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To Bee or Not To Bee

Memphis-area beekeepers offer a crash course in the basics.



We owe a debt of gratitude to the busy, busy bee. Even when you sit down to eat a fat, juicy steak, you have to know that without all that delicious bee-pollinated clover and alfalfa the unfortunate steer on your plate once consumed you wouldn't have much of a steak there at all. In America, approximately 90 percent of all crops are pollinated by honeybees. And here's the scary news: Bee populations are diminishing -- and fast. Parasites and disease have taken a devastating toll on bee populations. So have deforestation and pesticides. Careless crop dusters can take out thousands of bees in a single swoop. So can city-operated programs designed to reduce mosquito populations. To make a long story short, there's never been a better time to consider becoming an amateur beekeeper. You would be doing a mighty service for your local ecosystem, and you will be paid back almost immediately in mountains and mountains of glorious, golden honey.

For anyone who has ever been interested in beekeeping, the Memphis Beekeeping Association will be holding its annual Short Course in Beekeeping on February 22nd at the Agricultural Extension Center on Shelby Oaks Drive. Here's what Elke Longsworth, a longtime Memphis beekeeper and specialist in raising queens, has to say about the course, as well as the perils and payoffs of being an urban beekeeper.

Flyer: Can I really learn all the basics of beekeeping in one day?

Elke Longsworth: Well, this course is not just for beginners. [For longtime beekeepers] there will be courses on diseases bees can get and the medications you can use. But there are also individual sessions about how to catch and install small swarms, what you really need in terms of equipment, how to put on all the equipment and why it's needed. There will be people available to answer questions about the cost of equipment and where to get it. When you consider that the cost of a barbecue lunch is included in the [price of the class] as well as a yearlong membership in the Memphis Beekeeping Association, it's really a great deal for $10.

But beekeeping is really something for folks who live outside of the city, on a lot of land, right? It's not exactly an urban hobby.

Oh no. You absolutely can keep bees in the city. I used to live in Memphis on maybe a quarter of an acre. And I had three beehives in my backyard that produced over 150 pounds of honey. I gave a lot of that away.

I would think that keeping bees in the city wouldn't earn you many friends in the neighborhood. Don't the neighbors put up a fuss?

Well, you might have neighbors complain. A lot of people claim, "Oh, I'm so allergic to bees." And nobody wants to be stung. I've been keeping bees for 10 years, and recently my bees stung me all over. Some beekeepers claim that they are used to being stung, and it doesn't bother them, but not me. It always hurts. So, yes, neighbors might complain. They could be VERY much against it. But when you turn around and give them honey, everything changes.

If you can't keep the bees at home -- let's say you live in an apartment -- are there places in town where you can keep hives?

Yes, there are other places where you can keep hives. I have hives that I keep at the Botanic Garden.

But what about the honey? City honey? I would think that with all of the dirt and pollution that you couldn't get good-tasting honey.

No, you do. You really do. You may not get a fall honey, but you do get a spring honey. Springtime in Memphis is wonderful for honey because Memphis has so many trees. There are holly trees and so many kinds of flowers, pansies, and clover.

Oh, I'm sure that you can produce a lot of honey inside the city limits, but is it good? You can level with me. I can take it.

Very good actually, much better than anything you can buy off the shelf. Store-bought honey is either imported or it's been heated so that it will never crystallize. [Commercially produced] honey is usually heated to 150 degrees and that kills all the good bacteria. Also, have you ever wondered why all honey in the store is the same color? It's because they bleach it. And you know that isn't good. First they bleach it, then they put coloring in it to make sure it's all the same color. Honey should never be all the same color.

Here's the other big question for the would-be urban beekeeper. How much time does it take to keep bees?

Well, if you are a true hobbyist, you don't care how much time it takes. If you only have two or three hives, it's just an hour here and an hour there. You can have up to 100 hives and still be considered a hobbyist. I have 50, and it can be a full-time job.

For more information concerning the MBA's annual Short Course in Beekeeping, call 544-0243.

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