Maria S. Young
For city dwellers, tending to a hive of honeybees is the closest thing one can get to keeping livestock, according to Philadelphia Bee Co. owner and full-time beekeeper Don Shump. Ten years ago, when he was interested in finding a patch of urban land to plant on, he learned he could enroll himself on a three-year waitlist for a plot in city garden.
But beekeeping, he could get into almost immediately.
Urban beekeeping has taken off in the past decade, in part propelled by mainstream interest in locally sourced food and in part by an increasing awareness of colony collapse. In Philadelphia, there are more than 350 registered honeybee hives. The number of city beekeepers has grown so much that, six years ago, they formed their own organization, the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild. They hold an annual event, Honey Festival, that drew 2,500 attendees last year.
City Paper explored the culture of the city’s beekeepers, their hives and the sweet product that flows from them. And for those interested in learning more, check out this weekend’s Honey Festival highlights; the fest starts Friday, Sept. 11 and runs through Sunday, Sept. 13 at three historic venues in the city.
Part III. The brutal, hardworking life of bees
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Don Shump’s beater of a minivan charges through tangles of Japanese knotweed in West Philly’s Mount Moriah Cemetery. The AC is set to full-blast, and bulky pest-removal equipment clacks around on top of the bent-down backseats. Shump, the owner of Philadelphia Bee Co., navigates overgrown brush that’s swallowed an untold number of headstones and grave markers.
A slab of a wasp’s nest that once was part of a beehive slides back and forth on the dashboard. The comb is slick and hard, covered in what appears to be solidified resin. “The bees entombed that wasp’s nest in their colony,” the 10-year-veteran beekeeper says, explaining the ornament.
Shump has an entourage in tow today: myself, a photographer and a group of teens with the Student Conservation Association. In separate cars, we wend our way through the wilds of the sprawling cemetery to the site of his Southwest Philadelphia honeybee hives. There, Shump will outline the basics of beekeeping for the students.
But first we have to get there. Shump stops the van at one point, grabs a pair of hedge trimmers and starts lopping off shrub branches in hopes of saving his guests’ vehicles from unsightly scrapes.
Mount Moriah might not seem like the most convenient field trip destination, but given Philadelphia Bee Co.’s 13 or so other hive locations, this is the best option. Shump maintains broods on hotel and restaurant rooftops. To check on them, the former high school football player has to hoist himself through roof hatches and wriggle through crawl spaces. Not to mention having to lug the hives up in the first place.
In the past decade, beekeeping has gained popularity nationally and locally. As knowledge of colony collapse has become mainstream, the number of hives has climbed: A 2014 Department of Agriculture report counted 2.7 million hives in the U.S., the highest number in 20 years. In Philadelphia, city dwellers who want to get more hands-on with food and agriculture can turn to beekeeping, which doesn’t require tracts of land. There are more than 350 registered honeybee colonies in the city, a significant uptick from a decade ago, according to Shump.
Beekeepers here are numerous enough to have their own organization. The six-year-old Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild now claims more than 150 members. Attendance at the guild’s Honey Festival has grown from 500 in 2010 to more than 2,500 in 2014. A growing contingent of Philadelphians are finding they can learn how to manage bees, care for hives in a small space and collect a reward that’s sweeter than honey in the process. And in the city, anyone with a potted plant outside the door is an unknowing participant in nudging along the life cycle of a hive.
Shump’s presentation on this muggy August morning covers the basics of beekeeping. “As you work the bees, a lot of what we do is based on feel and hearing,” Shump explains to the teenagers now clad in jackets and mesh veils to protect from stings clustered around the Mount Moriah hives, home to more than a quarter-million bees. You can detect the bees’ mood by listening to their collective buzz. You can wear gloves, he says, but you’re liable to squish more bees, since you’ll be deprived of the tactile sense. Next, he launches into the daily life of a bee: Scout out nectar sources in the morning, report back to the hive and do a “waggle dance” to convey where the other bees should fly.
“See the yellow?” Shump asks the group, indicating a goldenrod-colored fuzz on a frame he’s removed from a hive. “That’s actually pollen that’s their protein.”
