As a kid, honeybees fascinated county beekeeper Ken Woodard. He’d catch honeybees in his yard while growing up in Georgia and then put them in jars with pieces of blooming clover, hoping they’d make honey.
Later as an adult, that interest led to Woodard ordering his first hive from the Sears & Roebuck farming catalogue in 1980.
“I still get fascinated by them,” Woodard said. “I sit down next to a beehive, and my stress level goes down to nothing, watching them go in and out, in and out. It’s just a love affair.”
Woodard is president of the Rockwood Backyard Beekeepers Association, the newest beekeeping group in metro Richmond. Based at Rockwood Park, the group formed in 2010 to support local beekeepers as they do their part to sustain the honeybee population. It currently has about 25 members.
In recent years, national news has been abuzz with the plight of the honeybee as the population of the nation’s top pollinator continues to decline due to disease, parasites, pesticides and habitat destruction. About one-third of Virginia’s hives die each year. Nationally, that number is around 40 percent.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, honeybee pollination contributes to about one-third of the U.S. diet. Pollination performed by honeybees is valued at $15 billion annually. In Virginia, about 80 crops rely primarily on honeybees for pollination.
If the honeybee population continues to decline, it could ultimately change the foods that are available for purchase at grocery stores and farm stands.
“We’ll be left with grains, corn [and other crops that don’t require pollination],” said Kristi Orcutt, Rockwood’s vice president. “We’ll have to become accustomed to not having apples, and almonds and cranberries.”
“Every third bite of food is connected to the honeybee,” said John Adams, a Rockwood member. “In no other agricultural endeavor do we have as much of our livestock dying as with the honeybee, and it is a challenge to keep them alive, mainly because of pesticides and also lack of bee [habitat].”
In Chesterfield, it’s hard for beekeepers to find viable locations for hives as the county becomes more urbanized.
“The encroachment of the housing and shopping centers is really squeezing us out of here,” Woodard said.
He currently cares for about 30 hives throughout the county, but is planning to move some of his hives to Goochland County because it’s more rural.
When developers clear land for the latest strip mall or housing community, they destroy precious natural habitat for bees and other wildlife. The loss of established flowering trees, such as the tulip poplar, black locust, maple and redbud, is particularly devastating. Developers usually replant landscaping, but the replacements may not be a suitable food source for honeybees.
“The more bee [habitat] that’s cut down, the less nectar and food there is for the bees,” Adams said. “The young trees are nice – they’re better than nothing – but it’s not like an old tree that’s large and will give off an incredible amount of nectar. There are just no big trees around like there used to be.”
Pesticide use on farms and yards also is responsible for the decline of the honeybee. Some pesticides kill bees immediately, while others accumulate in the bees’ tissues over time, making them more susceptible to disease. Mass die-offs can occur when bees mistakenly carry the pesticides back to the hive.
Several years ago, commercial beekeepers began reporting a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder where members of honeybee hives mysteriously disappeared, sometimes overnight. Recent research suggests CCD may be linked to the use of common pesticides on agricultural crops.
The plight of the honeybee also has brought attention to population decreases in other bee species. Virginia has about 400 native bee species, many of which are on the decline.
“When you take care of the honeybee, you’re also taking care of all these other native bees,” Orcutt said.
Some of the state’s beekeeping groups educate the public on how the use of pesticides impacts the honeybee population, encouraging people to use more natural methods to deal with troublesome weeds and insects in their yards.
“Good crop management can eliminate the need for spraying,” said Orcutt.
For the average beekeeper, the biggest menace to their hives is the varroa mite, a parasite that feeds on the bees’ blood and weakens their immune systems against viruses and diseases.
Woodard and other beekeepers nationwide are using genetics to develop bees that are resistant to the varroa mite, but it’s a slow process since queen bees don’t always mate with varroa-resistant male bees.
For now, local beekeepers are doing their part to sustain the honeybee population by tending and increasing their hives. Orcutt began beekeeping four years ago, and now has two hives at her home near Pocahontas State Park.
“When I was a kid, I was terrified of insects, so it’s kind of odd that I keep bees now,” Orcutt said. “By studying honeybees, it’s a great way for me to learn about social insects, and I’ve found that once I get over my fear of insects, it’s fun and very calming.”
The big, white suits with hoods that most people associate with beekeeping are mostly a thing of the past. Woodard and Orcutt usually work their hives without protective clothing, but use a smoker to sedate the bees.
“Sometimes I’ll wear a face mask, but typically I won’t wear anything,” Orcutt explained. “I wear light colors. If I stay calm and make deliberate, quiet motions, I can usually get in and out of a hive and do what I need to do without a sting.”
County beekeepers usually harvest their honey in late spring – just in time for the Third Annual Honeybee Festival at Rockwood Nature Center.