Back-Porch Beekeepers Take Honey Hyperlocal

One of the spinoffs of the go-green movement has been do-it-yourself beekeeping, and it's beginning to swarm. Weekend Edition food commentator Bonny Wolf has the buzz.

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In many parts of the country, autumn marks the start of the honey-farming season, as beekeepers prepare their hives for the harsh winter months. And as WEEKEND EDITION food commentator Bonny Wolf has found, beekeeping is increasingly becoming a do-it-yourself adventure.

BONNY WOLF: Beekeepers used to be considered eccentric. Now, people are managing hives in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Brooklyn, New York. They're on top of the Paris Opera House and at the White House. Ten years ago, beekeeping classes across the country averaged 20 to 40 people. Now, there are waiting lists and class limits of 200. Beekeeping kits fly off the shelves. People keep bees for the same reason they plant community gardens and keep chickens in their yards. You can't get more local than honey from the back porch. Bees use the colorful, scented flowers within about two miles of their hive. All beekeepers say their neighborhood honey is the best. Not always. The observation hive at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History is on the National Mall in Washington where the bees are attracted to the sugar water left in coke cans. Nobody likes Coke-flavored honey. Some people are drawn to beekeeping because they've heard about colony collapse disorder and want to help by starting more hives. Five years ago, huge numbers of hives were found mysteriously empty. Nobody knows why. Some of the likely suspects are pesticides, disease, habitat change and stress. We need bees. They pollinate about a third of the world's food supply. Without them our diet would be based on foods pollinated by the wind - wheat, rice, oats and the occasional acorn.

Another reason people keep bees is that they're really interesting. A healthy hive has about 50,000 honeybees, most of them infertile females who spend their short lives working for the greater good - nectar gathering, hive tending, larvae-sitting - your worker bees. A few hundred males, called drones, hang around waiting to mate with the queen, the one fertile female who spends her life laying eggs. After their date, the drone dies. It's no picnic being queen either. After she's laid her last egg, she is ripped to death. Bees have some fun though. They dance. The round dance in a figure eight called the waggle. These moves tell other bees where to find the good flowers. All this makes beekeeping attractive to kids, a nice family activity with space suits. Some people keep bees because it's so Zen. Beekeepers use words like meditative, calming, contemplative. Nothing wrong with a little serenity, and sweetness, in a chaotic world.

CORNISH: Bonny Wolf is working on a book about the foods of Maryland's Eastern Shore.


CORNISH: This is NPR News.

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