Get The Buzz On Beekeeping!

by Brooke on March 29, 2011

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I recently had the pleasure to interview Whitney Fontaine a Food Scientist living in Louisville, KY.  Along with her career in research and development, Whitney and her Husband Matt are urban beekeepers and have been keeping bees on their tiny plot of land in the Old Louisville neighborhood since 2009. 

When did you first get interested in beekeeping?

When we were in college, my husband Matt ended up with a semester where he only had 1 or 2 required classes remaining. He decided to take a Beekeeping class. So I guess I would say that he was really the one that had the interest, but after attending a state-sponsered beekeeping school, I was really excited and 100% on board with the idea to get hives of our own.

How did you get started?

Getting started with keeping bees can be very intimidating. There is a lot of equipment that is unfamiliar and there is a lot of terminology to learn. We were lucky enough to find a local beekeeping association that holds monthly meetings. There is one guy in the association who takes any newbies aside during the regular meeting to answer questions.  I would always recommend to someone that is thinking of setting up some hives, to find someone to guide you through the process early on. There are beekeeping associations all over the country and almost every state has a university with an extension office that can put you in contact with either an expert at the school, or an experienced beekeeper in your area.

How many bee hives do you currently have?

This is such a sad question right now! We had 4 going into winter, but lost 2 hives.  We don’t know exactly what happened to our colonies, but it was not Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). There has been a lot of discussion about that in the media, and is a large problem, but there are many things that can cause a colony to not survive the harsh winters.

What kind of time commitment is involved in beekeeping?

It can really vary. Building and setting up the hives can take 2-3 hours each. Once you get your bees, you spend the first 2 weeks just making sure that they get established and then they are pretty self-sufficient. We do a little bit of work in the fall to prepare them for winter and then we don’t open the hive from about early November until mid March. On average, I would say that we spend 1-2 hours per week.

How much honey do you get from each hive?

After the first year, each hive will make about 50-100 pounds of honey on average.  Some can make even more than that! The bees will keep making honey as long as there is a place to put it, so we try not to limit their space.

Why is beekeeping so important?

With the increased incidence of CCD, the Honey Bee population has suffered throughout the world. As we know, pollination is essential for plants to grow.  Bees pollinate approximately 70% of the crops that humans use for food sources. Individual and hobby beekeepers really are creating an environment to give Honey Bees the best chance at being successful. Humans have figured out how to do many things with technology and mechanics, but there is no question that when it comes to pollinating, Honey Bees are the best in the biz. Plus they do it for free!

What is the biggest challenge in beekeeping today?

For the first time in history, more of the world’s population lives in an urban setting rather than a rural setting. As urban beekeeping continues to take root, we will face a lot of challenges with educating the public about bees. Our neighbors have been wonderful, but not every person who sets up a hive in their yard is going to get a joyful reception.

There seems to be a lot of misinformation about honey and allergies in the media lately.  What should consumers know about honey and allergies?

I saw Dr. Oz on Oprah one day and he told everyone that this was a myth. In reality, honey can be helpful to people with allergies. Now, to give Dr. Oz credit, it is true that if you just go buy any old honey from the grocery store, you will not experience the allergy reducing benefits. Let’s look at why it can help, and what you should look for when buying honey for allergy relief. When we are little, we get many shots to help vaccinate us for various diseases. These vaccines contain small amounts of the infectious agent – not enough to make us sick, but enough to encourage our bodies to develop antibodies to prevent sickness in the future. Mostly what creates allergies for us in the Spring, is the large amount of pollen floating through the air. When bees are collecting nectar for honey, they are also collecting pollen to raise their young. Consequently, just a tiny bit of pollen ends up mixed into they honey. When consumed, the body can start to build antibodies to this pollen, but there isn’t enough there to create the reaction that we all hate.

What should consumers look for when buying honey to help with seasonal allergies? 

There are two things that are critical to look for when buying honey. First, it must be honey produced by bees, that were foraging in your area. The closer, the better, but generally, I would stick within a 50-60 mile radius. If you are allergic to pollen in Illinois, but your honey was produced by bees living in Georgia, that will not help you. Second, the honey must be raw. Raw means that the honey has not been heat-treated. The large manufacturers sell highly filtered honey, which has to be quite hot to flow through such tiny filters. This pretty much removes all of the pollen, which defeats the purpose of using honey to combat allergies. If you can talk to your bee keeper, try to find out how much filtering they do. One pass through a mesh screen to remove wax is good. If they start talking about a cheese cloth – keep looking.

What is the craziest thing that has happened with your bees? 

Our first season, we had no idea what we were doing. One day, we were in the hive doing an inspection and we saw very large brood cells. Well, large cells only mean one thing – a queen. We had heard that seeing queen cells during the summer usually meant that the hive was preparing to swarm. We PANICKED! The hive won’t swarm without having one queen for the swarming bees, and one queen for the bees that stay behind, so what did we do? We killed all of the developing queens. Big mistake. Had we done our research, we would have realized that  there are characteristics of some queen cells that are a total giveaway that the hive had lost it’s queen and was trying to replace her. Our queen cells had all of them! You can only imagine how horrible we felt when we realized that this hive had no queen and we had just destroyed their attempt to make a new one!  There is a happy ending though; we were able to move eggs from our other hive, into the queenless hive and they successfully reared a new queen. Whew! Crisis averted.

Learn more about the Fontaine bees at their website.

Do you buy local honey?  What is your favorite recipe using honey?

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