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Backyard beekeeping growing popular in Kanawha Valley

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.

Last year, the Pearsons were able to harvest 60 pounds of honey from their hives.

That's not to say that everything has gone perfectly. Over the last winter, five of their seven hives failed as a result of Colony Collapse Disorder. Pearson said she sent samples of dead bees to the Department of Agriculture for analysis, but a cause could not be determined.

Because of the collapses, this is a rebuilding year, she said. The couple divided one of their hives into two - a process known as "splitting" - and the new hives won't be harvested this year.

"They're really developing tremendously," she said of the growing hives.

The Pearsons' landscaping choices are based on the bees. At Sharon's parents' home, the Pearsons planted a garden after getting the bees, and it has grown to include fruit trees and a variety of vegetables, all of which help the insects.

"We're very bee-sensitive here," she said. "We don't use pesticides. We try to plant for them."

Pearson said she has never had any problems with her neighbors even though bees can travel up to two miles from the hive. The bees don't congregate except at the hive itself and near the path they use to enter the hive, known as the "beeline."

Camaraderie develops among beekeepers, May said, as older beekeepers mentor younger ones and beekeepers of any age share experiences and ideas. In the local bee association, social barriers drop, and judges and doctors can be seen working alongside service industry workers.

That sense of bonding through the bees has even spread to the Pearsons as a couple. Together, they repair and maintain their hives and process the honey that is made. In fact, one of their Langstroth hives has "Happy Anniversary" written under the lid.

Beekeepers in West Virginia are regulated by the Apiary Program, an office in the West Virginia Department of Agriculture's Marketing & Development Division. State law mandates that beekeepers register their hives with the state, and hives are subject to inspection to ensure that they are sound and free of disease.

The state Legislature has established guidelines for beekeeping through the Department of Agriculture, which beekeepers are required to follow. Those rules include provisions such as where beehives can and should be placed, and the posting of signs warning visitors to the property that beehives are present.

Honey produced from any hive can vary in flavor and aroma and usually depends on the nearest nectar source. A wide variety of honey types can be produced in this state, thanks to the diversity of plant species.

"West Virginia is sort of rare in the fact that there are these different honeys. . .that most states don't have," May said. "It's a great opportunity for beekeepers in this state."

Beekeepers also can harvest other products from their hives. One is beeswax, which can be used to make candles and cosmetic products.

The Kanawha Valley Beekeepers Association can be reached by emailing May at gs.may@suddenlink.com.

The association has a website, www.kanawhavalleybeekeepers.com, but the group is currently looking for a new webmaster and the site hasn't been updated recently.

The association invites anyone interested in learning about beekeeping to attend one of its meetings, which are held bimonthly at the St. Albans Public Library. The next meeting is 10 a.m. July 20.

Contact writer Matt Murphy at Matt.Murphy@dailymail.com or 304-348-4817.

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