Catharine Reeves is doing her part to save the honeybee.
The 49-year-old lawyer from Bethesda, Md., is a newly minted backyard beekeeper. She tends two hives and thousands of bees, which might produce just a jar or two of honey by mid-summer, if she's lucky.
Plentiful honey wasn't the motivation. Ms. Reeves says she added bees to her garden after seeing news reports on disappearing colonies. "I'm not a tree hugger or anything," she says. "We have a vegetable garden, and it all seemed to go together."
Ms. Reeves is part of a fast-growing trend, a result of consumers' increased concern about the environment and where their food comes from. These backyard beekeepers, or apiarists, are swarming in to help fill a void left by more commercial beekeepers, many of whom have exited the industry in recent decades.
At beekeepers meetings, "now, it's professional people, doctors, lawyers, teachers," says Paul Jackson, chief apiary inspector in Texas. In years past, attendance was mostly farmers, ranchers and 4-H kids, he says.
Roughly one-third of what we eat depends on honeybees for pollination. As bees collect pollen for food, they spread it from one flower to another, which helps plants reproduce.
Recently, honeybees have received considerable attention because of a mysterious affliction known as "colony collapse disorder," in which much of a colony suddenly disappears, leaving the queen behind. So far, scientists have not been able to determine the cause—or come up with a solution.
Bees have faced numerous challenges in recent decades. Changes in agricultural practices, from the use of certain pesticides to farmland planted with single crops—typically soybeans or corn—give bees less nutritional diversity in the pollen and nectar they consume. New pathogens and pests have also contributed to wiping out millions of colonies.
"You've got this confluence and you can only put up with so many bad things for so long," says Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture magazine, which tracks the beekeeping industry. "It's like a dairy farmer losing half his herd. Beekeepers just went out of business."
Last year, 2.5 million bee colonies produced 144 million pounds of honey. That's down from 3.3 million colonies that produced 169 million pounds 20 years ago, according to figures from the U.S. Agriculture Department, which tracks beekeepers with five or more hives.
The honeybee troubles have had a profound impact on the public consciousness.
"Now instead of phone calls saying 'I've got bees in my attic, how do I kill them?' it's 'I don't want to kill them, who can I get to remove them while they are still alive?' "says David Tarpy, a professor of apiculture at North Carolina State University. "There is a real resurgence in people wanting to connect with their food supply and with nature."
In California, new beekeeper Max Wong has submitted a proposal to the City of Santa Monica encouraging workers to relocate, rather than exterminate, swarms of bees when they're reported.
"With the crisis of colony collapse disorder, it's never been so important for all communities—urban and rural—to promote beekeeping," Ms. Wong, a 40-year-old film producer, wrote in her proposal.
Dean Kubani, director of the Office of Sustainability and the Environment for the City of Santa Monica, says his office is reviewing the proposal. An alternative, he says might be to simply change the municipal code to allow beekeeping.
"I think it's definitely feasible," he says, adding that he will provide a recommendation for the City Council to vote upon later this year.
The way bees are regulated varies from state to state. Some states require beehives to be registered, though counties or municipalities might have their own regulations that consider bees to be infestations or even livestock. New York City's health code grouped bees with other prohibited "wild animals" until this year, when beekeepers successfully petitioned the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to amend the code to allow beekeeping. Before beekeeping was legalized, some beekeepers went so far as to paint hives to look like chimneys or air conditioners, says Andrew Coté, founder of the New York City Beekeepers Association.
In some cases, changing the rules has been a challenge. In Maryland, the Howard County Beekeepers Association has testified before a planning board in hopes that restrictions on hive placement near neighboring houses could be relaxed. So far, they haven't been.
Surge in Registrations
States are reporting surges in registered beekeepers. In Florida, there are currently 1,615 beekeepers, more than twice the number three years ago. In Pennsylvania, registrations have gone up about 30% to 2,500 in that time.
Course instructors are reporting overfilled classes and long waiting lists. The University of Minnesota's two-day class for beginners this spring had 250 students enrolled, with 150 on a waiting list. (In the past few years, that class has been limited to 160 students.) In Los Angeles, an organization called Backwards Beekeepers—which advocates non-chemical forms of managing bees—began less than two years ago with a handful of members. Today, there are 300.
"Just in the last three or four months, it's gotten crazy," says Amy Seidenwurm, who co-founded the group with her husband, Russell Bates.
Different types of honeybees emerged as they adapted to climates around the world. These three types are most common in the U.S.:
||Originated in the Italian peninsula, introduced to the U.S. around 1859. Generally yellow with dark brown bands on the abdomen. The 'goldens' have five bands; the 'leathers' have three.
||Relatively gentle and calm dispositions, making it easy for beekeepers to work.
||Poor orientation to home hive, tending to drift frequently.
||More gray in color, these originally came from Yugoslavia and Austria, where the winters are cold. Introduced to the U.S. around 1883, they are popular in northern areas.
||Rapid population buildup in early spring. Less prone to stinging and diseases.
||Tend to swarm unless given enough room.
||Originally from the Caucasus region of Russia, these bees were introduced to the U.S. in 1905. They are black with gray or brown spots and short gray hairs.
||Long tongue means they can pollinate certain crops more easily than other bees.
||Not good for early spring pollination.
Source: The Beekeeper's Handbook, 3rd Edition