Who doesn’t love honey? The word has even become a term of endearment for those we love.
Mankind has been producing the sticky sweet stuff and working with its products for almost 9,000 years, as evidenced in drawings of bees on prehistoric rock cave walls and in Egyptian Pharaonic murals.
In the medieval period, abbeys and monasteries were beekeeping centers. Beeswax was prized for candles and fermented honey was used to make alcoholic mead. But it was not until the 18th century that Europeans began to make scientific study of bee colonies and understand their complex structures and civilizations. In the 19th century, American Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth developed his patented movable honeycomb hive—and modern beekeeping evolved.
But in recent years, pollinators, including the honey bee, have come under increasing stress from a variety of factors, including overuse of pesticides, loss of foraging habitat, Varroa destructor mites and the rise of colony collapse disorder.
Those pollinators are essential to the world’s food supply. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, bee pollination is responsible for $15 billion in added crop value, particularly for specialty crops such as almonds and other nuts, berries, fruits, and vegetables. The USDA warns that if research cannot solve colony collapse disorder, beekeepers will be unable to meet demand for this and other crops.
Amid a global concern about the future of bees, a network of hobbyists in Loudoun are working hard to advance best practices to combat the problem, and they’re finding some success.
Progress on the Way?
Loudoun beekeepers are seeing a bit of a turnaround, while acknowledging bee colonies still face threats presented by the environmental and infestation problems.
“I’m very optimistic about the future of beekeepers in the county,” said Purcellville hobby beekeeper Matt Gaillardetz. While he decries the overuse of antibiotics and pesticides and the lobbying power of chemical companies, he’s buoyed by the extensive interest at the federal level and the significant amount of money going into research.
He’s also cheered by the strength and influence of the 250-member Loudoun Beekeepers Association, which has been in existence for more than 40 years. Gaillardetz said he is encouraged by the number of new members interested in taking the club’s eight-week class on beekeeping, including younger people and women.
Loudoun has 12 to 16 different microclimates, so there’s a lot to learn for fledgling beekeepers.
“A big part of our club’s goals are to promote beekeeping through our outreach programs to the public, continuing to educate as to minimum use of chemicals, planting for pollinators and buying the honey,” he said. The club works to ensure genetic diversity and healthy bee colonies throughout the county.
Trouble Appears on the Scene
A decade ago, the colony collapse disorder appeared, sparking alerts over colony losses from a variety of causes.
In his second term of office, President Barack Obama visited Gaillardetz’s office in McLean to raise awareness of the issue. “I gave him a jar of my honey,” Gaillardetz said, noting that was shortly before the president created a national pollinator task force to protect the health of honey bees.
Some consider the disappearances of bees a cyclical problem, while others blame pesticides as a major threat for all pollinators—particularly for large commercial producers.
“But the number one killer for bee colonies is the Varroa mite,” Gaillardetz said of the Asian mites that first came to the U.S. in the mid-’80s, decimating 90-95 percent of wild colonies and killing off managed colonies. The mites are an external parasite that attack honey bees and their developing brood, sucking blood from both, and feeding on the developing bee pupa.
The research group Bee Informed Partnership collected information on both commercial and hobby beekeepers in the U.S. showing an average combined loss of 40 percent last year.
“That’s alarming and not sustainable,” Gaillardetz said, although hobby beekeepers are less afflicted than commercial producers. He lost about 5 percent of his bees last year.
Both he and Loudoun beekeepers agree that strong integrated pest management is essential to keep a colony in overall good health.
Jeff Pfoutz, a beekeeper for the past 15 years, agreed things are looking up as he surveyed conditions in the bee yards he operates in western Loudoun.
“A lot of bees are making it now that wouldn’t have five years ago,” he said.
Pfoutz said that beekeepers are closer to finding solutions. Newer products—including Thymol, a derivative of the herb thyme, and applications of formic acid—are having a beneficial result in treating the Varroa mite infestation that ultimately kills the bees.
