On the Key Peninsula of old, you could hire a “beeliner” to observe the honeybees on your property and slowly, painstakingly, track them back to their hive in a hollow tree, giving you a windfall of honey and the chance to bring the bees into an artificial hive for future years.
Things don’t quite work that way anymore. Feral honeybees, as wild-nesting populations of the European honeybee are known, rarely survive due to an array of viruses that plague hives, creating a far trickier task for the backyard beekeeper.
Yet honeybees are still to be found across the peninsula, and aspiring beekeepers have a hub for all things honey and hives in the KP Beekeepers, a chapter member of the Washington State Beekeepers Association. Founder Dave Leger estimates there are more than 30 people actively keeping bees on the Key Peninsula.
That number is set to grow after the club offered a beginning beekeeping class in February that taught the basics of keeping a hive. About 18 of the attendees had never kept bees.
The club meets monthly on the first Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Home fire station. The meetings, which are open to the public, give members the chance to share techniques and equipment for tasks as varied as finding and marking the queen, telling the difference between capped honey and open honey, preventing the hive from swarming and conducting regular patrols to check for the mites that carry viruses.
This summer the club will have a teaching apiary available to members on Saturdays.
Leger said that people often start with honeybees thinking they will be like a pet when the reality is closer to farming or raising livestock. Bees attune their caretakers to delicate balances of weather and environment. Their management requires a focus on the hive as a whole rather than individual bees.
And according to Leger, the KP is one of the most demanding environments for beekeeping. Long, damp winters are not cold enough to send colonies into full hibernation. Instead, the bees overwinter with their brood, an energy-intensive process when cold temperatures do come, as the brood must be kept at 95 degrees. The adult bees form a ball around the brood and can dislocate their flight muscles from their wings to vibrate to keep warm. Some colonies opt to go broodless and spend the winter as adults. Either way, the damp and relative warmth encourages problems in the hive.
Local bees feast on maple blossoms in the early part of April then, according to Leger, can have a bit of a dearth of nectar sources until the blackberry flower feast begins in June. Fruit trees, clover, borage, and fireweed can all fill that gap. Late summer is another time when bees can go hungry.
Bees are a superorganism, Leger said, which makes them incredible to work with. The queen does not make decisions for the hive; the entire colony makes decisions. It is pure democracy in a hive. The individuals communicate through dance and scent.
The club works to connect experienced beekeepers with beginners in a mentorship program. They connect beekeepers without suitable land to property owners who do not have the time to keep bees themselves — a quart of honey is often the only remuneration required.
The club also has a swarm team on standby from April through September, when honeybee colonies may send the majority of their members out in swarms as part of the reproductive cycle to start a new colony. The swarm will usually land in a tightly massed and harmless ball on a tree branch for several days. Beyond being equipped to collect the swarm and introduce it into a new hive, the swarm team works to teach property owners about beekeeping and will help them get started if they are interested.
Information on the monthly meetings and all of the club’s activities can be found at keypeninsulabeekeepers.com
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