September 15, 2010

Q&A with an Urban Beekeeper in Philly

A few weeks ago I reached out to the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild since none of my tomatoes were producing any fruit - only flowers. I thought this was due to the lack of bees in our yard so I was curious if you could purchase bees.

I quickly found out several things.  First, tomatoes self-pollinate so the lack of fruit was not due to the lack of bees. Second, it is not easy to simply purchase bees for your garden.  And third there is a significant group of people in Philly devoted to beekeeping.

One local beekeeper I spoke with is Adam Schreiber. Adam is a member of the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild and has his own blog, For the Time Beeing, about urban, rooftop beekeeping in Philadelphia (and other bee related topics).  Sounded interesting so I asked Adam if he would answer a few questions about bees and their importance to the food chain for 22nd and Philly.

What follows is a short Q&A. I think you’ll find that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to bees and honey.   Thanks to Adam for taking the time to respond.  In case you missed it, the 2010 Philadelphia Honey Festival took place September 10 – 12.  Look for the festival next year!

1. What roles do bees have in the farming process and why are they important?

For better or worse, bees have come to have a very large role in modern agriculture.  The commonly cited statistic is that honeybees are responsible for 1 out of every 3 bites of food we eat, but I don’t have a citation for that figure. Honey bees pollinate 90 commercial crops including blueberries, cranberries, almonds, citrus fruits to name just a few.  Thousands of bee hives are moved around the country in order to provide pollination services to large farms at the appropriate times for the food they are growing.  In general, my personal feeling is that this kind of beekeeping is not very healthy for the bees, but that's a bit of a separate issue.

    2. What is the state of the bee industry?

I am far from an expert on the state of commercial beekeeping, but I do know that it is not in great shape.  Due to unhealthy management practices (in my opinion), migratory pollinating and other factors, there is a shortage of bees such that in California for example, bees had to be imported from Australia to pollinate almonds because of a lack of available bees in the US. Two years ago 60 Minutes featured a segment on the disappearance of bees.  And the US Department of Agriculture has a good Q&A about colony collapse disorder.

3. What should we know about honey - types, organic, what to buy, etc.

There are as many different types of honey as there are wines or cheese for example.  There are seasonal honeys, varietal honeys and wildflower honeys (wildflower basically meaning that we don't know exactly what the bees were foraging when they made the honey).  It seems that people are just starting to appreciate the diversity of honeys available for consumption.

In terms of organic honey, there is no organic honey standard in the USA.  If you go into a store and see a honey labeled "Organic", it was likely produced outside of this country in a place where they may have their own organic standards.  Additionally, a lot of honey that you see on grocery store shelves, and even in health food stores, is adulterated or cut with things like corn syrup or rice syrup.  Honey that is adulterated is still labeled "Pure Honey."  There is virtually no oversight in regards to this, which is why it is best to buy honey directly from a beekeeper so you can speak to them about their management practices and ensure their honey is unadulterated.  Adulterated honey is all done in the name of making money.

Most importantly cutting honey with additives completely changes the flavor for the worse - this is why many store bought honeys taste like pure sweetness or sugar without the flavors present in unadulterated honeys. There is also the problem of imported honey (often from China) having high levels of antibiotics and other chemicals in it.  See my blog for links to articles o this issue.   

Resources for purchasing hyper-local honey: the Philadelphia Beekeepers GuildMilk and Honey Market in West Philly, the Fair Food Farm Stand in Reading Terminal Market has some honey in stock and Bee Natural in Reading Terminal Market has tons of honey produced in Delaware and other locales.
     4. What can the average person do to nurture or protect bees in the garden?

If you are a gardener you can support bees by planting bee friendly plants (search for bee friendly plants).  You can also encourage other native pollinators by generally planting lots of flowers in your garden.  If you ever hear of someone who has bees living in their house or if you happen to be lucky enough to spot a honeybee swarm, make sure that you contact a beekeeper (me for example!) who will preserve/rescue the bees as opposed to an exterminator who will kill the bees.

5. How and why should someone get involved with bees?

Beekeeping is certainly not for everyone, but people who like to be outside, who like to connect with and learn from nature, people who like to do things to help the environment and people who are just maybe a little crazy (in the best possible way!), might like beekeeping.  And of course there is the honey - people who love honey might like to keep their own bees because there is nothing like honey straight from the hives of your own bees!

6. How did you get interested in bees?

I have a friend who has been keeping bees for 10+ years.  About two years ago we were hanging out and talking about his bees and that got me interested.  He gave me a bunch of equipment and bee books and advice and then I was on my way.  I have also always been into gardening and outdoorsy type stuff, so beekeeping seemed like a natural interest for me.

Adam was also kind enough to offer some pictures of his hives and bees. See below.


Jules said...

This was really cool and informative! I use honey alot in my cooking so I might have to look into purchasing it from a local beekeeper. Great addition to your blog, guys!

Jules said...

This was really cool and informative! I use honey alot in my cooking so I might have to look into purchasing it from a local beekeeper. Great addition to your blog, guys!