In addition to honey production and hive removal, education makes up a key part of Philadelphia Bee Co.’s business, and Shump can gear his lessons to any age. The beekeepers’ guild also offers classes for novices and higher-level beekeepers. But many beekeepers study informally under a friend’s tutelage, as did Chelsea Thoumsin.
The Counter Culture Coffee customer-support rep learned beekeeping from a friend in Berwyn. She’s kept her own hives for two years now, but her place in Rittenhouse doesn’t have roof access, so she practices what she laughingly refers to as “guerrilla beekeeping.” This year she has a patch of land in Gray’s Ferry, allotted to her by the Schuylkill River Development Corp.
But last year, Thoumsin’s two hives resided at Counter Culture’s training center in Graduate Hospital. She bought about $1,200 worth of equipment (woodenware, frames, hive tools, a jacket and a veil, etc.) and set the hives up on a third-floor balcony. She had to climb through the landlord’s bedroom window to access them. “My first thought was, ‘If they [the bees] ever really got mad at me, I don’t have anywhere to go,'” she says.
Luckily, she averted any incident. She estimates she’s been stung a dozen times in three years of beekeeping. Shump, by contrast, once endured more than 50 stings in a sitting. Both beekeepers talk about their bees’ moods as if they were people. Shump calls angry or aggressive colonies “hot hives,” though he says he tries not to anthropomorphize the bees too much. Thoumsin says her two hives this summer have been fairly mild-mannered, but one just replaced its queen. “I think she’s a little bitchier,” she says.
Beekeepers become attuned to their hives’ feelings, and they tend to express sympathy for bees whose emotional well-being is ignored which is the case for bees that are part of large-scale commercial operations. Their hives are Saran-wrapped together and trucked around the country in tractor-trailers to feed on whatever crop happens to be in season. “The pollination circuit is stressful for the bees,” says Suzanne Matlock, a Mt. Airy beekeeper and president of the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild. The strain makes the bees more susceptible to disease and puts them at risk of contaminating other, healthy bees.
When hobbyists care for bees, they don’t have much need to transport their hives. They merely manage colonies: seeing if the queen is laying eggs, monitoring for diseases or mites or any maladies and ensuring the bees have enough room in a hive. They might do this once every two or three weeks in the summer, less often during the winter. That’s when a beekeeper has to pull back and hope for the best that a hive can weather the cold. During that time, the bees cluster together to keep each other warm and feed on stored food.
Last winter, Shump lost 50 percent of his beehives a little below average for Pennsylvania beekeepers. Thoumsin, who was tending to her first-ever hives, lost all her bees, even though they had an ample store of honey to eat. “I opened the hive, and they were like 2 inches away from honey and they starved,” she says, explaining the bees weren’t populous enough to move the cluster to new honey quickly enough. She had to throw out the dead bees. “It was pretty heart-wrenching.”
That potential for loss is one risk of beekeeping. But many beekeepers say the rewards outweigh the challenges and aren’t measured purely in honey. “It’s surprising how calming [beekeeping] is,” Matlock says. Some might think it would be stressful sticking your hand in a beehive, she says, but she finds it almost meditative. It forces her to focus.
For those hesitant to chance the perils of urban beekeeping, however, there’s still a role for non-keepers. Bees in the city pollinate the flowers on our patios and by our doorsteps. They feed on the weeds in abandoned lots. “That’s blight for a lot of people,” Shump says, “but that’s all food for my bees.”
Thoumsin distributes packets of wildflower seeds through an organization she founded called The Pollinator Project; the variety of plants in the packet bloom during different seasons, so that bees will always have something to feed.
“Lots of people are asking what they can do to help bees,” she says. The answer is simple. “Plant flowers.”
When the chefs at Shane Confectionery cook a batch of honeycomb candy, the third-floor kitchen fills with the scent of honey. “It’s a real delight,” says Shane co-owner Eric Berley.
To make the sweet which is folded into sister business Franklin Fountain’s honeycomb ice cream the confectioner mixes water and baking soda with the honey that’s been extracted from Shane’s rooftop hives, which are managed by Don Shump. The concoction foams in a pot as it cooks and then is poured out onto a tabletop, where it’s hand-cut into strips. At that temperature, the candy has the consistency of pudding, Berley says. But when it cools, it’s crunchy. Its color resembles the inside of a Butterfinger, but the treat has none of that candy bar’s stability.
