dadant & Sons, 51 S. Second St., Hamilton, Ill.; 217/847-3324, dadant.com
- Mann Lake, 501 First St. South, Hackensack, Minn.; 1-800/880-7694, mannlakeltd.com
- “Bringing Nature Home” by Douglas W. Tallamy
- “Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies” by The Xerces Society
- “Weeds of North America” by Richard Dickinson and France Royer
- “Planting: A New Perspective” by Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf
- “Swarm Essentials: Ecology, Management, Sustainability” by Stephen Repasky