“That’s a major problem that has to be dealt with,” he said, noting that while he has had no losses in his colonies recently, other beekeepers have been hard hit.
Pfoutz is encouraged that a lot of the newer beekeepers are learning. “They tell me, ‘I did what you told me and my bees survived,’” he said.
There’s one beekeeping group in Loudoun that, so far, hasn’t been too afflicted, although it has been in business for less than two years. “We’re not seeing quite that same loss here; we’re fortunate in that in this area there’s not a lot of pesticides,” Salamander Resort and Spa General Manager Reggie Cooper said.
The resort has 10 hives so far. “We keep a close eye on the bees,” Cooper said, noting there is considerable wildlife in the area—foxes and deer—as well as the resort’s organic garden.
Patrons love them. “Whenever the guys are out there working with the bees, guests walk over. They’re fascinated, and some of them have bees themselves,” Cooper said.
A Passion for Bees
Gaillardetz grew up in rural New Hampshire. He moved to the DC area in the early 1990s and works in IT for the Federal Highway Administration. His interest in bees was piqued when he visited the Loudoun Beekeeper’s Association booth at the Bluemont Fair.
After 20 minutes, he was hooked. He took the beekeeping class in 2007, and began work with five hives. He now has 55 colonies at five different bee yards. Soon, he became club president for a two-year term. “It’s a lot of fun,” he said.
The honey bee evokes passionate admiration among enthusiasts.
Unison ceramicist and potter Joan Gardiner has been keeping bees for 10 years. She has 27 hives. “I’ve always been attracted to them. I love insects,” she said. Like Gaillardetz, she was introduced to the hobby by signing up for classes at the Bluemont Fair.
She spends a lot of time with her bees. “One hour turns into four, before you know it,” she said. “You can see them as a pet, love them like a dog, it’s a super organism that can do everything a mammal can—from getting food from its body to regulating its atmosphere—it has an intelligence and organizational skill that blows your mind.”
Sculptor Carmen Howell, of Purcellville, has had colonies for eight years. Her husband, Warren, raises berries on their farm, Allder School Berries. “We have so many berries and flowers, and I find the honey is very good for allergies,” she said. “I am very allergic, and if I take a teaspoon of honey a day, my allergies go away.”
She uses completely organic treatments, and also found her honey bee losses have been much less recently. She lost about 5 percent of her colonies last year.
“The bees are incredible. I wish humanity would work like them,” Howell said. “Each has a job and they all work together. They’re very efficient, they clean themselves, clean their hives—do all the things people don’t think about.”
Gaillardetz describes his bees as incredibly fastidious. “Even when they’re aging, they won’t die in the colony,” he said. They can forage even up to a 5-mile radius, although most range between a quarter and a half mile.
“They’re very intelligent, very organized,” he said, dividing their three classes of members into efficient work zones—usually one queen, the only sexually mature female in the hive, who mates outside the hive and then lays the eggs; worker bees—typically 80 to 90 percent female—and male drones. As a rule, the females do all the work, while the drones hang around ready to mate. The queen may live for up to four years and typically lays 2,000 eggs in one day—she is the only egg layer. The worker bees feed and clean her.
The height of production is in late spring to early summer. The life of a worker bee at that time is only about six weeks, while in late fall, a bee can live for four months or more.
A Brighter Future
Gaillardetz, who lost about 50 percent of his colony to mite deaths when he began by using organic treatment methods exclusively, takes an integrated management approach. He has found use of mostly organic-based “soft chemicals,” works best, using the vapor-related Thymol and formic acid, which is found naturally in honey and in ants.
He spends a lot of time with his bees and acknowledges colony management takes a lot of energy. “It’s a learning curve—but it’s doable,” he said.
He remains an optimist. “Maybe we can find a way that mites and bees can co-exist,” he said, adding he hopes to see Loudoun’s progress replicated across the country.
See what the buzz is all about…
Loudoun Beekeepers Association
Gardening for pollinators
Piedmont Environmental Council
Loudoun County Master Gardeners