“It has to be used very quickly because it’s very hygroscopic,” Berley says. “It’ll start to get soggy.” In fact, when the candy is added into Franklin Fountain ice cream, it melts back into liquid honey over time. So the Shane/Franklin staff has to make fresh batches often. The Old City ice cream parlor sells about 25 gallons of the stuff each week.
For cooks and confectioners alike, honey offers a more complex, versatile sweetener than sugar. It takes on characteristics of the plants that bees pollinate, so its flavor, color and intensity are mutable with the seasons.
Come fall, the honeycomb ice cream recipe will get tweaked: The confectioners will cook the honeycomb at a higher temperature, caramelizing it more; then they’ll add salt. The resultant ice cream flavor is dubbed autumn honeycomb. “It’s a darker amber color than the summer honey,” Berley says.
Honeycomb can be chewed like bubble gum. But at East Passyunk’s Paradiso restaurant, chef Lynn Rinaldi incorporates whole honeycomb retrieved from rooftop hives into the restaurant’s cheese-cart selections. Rinaldi says that the spring honey tends to be lighter in color and more delicately flavored; this year’s harvest had a lavender undertone. She pairs early honey with soft cheeses like goat to balance the sweetness with acidity. She breaks out a pungent blue cheese for fall honey, which has a fuller, more caramelly flavor.
Both Rinaldi and Berley agree: The best way to taste the honey is to sample it straight. Its flavor is determined by forage what sustenance the bees find in a season’s work. So if honeybees happen upon a large field of sunflowers, the resultant honey will be light and herbacious. Not all plants are equal.
Buckwheat honey is dark and pungent; Don Shump of Philadelphia Bee Co. says it’s for black coffee and porter drinkers. “I have a morbid curiosity to try onion honey, made from the blooms of onion plants,” he adds. “It’s supposed to be awful.”
All of Philadelphia Bee Co.’s output qualifies as wildflower honey. “It just means the bees kind of went nuts and got into a lot of different things,” Shump says.
To classify as a specific honey varietal, at least 51 percent of the honey’s makeup has to derive from the pollen of one type of plant. He wagers his Old City fall harvest honey, from the hives on top of Shane Confectionary’s roof, would pass the test for Japanese knotweed honey. Although knotweed is an invasive species, its honey is fairly desirable dark in color and robust in flavor without being bitter.
When a beekeeper harvests honey, she takes a frame from the beehive, removing bees from it either with a brush, a firm shake or an escape board a one-way valve that won’t let bees that have left that frame return. The honey is inside hexagonal cells capped with wax, which is shaved off to extract the honey from the comb. Once the sealant is removed, the honey can be separated from the comb mechanically with an extractor (essentially a centrifuge) or manually. The wax must be filtered out.
Philadelphia Bee Co. honey can be found in boutique shops like Green Aisle Grocery, Moon + Arrow and Shane Confectionery. Eight-ounce jars of Shump’s honey the labels reflect region and season retail for between $14 and $18. “It’s very pricey,” he says, “but that whole process I talked about, running through rooftops, it’s nuts.”
A bee’s life shares some trappings of human life: A community that exists within a hive has a clearly defined hierarchy. Bees fill positions based on age and need bees will act as nurses, guards, foragers, builders, fans and morticians. And, of course, there’s the queen and her entourage.
As sophisticated as that structure seems, “The life of a honeybee is absolutely brutal,” beekeeper Don Shump says.
A queen bee is the center of a hive’s culture. Her temperament determines that of her offspring. She can live two or three years (by comparison, worker bees stick around only about a month and a half). She typically mates with 12 to 15 drone bees who die after mating and serve no other purpose than to fertilize the queen over the course of several days once in her lifetime, then retires to the hive to lay eggs. She stores up the sperm and can lay between 1,500 to 2,000 eggs a day at her peak. That labor prevents her from doing anything else, so an entourage of bees follows her around the colony, feeding, grooming and cleaning up after her.
