CHARLESTON, W.Va. - While backyard beekeeping may have been unknown to some before the Charleston urban agriculture ordinance surfaced, the concept is nothing new to the roughly 70 members of the Kanawha Valley Beekeepers' Association.
The proposed ordinance includes a provision allowing up to three beehives in backyards within city limits, and Steve May, president of the beekeepers' association, called the proposed law "a good thing."
In the Kanawha Valley, the beekeepers' association provides education and support both for the general public and for local beekeepers. It has seen its membership rise from 10 to 12 several years ago to about 70 today, May said.
"Most people don't understand . . . the significance of those honeybees in their backyard," he said.
The group also keeps an outreach yard with several beehives as part of its education mission.
May, 62, has been around bees since he was 8 years old as he helped his aunt and uncle on the family farm near St. Albans. He started keeping bees himself in his 20s and has continued ever since.
"It gets in your blood after you do it awhile," he said. "It's contagious."
May might be right. In the West Virginia Beekeepers' Association, he said, membership has risen from 868 members in 2010 to 909 members in 2011 and 1,056 in 2012.
One reason for the increase could be the locally grown food movement, which has more and more people seeking either to grow their own food or obtain it from a local source.
John Porter, a WVU Extension Office agent for Kanawha County, said that beekeeping is a fairly common practice and, yes, an increasing number of people are joining in.
"A lot of people are also interested in. . .supporting pollinators and honeybees in general," he said.
That's how Sharon Pearson and her husband, Jim, got started. The couple has hives at their home and the home of Sharon's parents, both of which are in Dunbar. Sharon said she's never had a problem with her neighbors and the bees have been very beneficial for her garden.
"I think urban agriculture is a necessary movement," she said. "We have to quit depending on cross-country and international commodities."
She got started in beekeeping a few years ago when she read an article about Colony Collapse Disorder. That's when a bee colony suddenly disappears or dies off. While the cause is not known, cases started to skyrocket towards the end of the last decade.
"I felt like we could do something," she said.
Sharon began to research beekeeping, and the couple decided to start out on their own. The first year didn't go so well, as the novices bought faulty equipment that wasn't ideal for the bees.
They learned from their mistakes, and this will be the fourth summer they have kept bees.
"It is something that after four years we have learned enough to speak to people and educate," she said. "They're amazing little critters."
The harvesting of honey takes place in June, she said, and can sometimes be repeated again in the fall if conditions are favorable, as the bees need to have enough honey to make it through the winter.