Eager do-it-yourselfers master art of beekeeping

Penn State class offers eye-opening tidbits to success

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Joe Zgurzynski and Steve Repasky let bees sting them in class Saturday to show students the barbed stingers and deposits of "alarm" juice left on their hands, marking them as predators.

Getting that stinger out and covering the secretion with honey or smoke were revelations in a morning of revelations about bees, their lives and the work they do.

At the Penn State Cooperative Extension offices in Point Breeze, where Burgh Bees is based, a class of 30 would-be beekeepers learned enough about bees to feel woefully unproductive by comparison -- but also inspired.

"They are so cool," a student sang out at one point.

Honeybees got attention in 2006, when the rate of disappearance among worker bees spiked alarmingly in Europe. Colony collapse disorder affected half the population in the United States two years ago, when Burgh Bees was founded.

Burgh Bees has since trained 160 people in the art of beekeeping and established a community apiary in Homewood, where Mr. Repasky is the director.

Dependence on honeybees' pollination of the food supply has spurred interest in their stewardship, as has the local-food movement, the do-it-yourself movement and a shift in attitudes about city living. The health benefits of honey -- from its nutritional antioxidants to its ability to seal wounds -- and the potential earnings from honey and sales of queen bees are also motivators.

The city's Planning Department this year initiated legislation to allow parameters for beekeeping -- two hives within 2,000 square feet.

"In the '70s, people assumed you would raise them in the country,"said Mr. Zgurzynski, president of Burgh Bees and a master beekeeper from O'Hara. "But the urban areas are safer because there are less pesticides and more ecological diversity."

Steve Moll of McKees Rocks is a lapsed beekeeper whose daughter-in-law's and granddaughter's interests prompted him to freshen up his knowledge, he said.

Lisa Silberg from Fox Chapel said she wants to take a bee education program into the schools and start beekeeping clubs in high schools. She keeps chickens at the home of a friend who is a beekeeper.

"Kids want to know about this stuff and there's something lacking" in their education about it, she said.

People came to Saturday's session from Overbrook, Greenfield, Morningside, Mt. Lebanon, Fayette and Washington counties, and Weirton, W.Va., among other places.

The class is an eye-opening education into the ways of bee culture.

Modern beehives look like stacks of shelves. Each "shelf" or "super" holds frames on which the bees build their combs.

A queen is a week old when she makes her only mating flight, miles from her own hive to find a gathering of drones from other hives. This is to ensure the genetic diversity of the eggs. She will return home with enough eggs to lay for the rest of her life -- three to four years.

Meanwhile, back at the hive, worker bees keep things buzzing.

They gather nectar to feed the queen and her brood. They dehydrate nectar into honey, bring home droplets of water to cool the hive, nurse the growing eggs and clean the cells once the pupae have crawled out.

They carry out the dead and guard the door against opportunists, and when the hive gets too crowded, they choose a new queen, forcing the old one to leave with half the hive and half the honey.

After 45 days of relentless activity, the workers die.

After half the worker bee population was wiped out in 2008, half that number again was wiped out in 2009, said Mr. Zgurzynski. Colony collapse disorder -- so named because worker bees are 90 percent of the colony -- has been attributed to factors that may include habitat loss, genetically engineered food, pesticides, pathogens and parasites.

This year, the rate of loss was 30 percent, he said. "The disorder may be waning, but not enough money is spent on research."

The federal government's commitment is $100,000, he said. "There is more to be spent, and that will depend on more and more vocal beekeepers."

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at http://blogs.sites.post-gazette.com .


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