When the queen starts to falter, when she cannot produce any more eggs, her purpose is served. The worker bees tend to know her time is near within 40 minutes, Shump says. They make new queens by nourishing larvae exclusively with royal jelly, a protein-rich substance secreted by worker bees. Seven to 15 new queens will emerge after about a week of this diet. And then they kill each other and the old queen until one is left. Then, the cycle begins anew.
If a queen lays eggs and a hive is otherwise healthy free of mites and blights a colony can live indefinitely. A healthy brood will contain more than 60,000 bees in the summertime. They fly about 15 miles per hour, searching for nectar in a 1.5- to 3-mile radius. They feed on pollen for protein and on nectar or honey for energy.
To make honey, bees suck nectar from flowers, store it in a second stomach and fly it back to the hive, where they transfer it to worker bees. Those bees place the nectar in a cell made from beeswax (also produced by the bees), but the nectar is watery. So the bees will fan the nectar until its moisture content drops below 18 percent lest it ferment. Then they cap the cell with wax to preserve it for winter.
A beekeeper might be able to harvest 30 to 60 pounds of honey from a strong colony. But there needs to be at least 75 pounds left in the hive if the bees are to eke out the winter. A colony that survives is likely to swell to such a number that, in the spring, it’s able to split and form a new colony.
Philadelphia’s beekeepers assembled in 2010 to commemorate the 200th birthday of the Rev. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, the inventor of the modern-day, moveable-frame beehive, by installing a historical marker at the building where he was born, 106 S. Front St. The beekeepers planned to call the attendant party Langstroth’s Birthday Bash, but they ultimately changed the name. “It just seemed like Honey Festival was a little more marketable,” says Suzanne Matlock, president of the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild.
The guild organizes the annual event, which has expanded to three venues and three days. It hopes to draw more than 2,500 people to this year’s fest. For full details check the Honey Festival website.
Here are highlights of the festival:
FRIDAY, SEPT. 11
Pollinator Power Geared to children ages 6 to 12, this program includes waggle dancing instruction, open-hive and honey-extraction demos and a scavenger hunt. 3-5 p.m., Wagner Free Institute, 1700 W. Montgomery Ave., free.
Honey Happy Hour Vendors with bee and honey products will be peddling wares at this event, which will feature mead, beer and kombucha tastings, open-hive and honey-extraction demonstrations and Don Shump dumping bees on his face (at 6:30 p.m.). 5:30 p.m., Wagner Free Institute yard, $10 suggested donation.
SATURDAY, SEPT. 12
Open House Tour the Wyck Historic House and explore a marketplace of local vendors and organizations. Honey, honey beer, open-hive and extraction demos, children’s activities, more bee “bearding” and a guided tour of Wyck’s new permanent full-size hive are among the many offerings on the house’s grounds. 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Wyck Historic House, Garden and Farm, 6026 Germantown Ave., free.
Homebrewing with Honey Allentown’s Colony Meadery gives a presentation on meadmaking complete with samples in the Wyck rose garden. Homebrewers can receive professional feedback from Mike Manning, Colony’s co-founder and mead maker, if they drop off a mead or honey beer to the Wyck house beforehand (Friday from 1 to 4 p.m. or Saturday between 9 and 11 a.m.); participants will be able to try others’ products during a sip-and-share event. Noon-4 p.m., Wyck Historic House, free. 21 and over.
Young Beekeepers Panel Young beekeepers share how and why they got involved with bees. 12:30 p.m., Wyck Historic House, free.
Beginner Beekeeping The Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild presents an overview of what’s taught at its annual three-day course on beekeeping basics. 1:30 p.m., Wyck Historic House, free.
SUNDAY, SEPT. 13
Honey Fest at Bartram’s Garden Feed Philly’s bees by investing in some fall-blooming plants that are pollinator-friendly at Bartram’s plant sale. During the afternoon, Philly Homebrew gives a demonstration on brewing beer with honey; judges decide the winner of a cooking contest at 11 a.m.; kids participate in a carnival or a bee parade; and people can peek into real hives and see how honey is extracted. Plus, one last bee-beard session. 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Bartram’s Garden, 54th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard, free.