Spring has sprung and the bees are buzzing in Chester County.
Many of us spend time in our yards and parks not fully appreciating the great value our beneficial friend—the bee—brings to our landscape and the food system around us. More specifically, the honey bee happens to be one of the most vital parts of our ecosystem. Without these humble bees our bountiful countryside and local food supply would not exist. Honey bees and domestic bees are responsible for pollinating an astounding 90 percent of our flowers and 30 percent of our food crops.
The Bees Are Out
You may have noticed that each spring, honey bees make their first appearance after a winter hibernation. And spring marks the season when Chester County is awash in blooms that decorate the trees, shrubs and plants creating a picturesque countryside and a welcoming habitat for bees.
Locally black locusts, tulip populars and autumn olives are some of the prime nectar sources that provide the variety of flavors and character of Chester County honey. Tulip popular imparts a reddish tint to the honey, while locust honey is so light it’s almost clear. And if there’s an abundant locust flow, the bees can produce 30 pounds of a honey in a week’s time!
It’s the lure of delectable and distinctive honey that attracts professional beekeepers and hobbyists to maintain their own bee colonies throughout our area. That and no doubt the chance to wear the classic jacket, hat and veil combination.
Chester County has a vibrant beekeeping community with a long history. Its roots go back to the father of modern beekeeping, Reverend Lorenzo L. Langstroth, who was from southeastern Pennsylvania and in the mid-1800s developed the modern beehive design and equipment that’s been used ever since.
Just as in Langstroth’s time, today people continue to be fascinated with how honey bees interact with the environment. Maintaining bee colonies helps us understand how the health of the land can be determined by the health of the honey bees on it.
The Chester County Beekeepers Association has over 400 members who maintain colonies. Consider for a moment that if each of the club’s beekeeper has three colonies, that’s 48,000,000 bees buzzing around us—just in our area. And that works out to 100 bees per acre of land in the County—quite a lot of inquisitive and hungry bees!
In addition to making honey, bees are a vital part of agriculture because of their role in pollinating fruit and vegetable crops. Many farms in Chester County keep bee colonies for that very purpose.
When the land conservation organization, Willistown Conservation Trust, decided to establish Rushton Farm as part of the 84-acre Rushton Woods Preserve, the Trust started several bee colonies. Rushton Farm is now home to six thriving bee colonies producing over 400 pounds of honey a year. Rushton is fortunate that the bee colonies have been both fruitful and strong, helping to support the growing practices the farm employs.
These bee colonies not only help pollinate flowers and crops but also provide feedback on the health of the farmland. Rushton beekeepers look at the survival rate of their bees compared with rates at other farms, especially when many farms are seeing high rates of loss in bee colonies. Bees provide an important monitoring function for our environment.
While farms may employ professional beekeepers to maintain their bees, backyard beekeeping has become a popular hobby. Many beekeeping hobbyists start by assisting a professional beekeeper for a season or attending workshops to learn more about what can be a challenging pastime involving stinger-laden, venom-carrying flying insects. Other challenges include factors affecting the health of their bee colonies—including pests, weather and contaminants from pesticides sprayed on lawns and crops.
If you’re curious about beekeeping, here are a few basics: A bee colony is a stack of white wooden boxes where the bees make honey and that can be set up wherever there’s ample nectar- and pollen-bearing flowers. Each colony contains more than 40,000 bees by mid-spring—a queen, thousands of female worker bees, and a much smaller number of male drones. You can buy a starter kit of equipment (the hive, tools, smoker and more), and for your bees, you can mail-order a starter bee package, buy a working hive from a local beekeeper, or catch a wild swarm.
To learn more, contact the Chester County Beekeepers Association, a valuable local resource that provides information on the art and science of beekeeping, including sharing effective techniques and coping with problems and challenges that hobbyists encounter.
More on Honey
Being able to collect your own honey from your backyard is an enticing notion—similar to the pleasure of growing your own delicious heirloom tomatoes in your garden. And one of the great things about honey is that it never spoils. In fact, edible honey has been found in Egyptian tombs!
You may be pleased to learn that a strong bee colony can produce 60 to 80 pounds of honey—more than enough for family and friends. Good stewardship, however, requires time and knowledge.
The color and taste of honey varies. Honey’s color ranges from nearly colorless to dark brown, and its flavor varies from delectably mild to distinctively bold, depending on where the honey bees buzzed. As a general rule, light-colored honey is milder in taste and dark-colored honey is stronger.
This pure and natural food needs no processing for consumption. Be aware that most raw honey will crystallize within a few months of being bottled, though locust honey will remain liquid for a long time. Raw honey contains bee pollen, which is known to ward off infections, provide natural allergy relief and boost overall immunity—just a few reasons to include it in your diet.
If you decide to pass on having your own hive, local honey is available at many stores and farmers markets that support local agriculture, as well as on the farms themselves. Mark your calendar now to buy honey in late July right after it’s been harvested—a very special experience worth seeking out.
Honey isn’t the only gift bees give us. This spring take a moment to smell the flowers and appreciate the bees that make them possible.
Rushton Farm is part of the Willistown Conservation Trust Community Farm Program, committed to using conserved land to promote local sustainable agriculture. Learn more at WCTrust.org.
- Honey bees have been around for millions of years.
- Honey bees—Apis mellifera, which mean “honey-carrying bee”— are environmentally friendly and vital pollinators.
- Honey bees are the only insect that produces food eaten by man.
- Honey is the only food that includes all the substances necessary to sustain life— enzymes, vitamins, minerals, water—and the only food containing pinocembrin, an antioxidant that improves brain functioning.
- Honey bees’ exceptional olfactory abilities include kin recognition, social communication in the hive, and odor recognition for finding food. Their sense of smell is so precise it can differentiate hundreds of flowers and tell if a flower carries pollen or nectar from meters away.
- An average worker bee produces about 1/12th teaspoon of honey in its entire lifetime.
- A hive of bees will fly 90,000 miles—three orbits around the earth—to collect 1 kg of honey (over 4 cups).
- A honey bee visits 50 to 100 flowers during a single collection trip.